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Global Cities and Immigrants

A Comparative Study of Chicago and Madrid


Edited By Francisco Velasco Caballero and María de los Angeles Torres

Global Cities and Immigrants provides a detailed set of comparative case studies of the immigration policies of two global cities undergoing dramatic demographic changes. At the heart of this research are several theoretical questions. One is about the increased importance of municipal and local governments in a globalized world, particularly regarding immigrants. As the world global­izes and national governments attempt to tighten their grip, the failure of national policies to address the needs of new global situations encourages local governments to develop policies that resolve these new conditions. Although immigration is a federal policy in the United States and Spain, city and state governments have increasingly played a role in shaping both the enforcement of national laws and integration experiences of immigrants. This creates a local politics and indeed a legality of immigration that is strongly shaped by local views of economic, political, and security interests, as well as differing perceptions of immigrants’ rights and place in the polity.
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Comparative Notes on Political Participation of Immigrants in the United States and Spain


← 284 | 285 → Comparative Notes on Political Participation of Immigrants in the United States and Spain


Political participation is essential to democracy. Traditionally, political rights were linked to nationality. However, the migratory phenomenon has led to certain changes. Political participation of immigrants in their host country is fundamental for their social integration. Naturalization of immigrants has increased in the U.S. and Spain, but naturalization alone is not enough to achieve this aim of social integration. On the one hand, it is not always easy to acquire the nationality of the host country. In Spain, for example, the law requires ten year’s, residence and foreigners must waive their nationality of origin (save nationals of Latin American countries and nationals of other countries with a special link to Spain, who may acquire the Spanish nationality after two years’ residence without losing their own nationality). On the other hand, as the work of Bada reflects, naturalization alone is not enough to trigger civic engagement and political participation.

There is a consensus in the three preceding chapters that the intensity of the link between foreigners and their social network is an essential element when it comes to the political participation of immigrants. The social and political context of the host country also plays an important role in this issue. In Spain, for example, some foreigners have been given the right to vote and the right of passive suffrage in local elections (when there is a treaty with the countries of origin and there is reciprocity as to the recognition of this right to Spanish immigrants living in those countries). However, the level of participation of foreigners in these elections has been low. This has been explained as a consequence of the bureaucracy ← 285 | 286 → that is involved in the process, the lack of information that the immigrants suffer, and low engagement of social leaders and immigrant associations to foster this participation. The disinterest in politics of the Spanish society could also explain those low levels of participation. In the same way, Spain has the lowest quotas of configuration of associations in its geographical environment, and the immigrant associative fabric in Spain is also weak. In fact, as a consequence of the different political and social context, the structure of the associations and their interaction with the public authorities as well as their participation in the decision-making process is different in the U.S. and Spain.

For example, in Madrid, the direct involvement of immigrant associations in co-development projects in sending countries has only slowly grown. Between 2004 and 2009, immigrant associations in Madrid only channeled 13% of all co-development projects for sending countries that were subsidized with public funds by Madrid’s municipal government. Unlike what has been revealed from Mexican immigrant hometown associations located in Chicago—whose membership organizes fundraisers to finance projects in communities of origin with matching funds from Mexico’s public funds for development—immigrant associations in Madrid are not very engaged in fundraising for co-development and mostly depend on public funds from Madrid’s municipality to support their transnational agendas.

In Spain, the immigration phenomenon is relatively new. It began in the late 1990s, and in the last few years the flow of immigrants has been very intense. Of Madrid’s population in 2011, 16.92% were foreigners (557,117). In addition, there were 173,206 naturalized citizens. So 22.18% of Madrid’s population is from foreign origin. In the years 2011 and 2012, the number of registered immigrants had dropped to 0.8% in 2012.

In Chicago, Mexican immigration has been constantly increasing. Today there are almost 700,000 Mexican immigrants in Chicago, and more than 2 million Latinos in Illinois (79% of Mexican descent). As immigration is quite recent in Spain, the majority of immigrant associations in Madrid have been recently created (from 2005 onwards). On the contrary, migrant-led Mexican organizations in the U.S. are not a new phenomenon. In fact, in the 1920s, Mexican immigrants in Chicago already formed mutual aid organizations to help new immigrants settle into their new environment. In 2006, there were massive mobilizations demanding dignity and respect for all undocumented workers where millions of Latinos and non-Latino immigrants marched. The mobilization of the immigrants was a result of the long tradition of organizing by migrant-led grassroots organizations. In Spain, the number of immigrant associations is few, with low member numbers, and the associative immigrant movement is weak. This could be explained by the Spanish context, which does not encourage the creation of associations and the organization of immigrant interests, but also because it is a phenomenon that is ongoing and in the process of consolidation.

← 286 | 287 → In the U.S., the integration of immigrants has been left to civic society and nonprofit grassroots. There is no national immigrant integration plan that encourages people to become civically engaged after they become legal permanent residents or naturalized U.S. citizens. Hometown associations, faith-based initiatives, schools, and worker centers in Chicago have become important outlets to foster increased civic engagement among Latinos in the city. Chicago-based Latino immigrants are actively engaged in their churches, and this motivates them to become engaged in different local issues. The participation of Latinos in schools still lags behind, but Latino parents are becoming more involved, since U.S. nationality is not required to participate in Local School Councils. This a clear benefit to Latino students, who improve their performance when parents get involved in their education. The presence of Latinos has also increased in labor unions, and there are examples of Latino-led working centers, which provide advocacy and training tools for workers in precarious labor conditions. Migrant-led hometown associations offer a particular example in which Latinos become civically engaged with their communities. They serve as a channel to solve the most important problems that their localities are facing—both in Chicago and in their country of origin.

In Spain, the mechanisms of participation are of a top-down character. Since 2007, the Labor Ministry has approved Strategic Plans of Citizenship and Integration to promote the integration of immigrants into Spanish society. Public authorities have established deliberative forums in which the associative immigrant movement interacts with the social fabric. At a local level, Madrid’s government has established a great number of organizations of participation and has created channels of participation, but the authorities have decided what interests are present at those organizations and how the representation is organized. Public administrations need interlocutors amongst the immigrant collectives. These collectives are badly structured; public authorities have promoted the associative movement among immigrants, but also regulated it. Moreover, associations in Spain are highly dependent on public aid and subsidies for their existence. All these could hinder their capacity to exercise pressure on public bodies.

In sum, the participation of immigrant associations or groups in the decision-making process in Spain is much more formalized than in the United States. ← 287 | 288 →