Immigrant Protests: Why It Matters for the 2020 Election

By Dr. Dina Okamoto, Helge-Johannes Marahrens, and Emily Meanwell

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Immigration, Voter Suppression, and Political Engagement in the 2020 Election

Over the past four years, we have seen continued attacks on the foreign-born populations in the U.S., as anti-immigrant sentiment and federal directives have become a cornerstone of the Trump campaign and administration. As we near the historic 2020 presidential election, scholars and pundits alike will be watching to see how immigrants vote.

Yet voting is only one way that citizens can engage in the political process and make their voices heard. Political participation includes a variety of activities and actions beyond the ballot box. In particular, engaging in public collective efforts in the form of protests, marches, and sit-ins are significant ways for immigrants to participate politically, especially if they lack the power to address grievances through other means. Because not all immigrants are U.S. citizens who can vote, protest activity is a viable form of political expression that brings key issues into the public arena and sends clear messages to political officials about what communities support and readily reject.

Protests are also powerful because they can frame issues and debates, and motivate people to act. As with the recent unprecedented protests in support of Black lives and against police brutality across the nation in June and July 2020, public collective actions can have an enormous influence on protestors themselves as well as the larger public. Not only can they change people’s minds about an issue, but they can also move reform efforts forward and even help to reshape institutional policies and practices. Importantly, protests also have the potential to motivate voters by signaling to individuals that they are part of a larger collective group, to which individual actions matter.

Given the anti-immigrant rhetoric that Trump espouses, immigrants as a group are likely to have grievances against his administration, however, there are also a number of reasons why they might not engage including a lack of access to the resources or networks needed to organize protests. Engaging in public collective action can also be a high risk, drawing unwanted attention from authorities or anti-immigrant organizations or physical violence towards immigrants.

Will Immigrants Withdraw or Engage?

Given the broader political environment and our research interests, we wanted to explore how and to what extent immigrants were engaging in public collective efforts during Trump’s rise to power and current Presidency. We gathered data on protest events related to immigrants and immigration from 2015 to 2020 across nine U.S. metropolitan areas. We chose to study new immigrant destinations, such as Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Denver, which do not have long histories of immigrant settlement to note potential rises in protest activity, compared to gateways like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where immigrants are have established immigrant communities and the infrastructures and policies needed to support them. We included protests organized by or with immigrants, and our preliminary results show that diverse immigrant groups participated in marches, hunger strikes, and other public actions to express a collective voice about some local, but mostly national issues.

We found five distinct periods of increased activity, which represent direct responses to federal directives and practices related to immigration, and a part of nationwide protests organized by immigrant advocacy organizations and everyday citizens.

The first period of significant activity occurs right after the 2016 election. These protests were public displays of resistance against Trump’s proposed anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies on the campaign trail. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a thousand protestors marched from City Hall to the state Capitol, carrying roses as a symbol of peace in support of Muslims, Latinos, refugees, immigrants, and other groups that Trump had attacked during his campaign. Many of the marchers made it clear that they were in the streets to send a message that they will fight Trump’s racist and xenophobic policies. One might have expected that Trump’s incendiary references to Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers” and “rapists” in June 2015 would have produced similar outbursts of protest activity. Activists and organizations may not have mobilized at the time because it was coming from what many thoughts was a longshot candidate in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls. Trump’s election in 2016 made his earlier threats against immigrants feel real, and people took to the streets to express their collective voices.

In early 2017, we saw the most dramatic increase in activity over the five years, with a total of 48 protests across the nine metros at the peak. The majority of protests were not in response to Trump’s inauguration but to the Executive Order banning people from Muslim-majority countries as well as Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. Thousands of people engaged in peaceful protest at airports and in public areas across the country, calling for an end to Trump’s ban. For example, protesters in Raleigh, North Carolina stood in the public square in support of immigrants and refugees, and held signs that said “#No Ban No Wall”, “(Heart) Your Neighbor” and “Trump You Don’t Speak for Me.” Public protests and marches also took place during this period to recognize a day without immigrants. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example, over 100 businesses shut their doors in solidarity with immigrant workers to protest Trump’s views and actions regarding immigration, and over 1,000 people marched in the streets. “It was a show of resistance,” said Maya Santamaria, one of the protestors. “What it said to us locally was that we can organize … It shows that people are uniting and that a movement is happening.”

The third period of increased activity was in September 2017 reflects Trump’s announcements about ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Activists, students, and everyday people protested to bring attention to the fact that 800,000 young immigrants would be in jeopardy if the program’s protections were ended. The protests were often directed at state representatives and political officials who could file lawsuits or engage in immigration reform at the federal level. In Portland, Oregon, for example, undocumented students and several hundred supporters, some of whom were local elected officials, gathered to protest the ending of DACA.

Both summer 2018 and 2019 represent the two final periods of increased protest activity. Much of this activity relates to Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. We expected protest activity to rise in April 2018, when the national media first reported about family separation. But protests did not erupt across the country until June 2018, when journalists toured a facility in Texas where hundreds of children who had been separated from their parents or guardians were being kept in cages. Extensive media coverage with photos of children at the facility led to moral outrage. Thousands of protesters filled the streets in all nine metropolitan areas that we studied, including Austin, Sacramento, Denver, Minneapolis, and Tampa, carrying signs that read “abolish ICE” as part of the nationwide Families Belong Together protest. In July and August 2019, protests against family separation and detention persisted, and the hashtag #CloseTheCamps trended on Twitter. People gathered by the hundreds and thousands to demand the closure of detention centers and to speak out against the Trump administration’s planned immigration raids. During this period, protests also occurred in front of federal buildings, immigrant detention centers, and ICE offices, and protestors blocked entrances to buildings, engaged in sit-ins, and even camped out.

We note that immigrant protests also occurred outside of these five increased periods of activity, though in smaller numbers and typically in response to local issues. Immigrants and refugees from Somalia, Mexico, and Vietnam, for example, publicly demonstrated against unfair working conditions. They also pushed local officials to designate sanctuary cities and adopt other local policies to safeguard undocumented immigrants. Immigrant protests emerged against anti-Islamic rhetoric and white nationalism, as well as local attacks on Muslim and Latino communities. Despite their smaller scale, these protests represent sustained political action that keeps attention on immigration-related issues in the public arena.

Protest as Part of the Political Process

As our data shows, hostile political actions against immigrants were not a deterrent in their protest activities or political engagement. In fact, they collectively organized in the public arena in metropolitan areas where we might expect less or no protest activity to emerge. Such areas typically have newer immigrant communities and a small infrastructure of local advocacy organizations, both of which make it more difficult to mobilize newcomer populations. Instead, we see that immigrants and their allies are raising their voices together for social change. These protests are not a foregone conclusion; issues and threats can arise, but it doesn’t mean that protests will automatically emerge. A public, collective political response often requires effective coordination, networks of communication, and resources, which suggests that immigrant communities, even in new destination areas, are organized and making themselves visible.

So why does this matter, as we set our sights on the upcoming election? We cannot understand immigrant voter turnout without understanding the collective action — powerful and emergent — that has taken place on the ground and across the nation over the past five years. It is this political engagement — which has not been a fully understood and valued part of the formal political process — that has contributed to the current progressive attitudes leading up to the election. Immigrants have been an important part of the political process, and it is through sustained collective action — as we have seen here over the last five years — that social change can happen in and outside of the ballot box.

Dr. Dina Okamoto is the Class of 1948 Herman B Wells Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity in Society at Indiana University. Her current research focuses on race, ethnicity, and immigration to understand the political and civic engagement of immigrants and racial minorities; the formation of new racial categories and identities such as Asian Americans; and the content and patterns of boundary rhetoric and narratives used to mark group differences. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the impacts of ethnic diversity on intergroup trust and civic life in 21st-century America.

Helge-Johannes Marahrens is a doctoral student in sociology at Indiana University. In 2019, he earned an MS in applied statistics. Currently, he is working on his dissertation about the world-city system. His other research interests include cultural consumption, stratification, and computational social science with a particular focus on natural language processing.

Emily Meanwell is a clinical assistant professor in sociology and is the director of the Social Science Research Commons (SSRC) and study director for the Sociological Research Practicum at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research has used primarily qualitative and mixed-methods approaches and has focused on inequality and education. She also serves as the SSRC’s qualitative research methods consultant.



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