The United States has long prided itself on being a nation of immigrants. With 12% of current residents being individuals who were born in another country, and an additional 11% of residents who were born in the United States but have at least one parent born in another country (link), many of us Americans have recent close ties to another country.
In the United States, we have a complex narrative regarding immigration. The Statue of Liberty’s words “Give me your tired…” suggests that we want to help immigrants create a better life for themselves and their families. But, we also have a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude, as we expect immigrants to work hard in order to build a new life. The message to immigrants in the United States seems to be that they can have a better life here as long as they work hard for it (this is sometimes called belief in meritocracy – believing that you can improve your life through hard work).
Now, we should want all members of our society, including immigrants, to feel not only welcome, but also that they are valued members who can have a positive influence on their communities. As a nation, we greatly value volunteerism, community involvement, and civic engagement. However, we know little about when immigrants choose to become involved in their communities.
Why might they get involved in their communities? On the one hand, immigrants could become involved for similar motivations that drive them to better their own lives -- they might believe that through hard work they can not only improve their own lives, but that they can also improve the quality of their own communities. However, it is also true that immigrants often feel discriminated against and marginalized. To the extent that immigrants come to feel that they don't have an equal opportunity in the United States, they might choose to get involved in their communities for other reasons, primarily because they feel the need to offset the discrimination experienced by their community.
Research in the past five years by Shaun Wiley and his colleagues have explored whether immigrants get involved in the political process in the United States, and their reasons for doing so (here). These researchers surveyed 184 Latino immigrants (Dominicans and Mexicans) in the New York City area, 125 of those immigrants being born in another country but who immigrated to the United States in late adolescence or early adulthood (considered first-generation immigrants), and 59 of those immigrants who were either born in the United States or who immigrated at the age of 10 or younger (considered second-generation immigrants).
The researchers found evidence that first- and second-generation immigrants have somewhat different reasons for engaging in these community support efforts. First-generation immigrants were more likely to believe that the public regarded members of their ethnic group as being valuable members of society, and were also more likely to believe that one can improve their life in the United States through hard work. Alternatively, second-generation immigrants were less likely to feel like their ethnic group was respected and valued, and less likely to buy into the idea that all one has to do to improve their life in the United States was to work hard.
Thus, first-generation immigrants were more likely to feel respected in the United States and believe that they could improve their lives through hard work, and this belief in improvement through hard work tended to motivate them to want to support their communities. Second-generation immigrants, on the other hand, tended to not feel respected in the United States, and did not agree with the idea that one just has to work hard to improve their life in the United States. Instead, second-generation immigrants tended to support their community because they identified with members of their ethnicity, and felt the need to offset experienced discrimination towards members of their ethnic group.
So, how does immigration status affect why immigrants get involved in their communities?
The present research provides some evidence that first-generation immigrants tend to get involved because they feel respected in society and that they can personally improve their lives through hard work. Alternately, second-generation immigrants tend to not believe that their ethnic group is respected, they tend not to buy into the idea that all one needs is hard work to advance in the United States, and instead they tend to get involved because they strongly identify with their ethnic group and want to oppose the discrimination that they feel their ethnic group experiences.
However, the social sciences are complex, and additional questions always remain. Would these findings hold for other immigrant groups in the United States, and would they hold for immigrants living in other countries? Did the first- and second-generation immigrants feel different types of emotions about their place in the United States and why they should get involved? One could imagine first-generation immigrants being more optimistic, and second-generation immigrants instead feeling more frustrated. And, do these disparate beliefs that tend to be held by first- and second-generation immigrants create tension within families and communities?
What do you think?