"Immigrants come along, they create their institutions of faith, they engage in their kids' education, they focus on their economic advancement, they create care and feeding service institutions. Then there comes a point where you cannot resolve the problems of your community without getting serious about civic engagement. It has become clearer with the ferocity of the anti-immigrant backlash that you are going to have to do that or your communities are going to be badly hurt. In the face of that, we have to ask what are our moral and ethical responsibilities to build civic infrastructure that supports that engagement in a sustained way."
Joshua Hoyt, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Chicago, Illinois
A key pathway to integration, civic participation actively engages newcomers in community problem-solving, leadership development, and democratic practice. Participation for an immigrant or refugee often begins with a collective effort among neighbors to reduce crime, improve schools, increase access to health care, or develop affordable housing. Artistic and cultural exchange might also be a starting point. Participation can eventually expand to policy advocacy and electoral work--testifying before their representatives and helping to register and motivate voters--but is not limited to these highly visible forms of political involvement. And for naturalized immigrants, voting and running for elected office can become further expressions of their civic integration.
Most newcomers, however, do not become involved in community life until they have established a relatively solid foothold in U.S. society. Despite enormous work and family responsibilities, many immigrants and refugees do make time to become civically involved. Most often, they are initially drawn into action with others around issues that affect the well-being of their families. Such issues need to be vital enough to attract immigrants, broad enough to bring together people from different backgrounds (other ethnicities and particularly the native-born), and manageable enough to achieve some success, creating momentum for further activity together.
The stories highlighted in this section all share the common characteristics necessary to promote high-quality civic participation as a strategy for immigrant integration.
- Strong community-based institutions are essential to engage newcomers in the community and the democracy. Such organizations serve as networks of recruitment into civic life. They are membership- based and democratically governed, with leadership ladders that engage newcomers more deeply in civic action and move them into positions of greater responsibility and authority.
- Civic participation is a vehicle for the education and integration of immigrants. Intentional learning guides civic activity, from the collective selection of issues through the development and implementation of strategic action. Best-practice civic participation provides immigrants the opportunities to exercise responsibility, take initiative, and engage in the two-way process of community building. In so doing, newcomers develop skills (how to speak in public, how to build an agenda and run a meeting), knowledge (how local government works, how to become a citizen), attitudes (tolerance and understanding of people from different backgrounds, openness to feedback and self-improvement), and behaviors (becoming more informed through news media, making healthy and positive life choices). The development of immigrant leaders ultimately benefits the broader community.
- Networks of trusting relationships are developed, both with people from like and unlike backgrounds. Such networks create one of civic participation's most powerful contributions to immigrant integration. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls these networks of relationships "social capital," arguing that all aspects of community, including intergroup relations, are strengthened when social capital is strong. Indeed, people who know one another through shared work are far less capable of stereotyping, of fearing, and of characterizing people as the "other."
- Newcomers and the native-born contribute together to positive outcomes. Civic participation among newcomers builds communities and revitalizes democratic tradition in the United States. New neighborhood parks, increased language access to public services, higher rates of naturalization and voter participation, and reduced intergroup tensions are among these outcomes.