Political Ideology of Mexican Immigrants More Diverse Than Many Think

Sergio Wals is assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Photo courtesy UNL)
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August 6, 2013 - 6:30am

Latinos are often considered to be a voting bloc, which largely leans liberal and votes for Democrats. In the 2012 election, 7 out of 10 Latinos voted for President Obama. But new research by Sergio Wals, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shows immigrant Latino politics aren’t as clear cut as political analysts make them out to be. Wals talked with NET News about his recent findings.

On the diversity within the “Latino” label:

SERGIO WALS: When we have a pan-ethnic label like "Latino," you have a great deal of variety. You’re incorporating two kids of Latinos: first generation, or immigrants, and then second, third and later generations that have been born in the United States and may not even speak Spanish. Latinos also vary in their country of origin. It’s not the same coming from Mexico or Guatemala or Colombia or Argentina. Latinos may get packed into this same label once they arrive in the U.S., but they come from countries with different histories and different national prides, even with rivalries between or within their different countries of origin. It's easy to think about Latinos as a homogenous monolingual bloc, but it’s far from reality.

On his research showing Mexican immigrants bring their political ideologies with them when they move to a new country, and that affects their participation in U.S. politics.

WALS: For these immigrants, what they had in their countries of origin in terms of political attitudes and beliefs travel with them. I term them "imported political suitcases." One of them is partisanship. If a Mexican immigrant currently living in the U.S. held any kind of partisan attachment back in Mexico, they are at least twice if not three times more likely to develop a partisan attachment with any of the main parties in the U.S. than if they didn’t. Also, the ones who trusted the Mexican government tend to be the ones who trust the American government the most. Those political experiences in their country of origin should make it easier for political parties here to mobilize them.

On the translation of political affiliations in their country of origin to political parties in the U.S.:

WALS: In Mexico there are three main political parties. You would think that the translations would be direct. However, it doesn’t happen like that. You have people who mention an attachment to a party on the left in Mexico and favor the Republicans in the U.S. That requires more research. But immigrants from Mexico, who have spent a year or less in the U.S., if they identify themselves as being on the right, have a 90 percent chance of saying they would like to vote in American elections. If you look at the same figure for their counterparts who identify themselves as leftists, it’s roughly 30 percent. There’s nothing innate in them that says Democrats, or Liberals, or leftist. As a matter of fact, when you look at the distribution of ideology in Mexico, it’s skewed to the right, the center-right. And the population of immigrants that has come to the U.S. mirrors them. There’s more on the center-right and right to begin with. And they’re more willing to participate, pretty much from day one. But they get lost in the process.

On how this compares with trends of Latinos voting for Democrats:

WALS: You have potential in an ideological predisposition toward some kind of policy preferences. However, how those translate into a partisan attachment is not a direct process, at least in multi-party systems.  In the U.S. you basically have two options. For Mexican immigrants, some may come here and not find a direct match—say, those really, really on the left. For those who are more willing to participate, according to my study, on the center-right/right, you have the Republican party, with very visible leaders that more often than not are anti-immigration. I’m referring to the portion of the Latino electorate that’s first generation immigrants. So they may not feel wanted. And every time immigration reform is discussed, I haven’t heard anyone paying attention to the acculturation process. As an expert in this field and an immigrant myself, I can say that one of the harshest things about being an immigrant is the years that come right after moving here. In the process, and it’s a very long process, very few people pay attention, at least from the political arena. I understand that there has to be a period for people to acculturate, to learn about the culture, the history, the language. But we need to make sure that people who are ready, that are eager to do it, have better and quicker access to these means. If we care about democracy and immigration, I think someone has to do something about it.

You can read Wals' recent study here.



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