After attaining American citizenship, immigrants can vote in national elections. However, because they tend to identify with their ethnic, racial, or religious groups, they tend to vote in blocs. This makes them prime targets for the attention of political campaign strategists. Throughout American history, immigrants have been alternatively courted and attacked by organized political parties embroiled in presidential campaigns. At times, immigrant issues have dominated national policy agendas; at other times, such issues have been ignored or shunned as political hot potatoes.
The nexus of immigration and national-level politics is the presidential campaign. The United States has, at best, a mixed record of embracing immigrants in this important electoral process. Because of ongoing neglect, the voices of immigrant groups have often been quiet in American public policymaking. Moreover, presidential elections by their very nature have tended to reinforce strong intragroup bonds of new American citizens. During the late nineteenth century, urban political machines sprang up as informal organizations serving the political interests of immigrants on both the national and local levels. By the twenty-first century, urban machines were nearly extinct, and immigration issues were alternately on and off national political agendas.
The United States has been called the “first new nation,” which is to say it is the first modern Western country formed without a European feudal and aristocratic past as its historical bedrock. This means that at some basic level, American presidential elections have always hinged upon the voting efforts of immigrants. However, despite America’s status as the first new nation, the degree of success in extending
During the early decades after the creation of the American nation, the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, and the early elections of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, the rate of foreign immigration into the United States was steady but slow. During the decades-long lull in significant immigration, the political identity of the United States matured. The immigrants and descendants of immigrants already on American shores began to recognize themselves as a distinct group. In terms of American political development, this was very important. Perhaps ironically, the immigrants who would later come from Europe would be seen as “outsiders” to an established political process.
Early American voting laws began to reflect this newfound electoral xenophobia. In a nation that fewer than seventy-five years earlier had been started by foreign immigrants seeking new beginnings, rules and regulations began to take shape to limit the voting rights of new immigrants. Enfranchisement is the right of a person to cast a ballot for an elected official. Its opposite, “disenfranchisement,” began emerging in the United States during the 1830’s and 1840’s.
Prior to the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865, a partisan battle between the emergent
The Whigs perceived that the Democrats had developed an advantage over them by supporting laws allowing immigrants to vote. Indeed, the Whigs represented the more affluent and established members of American society. In early American elections, there were no voting registration laws, but as the sense of community felt by existing American residents grew, registering voters began to make sense to them. The idea of transients voting in elections was seen as something to stop by this reactionary element of the electorate. It can be argued that registration laws were first developed as a reasonable method of stopping voting fraud, but such laws were more likely enacted to discourage poor people from voting.
During the nineteenth century, the American poor were most frequently immigrants. With the potato blight in Ireland during the 1840’s and the rapid influx of Irish Catholics to eastern urban centers, “native” Americans began to lobby for voter registration laws. Without a doubt, some of these laws were blatantly aimed at new waves of Irish, German, French, and Dutch immigrants. One anti-immigrant proposal sought to extend the length of time immigrants had to wait before they could qualify for
After a few years of success, the
Along with the surging Republicans and the fading Whigs, the Know-Nothings pushed for state voting laws establishing literacy tests and grandfather clauses. These laws required such things as civics tests and minimum-residency requirements before individuals could vote. During the nineteenth century, the legal hurdles placed in front of voters, which would later become known as “Jim Crow” laws, were not aimed solely at African Americans. Rather they were directed toward eastern European immigrants and others who were not established property-owning Protestants.
At various times in American history, members of very different immigrant groups have been feared for their possible political influence. The Chinese in California, Italians in New York, and Cubans in Florida have all held this distinction. However, some regions of the United States have been more tolerant toward immigrants than others. For example, Minnesota and Wisconsin, perhaps because of their residents’ heritage of Scandinavian egalitarianism, have generally been more embracing of the foreign born. Likewise, immigrants who moved to the
Because immigrants lacked representation in both public candidacy and voting, their political problems were only compounded. Muckraking works such as
However, at least one political tide was turning. After the Civil War and the onset of urban industrialization, European immigrants formed close-knit communities that housed their own forms of political expression. For example, Slavic communities that provided labor for the coal industry in Pennsylvania, embraced one another in insular neighborhoods. Soon enough the close-knit nature of immigrant communities, usually centered on ethnically flavored churches, lent itself naturally to political organization.
American presidential elections are actually not monolithic national elections. It would be more accurate to describe them as accumulations of individual state elections that are held on the same day. The electoral votes of the individual states are aggregated to determine who the president will be, but the federal system has always granted king-making power to state electoral systems. During the nineteenth century, the individual state systems were dominated by political machines in large urban centers in which immigrants played increasingly important roles.
As urban machines composed of distinct ethnic groups gained political ground in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, they became national-level power brokers. Because immigrant political power was nested in urban centers, these machines could “deliver” votes for federal level candidates, including the presidents. Many political historians have noted that President
Public policy scholars have long known that when an ethnic or racial minority candidate wins elected office, new public policy tends to more closely follow the particular needs of the candidate’s group. As European immigrants assimilated into the greater American melting pot during the mid-twentieth century, the unique needs of other immigrant groups have become more visible.
Chinese man reading a Shanghai newspaper story about the January, 2009, inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president.
By the late twentieth century, American immigration policy debate was focusing sharply on the trials of recent Hispanic immigrants. While some immigration policy issues have diverged from their counterparts of a century earlier, commonalities have remained. For example, Hispanic immigrants have faced the same kinds of workers’ rights issues that daunted European immigrants during the nineteenth century. Perpetually assuming the role of the newcomer in a developed American economy, immigrants have always had acute concerns about workplace safety and fair wages.
Issues of political representation have remained as well. Hispanic Americans have gained ground in winning public offices, but white native-born Americans have continued to dominate campaign politics. New Mexico’s Hispanic governor
No Asian has ever been a viable candidate for the presidency. Under the U.S. Constitution, only natural-born American citizens are eligible to become president, but the children of naturalized citizens can hold the highest office. President
It could very well take a Hispanic president to capture the mantle of an “immigrant” president. Because immigration was strongly associated in public perceptions with Latin countries to the south during the early twenty-first century, immigrant issues have become most salient in Mexican-border states such as Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas. It came as little surprise, therefore, that Bill Richardson ran for president as the sitting governor of New Mexico.
The immigration issue that stood out during the first decade of the twenty-first century was indeed tied to border states and immigrants from Latin America:
U.S. immigration policy has become a bit schizophrenic. Both members of Congress and presidents have been torn between building a wall along the Mexican border and strictly enforcing existing immigration statutes and providing a more compassionate treatment of illegal immigrants as people with inherent rights. Solutions to such a complicated issue are likely to possess subtleties that do not lend themselves well to the simple discourse of modern presidential campaigns. By 2008, the
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Asian American Access to Democracy in the 2008 Elections. New York: Author, 2009. Report presented to the U.S. Congress about problems faced by Asian Americans in several states while voting during the 2008 elections. Available online in PDF format. Erie, Steven P. Rainbow’s End. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Perhaps the best available book on Irish American political machines. Greenblatt, Alan. “Immigration Debate.” In Urban Issues, edited by CQ Press Publishing Group. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2009. The product of Congressional Quarterly’s research staff, this excellent essay from an edited collection provides an overview of the contemporary immigration policy debate. Greene, Victor R. American Immigrant Leaders. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Covers the political leadership of a number of ethnic immigrant groups including Italians, Poles, and Swedes. _______. The Slavic Community on Strike. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. Illustrates the importance of labor issues to the tightly woven Slavic immigrant group. Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Well-written historical overview that provides a sweeping perspective of the American tendency to limit enfranchisement, with particular attention to the Whig and Know-Nothing parties. Vought, Hans Peter. Redefining the “Melting Pot”: American Presidents and the Immigrant, 1897-1933. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, 2001. Study of the role of U.S. presidents in American immigration policy through an era of heavy European immigration and convulsive changes in U.S. immigration policy.
Latinos and immigrants