Home > News > Immigration activists are empowered when they don't fear arrest
197 views 6 min 0 Comment

Immigration activists are empowered when they don't fear arrest

- December 19, 2014

Demonstrators protest near the Casa Azafran community center in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, after President Obama arrived to speak about immigration reform. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
President Obama’s dramatic executive action on immigration provided some relief to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. His decision was preceded by a long period of activism. In some areas of the country, immigrants of various generations and status, and their friends and families, have worked for decades to build community and political pressure for reform. Political actions have included marches, occupations, and other forms of mobilization and civil disobedience. This organizing has developed the civic engagement and social capital of activists, including the ability to use online and mobile platforms to communicate with tens of thousands of group members. Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales argues that this is due to an internalization of the message to which schoolchildren are socialized in the United States—that “citizens” have the power to make change. Walter J. Nicholls claims the fight for immigration reform has trained young activists how to organize and how to be politically effective.
But that training only occurs in some environments, and not others. In Los Angeles, Calif., and in Austin, Tex., undocumented youth can be, to use the movement’s slogan, undocumented and unafraid. In contrast, in Southern Texas, or Eastern Washington, they keep their heads down. In the spring of 2006, massive immigration marches were held in cities around the country. But in Hidalgo County in Southern Texas, an area that is 90 percent Hispanic and home to a large undocumented population, the streets were quiet. These differences in levels of civic engagement reflect local political contexts.
Professors Maria Chavez and Jessica Lavariega Monforti and I recently completed a book for which we interviewed 101 undocumented Latino youth. Some live in the heavily Latino and heavily immigrant neighborhoods of Southern Texas and California, while others are from the Pacific Northwest, communities that not only have far fewer Latino immigrants but also very different political cultures.
The interviews we conducted in Texas took place in the southern tip of the state, in the Rio Grande Valley. The context of this geographic location differs from that where our other interviews were conducted in that it is included in the U.S. Border Patrol’s system of internal checkpoints. This means that undocumented immigrants in the area face the constant threat of detection and deportation, even if they do not attempt to cross the border into Mexico. Undocumented residents of the valley cannot easily travel within the state, even to go up north to cities such as Austin or Houston. This context is reflected in their levels of political engagement and participation.
We asked individuals whether they had engaged in any marches or other action on behalf of immigration reform. Those from Texas were very unlikely to have done so, and noted fears of arrest or deportation. Activity by those in the Pacific Northwest was also minimal; respondents noted the fear of deportation and also the lack of a community with which to take action. Many of our respondents from Oregon and Washington said they instead focus on making others aware of the existence of undocumented immigrants in their schools and neighborhoods.
In contrast, activism was widespread and extensive among our California respondents. Only one of our California respondents reported never having participated in a march or other action; others who had participated in just one or a few marches seemed almost apologetic, as if they felt their involvement was below par. Most reported extensive activism, including not just marches but lobbying, mock graduations, and even hunger strikes. This regional variation in protest activity is reflected in the size and location of the 2006 immigration marches.
People do not become politically socialized in a vacuum; they are influenced by local social and political circumstances. Latinos in California and Texas experience day-to-day life very differently than do Latinos living in the Pacific Northwest; this inevitably affects their feelings of belonging, political empowerment, and Latino identity.
Melissa R. Michelson is Professor of Political Science at Menlo College, and co-author of the award-winning book Mobilizing Inclusion (Yale University Press, 2012) and Living the Dream (Paradigm Press, 2014).
This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections.
See also:
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, How Alec helped undermine public unions.
Kristin Goss, Two years after Sandy Hook, the gun control movement has new energy
Jennifer Hadden, Protests shape policy by shaping protesters
Jenny Oser, Marc Hooghe and Sofie Marien, New technologies encourage women, but not poor people, to participate in politics
Dave Karpf, The reason why your inbox is flooded with political e-mail.