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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Migrant Civic Engagement


The spring, 2006 wave of immigrant rights mobilizations represents a watershed in the history of civic engagement in the US. Never before had so many foreign born literally “come out” for the right to be included in the US. Indeed, in many cities, never before had so many taken to the streets for any cause. Practitioners involved in the policy debate, scholars who measure immigrant political opinion, as well as migrant leaders themselves were all caught off guard. This raises questions about the social foundations of the marches – what kinds of social and civic practices, networks and organizations made them possible? To provide at least part of the answer, this chapter introduces the concepts of “civic binationality” and “migrant civil society,” which provide frameworks for understanding the already-existing patterns of migrant organization that came together at this unusual historical turning point. “Civic binationality” refers to practices that are engaged both with US civic life and with migrants’ communities and countries of origin. The related concept of “migrant civil society” refers to migrant-led membership organizations and public institutions (which may not be engaged with communities of origin). The goal of this latter concept is to underscore the significance of migrant capacity for self-representation. The recognition of practices of migrant civic binationality, grounded in an emerging migrant civil society, helps us to understand the patterns of civic engagement and repertoires of action that inform migrant participation in US society. The point of departure here is that, at least for many adult migrants, their initiation into civic life either takes place in their country of origin, or is oriented toward their country of origin. As many analysts of civic engagement have long noted, the best predictor of civic involvement of any kind is past involvement –even if in a completely different arena. 1Apparently, some people are more likely to be joiners than others – across cultures. From this perspective, the kind of civic engagement witnessed on a mass scale in the spring of 2006 was in part grounded in longstanding, often low profile practices of migrant civic binationality. At the same time, the 2006 marches constitute a powerful indicator that millions of immigrants have also been fully transplanted into the US public sphere, followed by subsequent increases in naturalization and voter turnout among “new Americans”in 2008.

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