Building from Within: Family and the Political Membership of Immigrants

Building from Within: Family and the Political Membership of Immigrants

by Marcela García-CastañonSan Francisco State University

This study argues that the central mechanism for pushing back is the interconnected nature of an immigrant’s experience, particularly as established through familial contacts and networks. Co-workers, friends, teachers, and others interact with immigrant families in ways that provide counter-pressure and reassurance that they are not alone and that there are others like them. Moreover, they provide information, opportunities for engagement, and even motivation or encouragement to further pursue the American Dream. I tested this theory using 2012 Developing as Civic Actors Survey data (García-Castañon and Reedy 2012) and further illustrated this phenomenon among San Francisco Bay Area immigrants in 2016 with analyses of the 2016 Bay Area Politics Survey (García-Castañon 2016).

In this world, immigrants find avenues for both engagement and learning from necessity (and often desperation), which allows them to become more thoughtful, informed, and active members of their communities. Over time, as familiarity with their new system (and opportunities to engage) increases, they extend their community beyond their immediate contacts and out toward neighborhood, city, state, and even federal communities.

I argue that familial ties, such as those of spouses and children, root immigrants into the community locally, if not more broadly, which results in increased knowledge and engagement about their host nation. Whereas anti-immigrant policies shape those external spaces and push immigrants back into their local community, immigrants often push back and increase their engagement rather than retreat. The pivot point for each reaction? The connectedness of immigrants to their communities, starting with their family. My findings from analyses of Mexican-immigrant and native-born populations in 2012 and in the Bay Area in 2016 demonstrate that an immigrant’s family facilitates engagement—if not in the formal areas of voting, then in the informal areas of civic and community engagement. Despite the breadth of literature dedicated to immigrant integration, internal family dynamics remain understudied. This article outlines the framework in which immigrant families play a central and active role in facilitating immigrant citizenship development.

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PS: Political Science & Politics / Volume 51 / Issue 2 / April 2018