The Complex Picture of America’s New Immigrants

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With President Barack Obama’s mid-June executive order that protected certain children of illegal immigrants from deportation, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that invalidated most of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, immigration has finally been yanked onto the front burner.

And with that spotlight has come some misleading shorthand: that immigrant means Latinos and illegal, and that legal immigrants, including immigrant youth, if mobilized to become citizens will vote Democratic. But immigration in the United States today is far more comprehensive than stereotypes and myths can convey, and we owe it to ourselves to understand the nuance of their politics and influence on our country, especially in an election year.

There are about 40 million immigrants in the United States today, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that is more than at any time in U.S. historyAlmost two-thirds of them have arrived during the past 20 years. Immigrants, defined as people born outside the United States and residing here legally or illegally, now comprise about one-eighth or 12.5 percent of the U.S. population.

According to Census figures, 11 million of today’s U.S. immigrants were born in Mexico, another 10 million originate from other Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Some 11 million are Asian, primarily from China, India, Philippines, Vietnam and Korea. Five million of today’s U.S. immigrant population originates from Europe, including the former Soviet Union.

More than half of U.S. immigrants today are between the ages of 18 and 44. They are seldom accounted for in political polling in the run-up to an election, though more than 40 percent of all immigrants are citizens and entitled to vote, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data.

In a series “Immigrants don’t fall in line for 2012 elections,” published by Immigrant Connect (an online network for immigrants, refugees, their families and communities in partnership with 12 ethnic media outlets in Chicago), we examined how different immigrant communities are approaching the 2012 election campaigns.

Among what we discovered are stories of traditionally Democratic strongholds veering away from supporting President Obama – in the Indian community that has become wealthier and a natural reservoir for political fundraising; among Poles who face a quandary between an opportunity for those here illegally and core religious values; for Russian Jewish immigrants who have an instinctive fear of big government and any specter of socialism; and in a surprisingly robust Bulgarian community that hasn’t yet developed an investment in American politics. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom only recently reached voting age, often express a visceral allegiance to former Republican President Ronald Reagan for his role in the fall of the Iron Curtain, that carries over as party loyalty for the GOP.

U.S. Immigrants are not a bloc, much less a voting bloc. For immigrants, politics is often a home-grown tradition. Dual citizenship is a convenience and a fact of life in the United States, and with every election, both here and back home, many immigrants have options.

For Lithuanians, for instance, it can get complicated. Younger Lithuanians – those who emigrated after 1990 and became U.S. citizens – can’t vote in Lithuania. Older Lithuanians can vote in both places. Mexican officials were paying attention to the 10 million voting-age Mexicans living in the United States. Though about three-quarters of Mexican immigrants in the United States lack U.S. citizenship and can’t vote here, Mexico honors dual citizenship and some 60,000 applied for absentee ballots to vote in the Mexican elections this year. They tend to vote in neither, in part because of a distrust in authorities and the election process, bred in Mexico and reinforced in their new home.

That was the case among Pakistani Americans, too. However, upcoming elections in Pakistan have created quite a buzz among Pakistani immigrants living in the United States, who earlier this year were given voting rights for the first time. The campaign of Imran Khan, a cricket star-turned-politician has galvanized young Pakistani-Americans well beyond anything American elections have been able to do.

“A nation of immigrants” is a term steeped in the rhetoric of American politics, often invoked to harken back to bygone times, and to remind us of our country’s humanity.

In the Arizona case, Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to illegal immigrants as “human concerns;” Justice Antonin Scalia called it “human realities,” referring to Arizona’s other citizens under siege by invading immigrants.

With 40 million immigrants, legal and illegal, being courted to vote and being kept from voting, this should be an election cycle worth engaging in.

Jack C. Doppelt is a Medill Professor of Journalism at Northwestern University and publisher of Immigrant Connect and RefugeeLives.

One thought on “The Complex Picture of America’s New Immigrants

  1. I’m convinced Calif. is really a colony of Mexico. Vote AGAINST Obama and all politicians that support ILLEGAL migrants, over LEGAL residents.