On the eve of the hotly contested 2020 presidential election, the Russell Sage Foundation has published a new book, Holding Fast: Resilience and Civic Engagement among Latino Immigrants, by James McCann (Purdue University) and Michael Jones-Correa (University of Pennsylvania). Holding Fast draws largely from a yearlong multi-wave survey of Latino immigrants, including both citizens and noncitizens, conducted before and after the 2016 election. While survey respondents expressed pessimism about the direction of the United States following the 2016 election, immigrants remained engaged in civic life, and their ties to America remained robust.
RSF recently hosted a webinar featuring Jones-Correa, McCann, and RSF author Janelle Wong (University of Maryland) in a conversation about Holding Fast that was moderated by journalist Alexandra Starr. The authors wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on how Trump’s anti-immigrant attacks prompted greater civic participation among Latinos. Research findings from the book regarding the Latino vote were featured in FiveThirtyEight.
In this interview, Jones-Correa and McCann discuss their research findings.
For people who haven’t read your book yet, can you talk about the historical and political context that has brought us to this moment in terms of Latino participation in civic life in America over the last 15-20 years?
McCann: We were curious about how the 2016 election results might have undermined what had been an established trajectory of immigrant incorporation into U.S. democracy. Earlier work that Michael and I did, and others have done, suggested that immigrants, in spite of the different challenges that they face— language barriers, income barriers, mobilization barriers—had been moving towards American democracy. They were demonstrating good levels of political engagement, partisanship had been emerging, there was a willingness to take part and do the things that civic actors do.
So, in that sense the storyline was reassuring going into the 2016 elections. In the introductory chapter of the book we talk about the trajectory in American party politics. Following the 2012 election, there was an attempt among Republican leaders to reposition the party to make it more diverse and inclusive. That initiative was, of course, reversed with the election of Donald Trump. This reversal framed the central research question for us: how are immigrants responding to the threats, worries, and disruptions following the 2016 election? As the title of the book suggests, Latino immigrants are weathering the storm.
Jones-Correa: This is all taking place in the context of changes to American democracy. The population of the United States has been changing, and that change accelerated after the 1965 Immigration Act. One of the big changes that Act triggered was that migrants to the U.S. shifted from being largely European to now coming largely from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This has meant that most migrants to the U.S. are now what we would think of as being non-white. There had been a reaction to this immigration even before Trump was elected. However, this anti-immigrant backlash was one of the things that got us interested in fielding a survey as we were approaching the 2016 campaign, not knowing whether Trump was going to be the Republican candidate or elected president. At the time we just thought one of the candidates running for the Republican nomination was someone who espoused a lot of anti-immigrant views, and that this was going to shape the contest and how immigrants in particular responded.
Where in the timeline of this book project does the election cycle show up?
McCann: We did the 2012 LINES study (Latino Immigrant National Election Study). It’s a unique public data set, and we were both very pleased with the outcome. We also edited an issue of the Russell Sage journal, and since then we've known people to use the data in various other kinds of projects. So going into 2016, we had the idea that we would do another round but wanted to make it more longitudinal and expand on the panel design. We knew early on we wanted to do a book rather than an edited volume so that we would have a chance to write our own narrative. That was the plan in 2015 in advance of the caucuses and primaries. As we moved along, like everybody else, we expected Hillary Clinton would win, and that the theme of the book would be how political campaigns might help further immigrants’ incorporation into democracy. That was the main gist, and it changed of course, and became more of a study of civic resilience when you're facing these very strong headwinds.
Why do you think your interview respondents show such resilience in the face of so much threat? Why do they continue to express such strong ties to the United States in spite of that?
Jones-Correa: You have to keep in mind that most immigrants to the U.S., even if they are undocumented, have now spent substantial periods of time here in this country, so they have deep ties. Census data and the Pew Research Center show that even undocumented immigrants have spent on average 10 years in this country, establishing friendships and families, and really beginning to feel rooted in their communities. Once they've established those ties and then they encounter threat and xenophobic rhetoric from a candidate, there’s a question about how they will respond. One of the things we found is that when people feel threatened their reaction is in part one of being fearful--but it is even more so feeling angry. Latino immigrants are really angry with Trump, particularly when their friends and family are being threatened. So if they know somebody who's in danger of being deported we found this really has a significant effect on their civic engagement.
McCann: The fact that anger and other kinds of negative emotions can stimulate participation and greater engagement — that finding fits with some of the other literature on how voters in different contexts respond to threats and what anger does. We talk about that in the book, but we spent more time trying to rule out other kinds of factors. We didn't see a lot of variation based on state of residence for instance, so the fact that these feelings are apparent even in immigrant friendly states was interesting. And Mexicans were held out in particular for an awful lot of attacks, and yet we didn't see any Mexican distinctiveness in terms of our story line and time. And country [of origin] didn’t matter all that much, nor did civic status. At the end of the day it’s a one-size-fits-all conclusion.
Your hypothesis was to explore different kinds of immigrants along these various lines — how long they’ve had citizenship, how long they’ve lived here, where they live— thinking that such factors might illuminate some of the data on how they feel about the government and immigration policy — but it didn’t. How do you explain the similarity of political sentiment among those various groups?
McCann: We write in the book that the threat was encompassing, and there's other research to show that even naturalized citizens are afraid of getting deported – although it is very unlikely. The shared immigrant experience dominates. We attribute that to the omnibus nature of the attacks and the threats to the entire [immigrant] community. In the speech launching his campaign, Trump did single Mexicans out in particular, but he's been fairly broad.
Jones-Correa: I just want to mention that there's been some writing by other political scientists, including my colleague Daniel Hopkins here at University of Pennsylvania, on the nationalization of politics. What you see over the last 10 to 15 years in the United States is that politics is being driven less by local or regional factors and more by an individual's partisan identification. As these broader national trends begin shaping people's responses, you can see how immigrants’ reactions might become nationalized as well. Our findings indicate that it didn't matter if you were in California or Texas, documented or a citizen, Mexican or Peruvian—all these differences faded away, and what we were seeing was a broad national narrative of immigrant response to threat.
Can you talk about the relationship between Latino voters and the Republican party? Is there still an opening for the Republican Party to make overtures to Latino voters?
McCann: The tilt among Latino immigrants is towards the Democratic Party, there’s no doubt about that. Far more immigrants will say they identify with the Democratic Party as opposed to the Republican Party. But we do make a point to say, in so many words, that it's a rather thin identification. When immigrants are asked questions like which political party best represents the interests of immigrants or Latinos, or that of children or women or small businesses, there's a fair amount of uncertainty about partisanship and group representation. Even though there's a tendency to tilt towards the Democrats, there's no way you can say that Latinos are incorporated into the Democratic party to the same degree as African Americans are, for instance. The trajectory of incorporation was quite different for African Americans. The Democratic Party doesn’t have a lock on Latino votes.
In the book’s conclusion we circle back to where we started, by referring to the attempt of the Republican Party to reposition itself following the loss of Mitt Romney. The mission then in 2012 was to try to diversify the Republican party to make it more competitive, and we note at the end that while that logic actually was sensible in 2012, it's especially sensible post-Trump. We suggest that the Republicans can actually be potentially competitive if immigrants are not actively being pushed away and belittled.
Jones-Correa: About 3 in 10 voters right now are not white. I think the Republican party after 2012 recognized this and recognized that if it was going to put together a winning coalition over the longer run it was going to have to reach out to these new voters. Is it conceivable the Republican Party could reach out? The answer is yes, it could reach out to Latino voters in the same way it could reach out to African-American and Asian-American voters. There are a lot of evangelical, born-again, socially conservative, family-oriented, small business-owning, African-American, Latino, and Asian American voters, and you can see that there there's room there for a pitch that would that would reach out to those voters. And the fact that the contemporary Republican party has not done this concertedly has meant that, almost by default, these voters end up voting for Democrats. As Jay suggested, Latino immigrants are often kind of weak Democrats, because the Democratic Party hasn't been doing a great job reaching out to these voters either. They’re Democrats by default. There's room for both parties to do better outreach to this group of potential voters.
McCann: Building a coalition is hard work and political parties are typically building ad-hoc coalitions each election cycle rather than thinking about longer-term coalitions. But if the Republican Party suffered really bad losses in November, tthat might be an opportune moment for the party to fundamentally rethink its messaging and outreach. Parties do change, they change all the time. There was a realignment in the 1960s that incorporated African Americans into the Democratic Party. So parties do make their changes but they're usually more reactive than proactive.