“New Americans’ – Naturalized Immigrants – Are Potent Electoral Demographic     Print Email

Immigrants who have become naturalized Americans in recent decades are numerous enough – and now organized enough! -- to be a potential political factor in American voting, including in next week’s Congressional election.  As always these days, immigration itself will be an issue and in the U.S. the “immigrant vote” could matter as recent immigrants chose sides in light of their own experience.  In some hard-fought Congressional constituencies, the outcome might turn on the votes of New Americans – immigrants or immigrants’ children who have become politically conscious during the recent decades when massive and sometimes disruptive immigration has become a high-profile issue.


Just as in Europe, the U.S. is in the throes of national debate about the shape of immigration policy. All these countries on both sides of the Atlantic need fresh blood to offset low birth rates and aging populations, but there is little consensus  -- and indeed immigration is viewed as threatening by parts of opinion. On the other side of this fear, many naturalized Americans with close memories of the immigrant experience are voting in significant numbers about future U.S. immigration.

Nearly one voter out of 10 in the U.S. comes from the ranks of these “new Americans” from Hispanic countries in Latin America and secondarily from Asia.  Beyond the sheer numbers, a big change is shown by recent evidence about the way immigrant groups have started organizing politically in terms of voter registration and drives to “get out their vote.”  This development surged to attention in the 2008 presidential election, and their support for President Barack Obama was a factor in his victory.

Immigration is a hot issue on both sides of the Atlantic. But the U.S. picture offers a contrast to Europe – at least for now – concerning minority dynamics and the process of assimilation.  Far smaller proportions of immigrant groups are naturalized in EU nations, partly because of national restrictions, partly because some immigrants reject political assimilation in countries they view as former colonial masters.  In Italy, for example, just 8% of immigrants voted in the 2008 elections representing 0.5% of the total votes.

Trends show rising numbers of immigrants being naturalized in countries such as Germany and France and, above all, Britain. In Germany, even though only a small proportion of the ethnic Turks are naturalized, an ethnic Turk has become head of a major political party, the Greens. So the trend toward an “immigrant vote” seems likely to grow, at least in the larger, more diverse European democracies – which also are the countries that during the post-war decades took in large numbers of foreign workers who were meant to stay temporarily but have stayed on.

The U.S. trend – in which immigrants start weighing in electorally on questions including the immigration issue itself – may foreshadow developments in Europe, where immigration is also an increasingly fraught issue. Of course, the situations are quite different.  The U.S. political process assimilates and mobilizes a much higher proportion of immigrants than European countries, especially those in which elections involve “slates” of candidates chosen by the political parties’ leadership.

In the U.S., this wave of new immigrant voters includes an entire generation of newcomers who have become politically active in an American context, starting as far back as the 1980s, in which immigration (legal and illegal) and debates about reform of immigration laws have created a much controversial political climate around the issue and driven these new voters to be more self-aware of themselves as a voting category. (That situation has parallels with conditions in Europe, where largely Muslim immigration has arisen as a divisive issue in recent decades.)

In practice, there are limits on any attempt to identify these new Americans as a voting bloc, according to a news analyst from Capital News Connection who spoke on National Public Radio. He pointed out that it is not likely that these voters will all vote the same way. It seems logical, however,  that these voters may resent candidates of any political party who seems to be “demonizing” immigrants as the cause of current economic and social woes in the U.S.  The Immigration Policy Center in Washington, DC, has recently  issued a report documenting the rapid rise of these “new Americans” as registered voters who constitute a growing segment in U.S. electoral politics that is likely to be spurred to vote in elections where immigration issues seem to be at stake. That process can be dated back to a starting point in 2006 when Hispanics were alarmed by a draft Congressional bill imposing stricter immigration enforcement.  That legislation did not pass, but the Hispanics took away a lesson from their protest demonstrations in the form of a slogan -- “today we march, tomorrow we vote.”  By 2008 tomorrow had arrived as the Hispanic turnout favored candidate Obama by three to one.

In this year’s election, the impact of this group is hard to predict. But sheer numbers matter. This group of U.S. voters is estimated to number more than 15 million, i.e. roughly 10 percent of the American electorate. As a growing electoral demographic, they play an important, pivotal role in some key states such as California, where they now account for nearly 30 percent of the state’s registered voters.  Especially in these so-called “battleground states,’’ where victories turn on small margins, Hispanics have gained electoral weight as they have intensified their drive for political organization.  In more than a dozen states with so-called swing districts (where seats may change hands between parties), the numbers of “new Americans” are bigger than the margins of victory for the winning presidential candidate in these districts in the 2008 vote. So turn-out will be one factor in the impact of these “new Americans.”

Other factors matter, notably the attitudes of the Hispanic community. Many of them are voicing disappointment about the Obama administration’s failure to push through promised changes in immigration rules. As a result, there may no repeat of the exceptionally high, pro-Democratic party Hispanic turnout in 2008.  Many Hispanics also resent the stance of Republicans, who have, for example, supported the tough new laws put in place against illegal immigrants in Arizona.

In another example of the cross-currents among “new Americans,” a California race for a seat in the House of Representative pitted a long-serving Hispanic incumbent against a Republican challenger of Vietnamese origin: he has publicly contended that the Democratic Hispanic had concentrated too much on her community’s interests to the detriment of other California voters, including the large Asian community there.

By Patrizio Finicelli