American Value: Migrants, Money, and Meaning in El Salvador and the United States

El Salvador has transformed dramatically over the past half-century. Historically reliant on cash crops like coffee and cotton, the country emerged from a civil war in 1992 to find much of its national wealth coming from money sent home by a massive emigrant workforce in the United States.  In American Value, CCIS Research Associate David Pedersen examines this new way of life across two places: Intipucá in El Salvador and Washington, DC in the USA.  Drawing on Charles S. Peirce to craft a highly innovative semeiotic of value, he critically explains how the apparent worthiness of migrants and their money is shaping a transnational moral world with implications well beyond El Salvador and the USA.

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The Untold Future of American Politics

New York Times
CCIS Research Associate Zoltan Hajnal’s article on the future of American politics is published in The New York Times.


BY ZOLTAN HAJNAL and TAEKU LEE   JUNE 4, 2012

Volunteer

A volunteer for Mi Familia Vota working to register people to vote in Denver.
(Matthew Staver for The New York Times)

The demographic future of the United States is clear. Sometime around 2050 today’s racial and ethnic minorities will likely become a majority. Understanding that change is one of the keys to understanding the future of American politics, but not in the way that most people believe. The conventional view is that in the decades to come the growing minority population and its strong ties to the Democratic Party will be a boon to Democrats and a blight for Republicans.

But that view overlooks the two central features of America’s racial and ethnic minority population: ambivalence about both political parties, and at the moment, staggeringly low rates of political participation. Most Asian-American and Latino adults are not tied to either political party and most currently do not vote.

Many of the numbers do point to Democratic ascendance. On one side of the equation, the Republican Party has effectively become the party of white America. More than 90 percent of John McCain’s votes in 2008 came from white Americans. On the other side, the Democratic Party has largely won over the minority vote. In 2008 Barack Obama won 95 percent of the black vote, 67 percent of the Latino vote, and 62 percent of the Asian-American vote. This pull toward the Democratic Party is not specific to Obama: in the 2010 Congressional elections, exit polls show that Democratic candidates garnered 91 percent of the black vote, 66 percent of the Latino vote and 59 percent of the Asian-American vote.

Putting together demographic trends with past performance, most observers and strategists say that Republican demise is all but inevitable. We don’t. Our research shows that the dominant force among minorities is not attachment to the Democratic Party but uncertainty about where they fit into American politics.

When asked in national surveys, most Latinos and Asian-Americans say that they don’t fit into a party at all. The largest segments of the Latino and Asian-American populations do not identify as Democrats, as the conventional wisdom would suggest, but rather as “nonidentifiers” – those who refuse altogether to answer a question about party identification or who claim that they do not think in partisan terms. Combined, these nonidentifiers and others who expressly state they are ‘independent’ make up the clear majority of both groups. All told, 56 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of Asian-American identify as independent or as nonidentifiers. Even among blacks, there are signs of growing ambivalence. For example, almost 30 percent of blacks feel that the Democratic Party does not work hard for black interests.

Critically, this nonpartisan population is neither apolitical nor unreachable. A lot of racial and ethnic minorities are currently on the sidelines of American politics, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Today’s minorities are no different from the minorities of yesterday in one very important sense: They are politically approachable and readily mobilized. A range of recent experimental studies has shown that when politically inactive minorities are contacted by parties and especially when they are properly approached, many of them do become engaged and participate.

What this means is that the future of the minority vote, and consequently the balance of power in American politics, is still very much up for grabs. If either party wants to attain dominance, it ignores this segment of the American population at its own peril.

The real challenge is how. Targeting the “median voter” no longer makes sense. America is now too diverse with too many different sets of concerns and issues. It is far from obvious where today’s median voter lies and less than clear which segments of the electorate will be drawn to a strategy to vie for that median voter.

Instead, we suggest that to reach America’s increasingly mixed electorate, candidates and political parties should run a multifaceted and multiracial campaign. Rather than ignore race or use race to lure whites together into a largely exclusionary majority, the alternative we offer is a strategy of smartly and selectively narrow casting to different voters, where and when it is appropriate. Essentially, parties should endeavor to build future winning coalitions through a mixed strategy of broadly based meat-and-potatoes issues like taxes, the deficit, safety nets, and foreign policy that brand Democrats as Democrats and Republicans as Republicans with tightly packaged appeals to targeted electorates.

This strategy is complex. It entails collecting good focus group and polling data on groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans, then carefully combing through a political agenda, then finding a fit that homes in on issues of particular concern to groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans without repelling support from one’s party base or centrist Independents. For Latinos, that issue might be some narrow elements of immigration reform, like allowing children a path to citizenship through college or the military – a policy that was needlessly attacked by Republican leaders. For Asian-Americans, either party might make inroads without raising a ruckus by strengthening incentives for highly skilled immigrants or by finding non-polarizing ways of further supporting the enforcement of language accommodations in existing election laws. For African-Americans, now might be an opportune moment for either party to take a strong stand against Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law or especially egregious forms of racial profiling, without incurring a full-on political backlash.

The winnable set of issues may be thin, but the list is longer than you might think. Since the areas of unique concern to one group can often be inconsequential to the core concerns of a second (or third or fourth) group, this multipronged approach can slowly build up support from a fairly diverse array of interests. The key is to embrace the new reality of America’s diverse electorate through targeted issue-based appeals — rather than overlooking race altogether, making symbolic gestures, or seeing only zero-sum trade-offs between the continued loyalty of established racial groups and the burgeoning support of emerging groups.

The consequences are huge. Despite the Obama campaign’s remarkable mobilization of first-time Latino and Asian-American voters in 2008, more than half of voter-eligible citizens in these rapidly growing segments of the electorate stayed home. These are people who could be mobilized, who could be attracted to a party, and who could sway electoral outcomes. They should not be ignored.

At present, one party – the Democratic Party – has an edge with minority voters. But the eventual outcome of the battle for America’s diverse uncommitted population is far from settled. Ultimately, the extent to which minorities become fully politically incorporated and the success or failure of both political parties depends very much on how the Democrats and the Republicans approach America’s changing racial demographics.

Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee are the authors of “Why Americans Don’t Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure (of Political Parties) to Engage the Electorate.’ Hajnal is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Lee is professor of political science and law at the University of California, Berkeley.

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John Skrentny on immigration politics at “The Hill”

John Skrentny writes on winning strategies for immigration reform in a political climate of distrust.


Immigration reform: From distrust to direction

BY JOHN D. SKRENTNY   MAY 16, 2011

What accounts for this distrust? The answer is obvious: the federal government’s long-term record is one of highly visible failure.

The lowlight was the bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That law promised to seal the Mexican border, clamp down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and legalize nearly three million then in the country. For many, this grand bargain became a tragic broken promise, making a mockery of rule of law and cheapening American citizenship. The number of illegal immigrants soared. New industries, notably meatpacking, restaurants and landscaping, joined agriculture in becoming heavily reliant on illegal immigrant labor. Yet the public image of “immigration” is often not of hard-working people tolerating bleak working conditions and low pay, but of news reports showing grainy footage of Mexicans streaming across the border.

Even Obama’s record-setting deportations and unprecedented crackdown on employers have done little to convince restriction-minded voters and lawmakers that the border is or even can be controlled. In this climate, even the targeted legalization bill known as the DREAM Act, which would benefit law-abiding young people who grew up in America and attended college or served in the military, has repeatedly failed.

On Tuesday, Obama hinted—but did not emphasize – something new: change coming from conservative business leaders (he even quoted Rupert Murdoch) and conservative Christian groups as forces for immigration reform.

Why rely on conservative groups? Reformers can learn from the stunning legalization bill passed in March in the deeply red state of Utah. Business and Christian groups in that state re-branded immigration reform as conservative and persuaded the Republican legislature to pass a bill to turn Utah’s illegal aliens into temporary, legal guest workers.

It happened after leaders in the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce witnessed convention business fleeing the restrictionist climate in Arizona for Utah. They saw an immigrant-friendly Utah as good for business. The conservative Mormon church joined the cause because its leaders believed that religious and moral teachings dictated welcoming strangers from foreign lands. Their “Utah Compact” pledged support for business- and family-friendly immigration policies guided by a “spirit of inclusion.”

Utah’s story shows reform is possible when change is led not by government or established immigration reform leaders, but by conservative religious groups with moral clout and business leaders with political and economic power.

The other lesson of the Utah story may be harder for reformers to accept: give up on citizenship as a goal. Unlike his July, 2010 speech, when Obama called for illegal immigrants to “earn their citizenship,” on Tuesday he only said they must “get in line for legalization.” This would be smart political strategy for results-oriented reformers.

The legislators in Utah could not offer U.S. citizenship, but national reformers can learn from Utah’s strategy of providing work visas. For years, reformers sought citizenship for the great majority of millions of illegal immigrants, failing under both Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses. The DREAM Act’s narrowly-targeted pathway to citizenship has similarly failed. Since 1986, many voters strongly resist the full rights of American membership for people they perceive as lawbreakers. Reformers in Washington can follow Utah by providing people without papers with a work- or family-related visa.

Arguably, this is simply kicking the can down the road if these visas are made temporary. But as Obama said on Tuesday, most immigrants come to the U.S. to find work. This lesser prize protects workers from exploitation and American wages. Most importantly, it may break the congressional logjam, making other badly needed immigration reform – such as allowing more foreign talent, streamlining the visa process, reforming temporary visas for tech and agricultural workers—finally possible.

John D. Skrentny is Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego and a contributor to Reaching for a New Deal: Ambitious Governance, Economic Meltdown, and Polarized Politics in Obama’s First Two Years.

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CCIS Research Associate Marisa Abrajano is publishing a new article on Black and Latino voting and same-sex marriage.

Marisa Abrajano is in the process of publishing “Are Blacks and Latinos Responsible for the Passage of Proposition 8? Analyzing Voter Attitudes on California’s Proposal to Ban Same-Sex Marriage in 2008.”

Abrajano, Marisa. September, 2010. “Are Blacks and Latinos Responsible for the Passage of Proposition 8? Analyzing Voter Attitudes on California’s Proposal to Ban Same-Sex Marriage in 2008”. Political Research Quarterly.

CCIS Research Associate Marisa Abrajano publishes two books on Latino politics


Marisa Abrajano has published Campaigning to the New American Electorate: Television Advertising to Latinos and New Faces and New Voices: The Hispanic Electorate in America.

    Abrajano, Marisa. 2010. Campaigning to the New American Electorate: Television Advertising to Latinos. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


    Abrajano, Marisa and Michael Alvarez. 2010. New Faces, New Voices: The Hispanic Electorate in America. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

CCIS Research Associate April Linton co-publishes new article on restrictive language policies.

April Linton has published “Bilingualism for the Children: Dual-Language Programs under Restrictive Language Policies in Forbidden”.

Linton, April and Rebecca C. Franklin. 2010. “Bilingualism for the Children: Dual-Language Programs under Restrictive Language Policies.” Chap. 11 in Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies edited by Patricia Gándara and Megan Hopkins. New York: Teachers College Press.

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CCIS Research Associate Claire Adida publishes new articles on Muslim integration; immigrant exclusion in Africa; Mexican migrant remittances

CCIS Research Associate Claire Adida publishes new articles on Muslim integration; immigrant exclusion in Africa; Mexican migrant remittances

Identifying barriers to Muslim integration in France, with David D. Laitin and Marie-Anne Valfort. 2010. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(52).