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Saturday, March 31, 2007

On Immigration, Or, How To Turn Purple Blue

Those of you who have been reading my work for a while have likely observed that my interest in electoral politics extends beyond this electoral cycle; and that my focus is often three or more cycles distant.

With that in mind, let’s talk immigration.

The face of immigration in America has changed the past generation or so, the Pew Hispanic Center tells us in their new report “Growing Share of Immigrants Choosing Naturalization”.

Here are the four biggest changes:

--Immigrants are more likely today to become citizens than at any time since World War II ended.

--Hispanics and Asians are the largest groups of immigrants today, replacing Europeans and Canadians.

--Immigrants today are more likely to be less educated, and therefore lower on the economic ladder than in the recent past.

--A larger proportion of immigrants are eligible for deportation (the “illegal immigrants”) than in the past.

These changes, combined with the recent expansion of immigrant communities into new parts of the country, means the Democratic Party has an opportunity to change purple, and even somewhat red states, into blue states for years to come.

These changes also create a “worst of both worlds” situation for Republicans-a population becoming more and more defined by immigration; and a base not supportive of immigration-at least not when it’s from Mexico, or points south.

So who are the immigrants?

Today, naturalized citizens represent about 12.8 million of our population. Another 11.8 million are legal permanent resident who are not yet citizens. The total of all foreign-born residents, including temporary visa holders and “deportable immigrants” totals 36 million.

Where they come from, however, has changed dramatically. This “fourth wave” of immigrants is not based primarily on European and Canadian migration. Today about 2/3 of immigrants are Asians and Hispanics.

There is a greater diversity among Asian immigrants than Hispanic-about half of all Hispanic immigrants are from one country (Mexico), which is not true of Asian immigrants.

Legal status? In 1995:

--about 20% of immigrants were undocumented (“deportable”).
Today that number is 33%

--47% were legal permanent residents.
Now that’s down to 33%.

--30% were naturalized citizens, and today that’s up to 35%.

Economic status? Trending downward, even amongst legal immigrants. 38% of today’s newest citizens earn income below 200% of the poverty level. That number rises to 52% of residents eligible for citizenship, but not yet naturalized; and 58% for those eligible in the next six years.

Immigrants are becoming less educated, as a community.

--37% of naturalized citizens hold college degrees, and 15% are not high school graduates.

--Eligible, but not naturalized citizens graduated 22% of their number from college, and 38% did not graduate high school.

--There is an improvement in this trend for legal residents not yet eligible: 35% college graduates, and 27% not high school graduates. These numbers are still below the levels for naturalized citizens, however.

It is important to note that immigrants from Mexico (as opposed to other Hispanic immigrants) have a major impact on these numbers-over 60% have not graduated high school, and 37% of Mexican immigrants are under 18.

It may also be surprising to learn that Asians are also, in large numbers, working at the bottom of the economic ladder. C.N. Le, at Asian Nation, offers an excellent examination of the data and explains that even entrepreneurial immigrants often work long hours at relatively low hourly wage self-employment, or have unpaid family employees, or both, which can depress family incomes.

Le’s data shows about 60% of Hispanics work in “Skilled Blue-Collar” or “Sales, Operations, and Support”. With the exception of Asian Indians, a plurality of all Asian immigrants also work in one of those two categories, but there is wide ethnic variability-for example, over 70% of Cambodians, Laotians or Hmongs fit into these two categories, but only 37% of Chinese work in these fields. (The plurality of Asian Indians, 25.8%, are computer workers, with the two categories we’ve been discussing being second and third.) The Census Bureau tells us janitorial, maintenance, and laundry workers, receptionists, and jail workers are included in the category.

Here's another fact that matters:

Hispanic households are more likely than non-Hispanic White households to be single female parent households.

What is required to become a citizen?

Generally, the Pew Center tells us, legal permanent residents must do the following to become citizens:

--be 18 years old.

--live in the US for five continuous years.

--demonstrate the ability to read, speak, and write basic English.

--pass the background check.

--demonstrate attachment to the US Constitution, and take and oath of allegiance to the US.

--pay a fee that can range from $225 to $330, but which may increase to a range of $460 to $595.

Which immigrants are most likely to become citizens?

About half of foreign-born residents become citizens today (52% in 2005), which is a trend that has lasted about 25 years. It is a decline from the peak of 79% in 1950.

Without going into a lot of facts and figures, it’s fair to say the longer you’ve been in the country, and the higher your income, the more likely you are to move from legal permanent resident to citizen. You may recall that Mexican-born residents tend to be less educated, and as data from 1995 to 2006 suggests, they are also about half as likely to become citizens. This trend is also affecting Asian immigration, as the ethnic mix of immigrants grows to include all Asian nationalities, as opposed to times past, when Japanese and Chinese nationals represented most Asian immigration.

So now to the good part-how do we apply this data to expanding the Democratic voting base?

First, look to the population distribution:

Here’s an excellent map, again from Asian Nation, showing, county by county, the change in pattern of Asian immigration from the 1990 to 2000 Census tabulations.

Note that areas of greatest increase are in Western States, and in States along the Atlantic Coast.

Over half (54.7%) of all Asians live in six US cities: LA, New York, San Francisco, Honolulu (with 64.9% of the total US Asian population), Washington DC/Baltimore, and Chicago.

This map shows that areas of the US where Asian populations are above 2% in a county include Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and a belt of real estate that stretches south from Nebraska to the Gulf of Mexico (Eastern Texas!)

90% of Hispanics live in or near metropolitan areas.

Here’s a map from the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service showing Hispanic population distribution outside metropolitan areas. Note that the areas of greatest population gain are, again, in the West and the Carolinas-but note the increases in the Midwest.

Ironically, greater geographic dispersal does not equal greater integration. There is a phenomenon known as “residential segregation” that points to the tendency of this community to create enclaves, if you will.

So let’s recap.

At this point we have the two most important immigrant groups, well dispersed in purple States, and representing potentially 10% of US population; who might be disposed to vote Democratic more or less forever with a lot of outreach and an introduction to D Party values-helping America’s poor become middle-class, and more, through education and economic opportunity, fighting discrimination, and a concern for the dignity of all of America’s citizens.

How do we take advantage of this situation?

Here’s the tough part: finding a way to engage insular communities with language issues. Here are some ideas...

--Help citizens become citizens. Find a way to involve prospective citizens in Democratic Party politics that doesn’t involve fundraising (remember Al Gore’s Buddhist Temple incident?)-maybe sponsor a mock Convention with immigrant groups, or mock primaries. Actively seek the advice of immigrants before platforms are set. Find ownership opportunities for new citizens in the Party-then let the fundraising begin!

--Do what Democrats have done for 70 years-look out for the American worker. Promote worker rights, continue to push minimum-wage legislation; continue to advance efforts to educate more Americans.

--Democratic candidates come to unions for support, and now it’s time for payback. Make unions and the help they provide workers a daily conversation on the campaign trail. Today the Party is reaching out to help the efforts of the SEIU in organizing. Why not run voter registration and union awareness campaigns in coordination with each other?

Every Democratic event should be a Union awareness event, as well. Help a worker make the job better, and that worker remembers you at election time. For decades, if you handle the relationship well.

--Economics matter, and home ownership and education matter most in American’s personal economics. That means we need to help immigrants buy that first house, and find the education they and their kids need. Suggesting expanding adult education could pay big dividends.

--Continue to reinforce the perception that D candidates will support immigrants-and that R candidates want to deport them.

To wrap all this up, Democrats have an historic opportunity to “lock in” a voting bloc for a generation or more-a bloc that equals about 10% of US population, is theoretically inclined to vote D anyway, and who, with outreach, would likely be happy to come along for the ride.

So let’s look around, find Hispanic and Asian communities in these purple States, and help them find their way to the American political process; then let’s welcome them aboard, now and for the future.

To quote Dr. Peter Venkman: “Lenny, you could be saving the lives...of millions of registered voters...”

Editorial Note: A great deal of today’s discussion was based on the work of the fine folks at the Pew Hispanic Center (and big thanks to you!), and comments unsupported by other links are based on data derived from the Pew Center’s report.

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