Irene Bloemraad
“Learning the Political Ropes: Civic and Political Learning in Mixed Status Mexican Origin Families”

March 19, 2007

Irene Bloemraad discusses the process by which migrants become politically active in the U.S.

Understanding Political Socialization of Mixed-Status Families
By Felipe Dias

Among the millions of individuals who participated in the 2006 immigrant marches and demonstrations, tens of thousands were children or teenagers, many of whom had immigrant parents. This high level of political engagement among youth demands inquiry into the processes that contribute to the political socialization of the children of immigrants. Previous studies have focused on the factors that influence the political socialization of children of native-born parents, which chiefly assumes a unidirectional model with parents influencing their children’s beliefs and attitudes. But what if the parents are immigrants?

During her CLAS talk, Irene Bloemraad, a leading scholar in the field of immigration studies, argued that political socialization for the children of immigrants — “the process of acquiring or developing attitudes, values, beliefs, skills and behaviors related to politics” — not only occurs from parents to children but also from children to parents. Bloemraad, therefore, posited that political socialization in immigrant families is not unidirectional, but rather “bidirectional,” whereby children of immigrants also shape their parents’ political engagement.

This is an important project considering current demographic trends: nationally, 12 percent of residents are foreign born, and a third of Californians are Hispanic. Although the political participation of Latinos is growing, it is nevertheless much lower than their sheer numbers would suggest. If the goal of democracy is to “reflect the full and equal contribution to collective decision-making by individuals,” Bloemraad explained, “…it is critical to understand how immigrants and their children learn how to participate and understand the political system.”

Current models of political engagement and socialization focus on the impact of education, work force participation, income and marital status in predicting civic engagement. These criteria, however, do not work well for teenagers. Bloemraad maintained that what is needed is “a theory for youth political participation which is separate from the models of adults.” This is not to say that parents’ political behavior and values are not strong predictors of their children’s political attitudes. In fact, familial political socialization exists both indirectly, by providing a good education and subsequent stable income, thus affecting political engagement; and directly, when family members provide political stimulation by discussing politics. However, these arguments assume that the parents are native born and therefore knowledgeable about the American political system.

Bloemraad argued that such assumptions become questionable in the case of immigrant families who might not be as familiar with the political system. Immigrant parents might not possess the necessary English skills and/or the legal status to engage in civic practices such as voting. And, due to their greater English language skills, the children of immigrants often act as interpreters for their parents, connecting them to mainstream institutions through discussions with doctors, landlords and government officials. This role gives children influence over how their parent’s understand their new country and allows them to develop a sense of civic engagement, which might lead to future involvement in community-organizing or other political activities. Consequently, Bloemraad hypothesized that “the process of political socialization from parents to children is attenuated in immigrant families, and that the reverse process — political socialization from children to parents — might also exist.”

To find out, Bloemraad and her associates conducted interviews with 48 Mexican-origin families in the East Bay . Interviewees were recruited from high schools in West Contra Costa and Oakland . In order to control for educational and income levels, which are strong predictors of political and civic engagement, families recruited had modest educational and income backgrounds which reflected state averages for Latino families. Quantitative findings in this project indicated that both parents and their children had high levels of political and civic engagement. Moreover, teenagers appeared to be more active than their parents, as the median levels of political and civic engagement were twice as great.

Bloemraad also provided illuminating qualitative evidence which suggests a “bidirectional” model (mutual influence) of political socialization. In one family, for example, the daughter of naturalized parents described how she made her parents watch the news to keep up-to-date on events in the U.S. The teen said, “I told them not to vote for Bush the second time…they already had their own opinion about him… but I encouraged them not to vote for him.”

Similarly, Bloemraad found that immigrant parents also influence their children’s political engagement, even when they do not yet have legal papers. Among the four parents with the highest scores on the index of political participation, three were undocumented. Data from those who attended the 2006 spring immigrant protests clearly supports the “bidirectional” model. A daughter of a naturalized parent, for instance, explained how her parents motivated her to attend the protests. She said, “Well, I guess my dad encouraged us to participate… he went through that; he didn’t have papers, so he wanted me to go and be part of that [the demonstrations].” Another teen, the daughter of an undocumented mother felt compelled to participate in the protests because she understood that her mother is an immigrant and she “needed to do something about it.”

In short, the findings for this project indicate that traditional parent-child political socialization can occur regardless of legal status. Furthermore, the evidence also suggests that teens can influence their parents both directly and indirectly through activities such as school and sports. During the question and answer session, one attendee wondered about the exact mechanisms through which schools influence the parents’ political socialization. In response, Bloemraad noted that the immigrant experience is congruent with what Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam calls “bridging and bonding social capitals.” In his famous book Bowling Alone, Putnam maintained that “bridging” social capital refers to the values attributed to social networks between socially heterogeneous groups while “bonding” social capital refers to social networks among socially homogeneous groups. Immigrant parents form “bridging” social capital with non-Latino immigrant groups and institutions by participating in school organizations, such as the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). These organizations provide parents with the opportunity to engage civically, by signing a petition to oust an incompetent teacher, for instance. Interviews with those who participated in the 2006 protests also suggest the development of “bonding social capital” among Latinos who exhibited great levels of in-group solidarity and coalition building.

Bloemraad concluded by noting that the 2006 immigrant protests were clearly a “mobilizing force for many immigrants and their children.” She and her associates plan to examine the longterm effects of such experiences, which might lead to further political engagement or possibly disillusionment. Moreover, future research should also be attentive to how the experiences of Latinos compared to other immigrant groups (i.e. Asians), who have fewer barriers to political participation, such as documentation status and modest levels of schooling.

Irene Bloemraad is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at University of California, Berkeley. She presented her paper “Learning the Ropes: Civic and Political Learning in Mixed Status Mexican Origin Families” at CLAS on April 19, 2007.

Felipe Dias is a graduate student in the Sociology Department at University of California, Berkeley.

Irene Bloemraad


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