Trump’s 2016 rhetoric and Latino immigrant civic behavior

A new book by political scientist Michael Jones-Correa sheds light on immigrants’ attitudes before, during, and after Trump’s election.

Book cover titled Holding Fast, with a photo of three people standing, one in military uniform, another holding an American flag, all three are Latinx.
“Holding Fast: Resilience and Civic Engagement Among Latino Immigrants” sheds light on immigrants’ attitudes before, during and after Trump’s election.

Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy proposals were front and center in the 2016 presidential election, and political scientist Michael Jones-Correa wanted to find out how they played into Latino immigrants’ civic behavior.

Micheal Jones-Correa
Political scientist Michael Jones-Correa

Jones-Correa, the director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration, and James McCann of Purdue University launched a series of ambitious surveys of immigrants’ attitudes before, during, and after Trump’s election. Their findings are laid out in a new book, “Holding Fast: Resilience and Civic Engagement Among Latino Immigrants,” which hits bookstores Oct. 15. In it, they describe how despite the hostile rhetoric, Latino immigrants demonstrated far more civic resilience than withdrawal from political life.

Penn Today spoke to Jones-Correa about the research, some surprising findings, and what it all could mean for the upcoming election.

How did you come to focus on this topic?

It’s an outgrowth of my ongoing research interests in American political incorporation. In 2011 my co-author, James McCann, and I fielded a survey which focused on first-generation Latino immigrants. We were interested in how Latino immigrants learn about politics, especially during a campaign when everyone is getting bombarded by ads and being contacted by campaigns. Immigrants are, too, and so it is a chance for them to learn about politics or to become involved in politics.

That survey went really well. So, in 2016 Trump announced his candidacy, and it was clear that he was going to be a presidential contender. We thought what was going to be distinctive about 2016 is that we had a candidate who was making this anti-immigrant, xenophobic component the front and center of his platform. We thought it was going to be a big part of the debate in the campaign, but at that point nobody really thought Trump would be the candidate or that he would win.

We started this first wave of the survey of Latino immigrants in the early fall of 2016, and by the time we fielded it Trump was already the candidate for the Republican Party. Then we thought it was going to be even more interesting because he’s not only running but is actually now the candidate of a major party. We still didn’t think he was going to win, but we went ahead and fielded a second survey.

Then Trump won, and we knew it was absolutely critical to figure out how immigrants were reacting to a Trump presidency with a third survey.

What sets your findings apart from similar research on this topic?

We ended up, by accident in many ways, with a three-wave panel, following first-generation immigrants over three time periods. This is not something that has been done. It’s difficult to do, and it’s expensive to do. We were able to pull this off thanks to the support of the Russell Sage and Carnegie foundations and to our respective universities. We had this unique opportunity and a unique window into this moment in American political history where we’re looking at how immigrants are reacting almost in real time to the nomination, then the election, and then the presidency of Trump.

Did you find anything surprising in researching the book, any unexpected results?

One of the frames around the 2016 election was that immigrants were going underground and hiding. One potential reaction to being threatened by this kind of xenophobic rhetoric is to pull back, and the prevailing message in the media was that immigrants were afraid and they were going underground.

That actually is not what we found. If you look at these surveys over this period of time, what we find is a theme of resilience among immigrants. They stay engaged, and they stay involved. In some respects, they become even more involved over this period of time, particularly when you look at nonelectoral politics, things like volunteering and engaging in protests, those kinds of activities actually increased over this period.

What’s also interesting is that this civic resilience holds true whether you’re talking about citizens, legal permanent residents, or the undocumented; our surveys have people with all these legal statuses. You could think that citizens were becoming more active but the undocumented were going into hiding, but we don't find that. We find that everybody is maintaining this level of engagement.

We expected that there would be differences between someone who lives in California, a state which is more welcoming to immigrants, and someone who lives in Georgia or Texas, and that turns out not to be true either. The story we’re telling is a national story where immigrants, as they encounter Trump, do feel the country’s going in the wrong direction, they do feel more fearful and more pessimistic. But at the same time, they are also angrier and also more engaged. That surprised us because we thought there might be more variation across regions. The overall story that holds up very well across these three waves is a story of sort of continued engagement and resilience in the face of this xenophobic backlash.

Immigrants are responding to a national narrative, not to their state or local narratives, and this may reflect what’s happening with American politics more broadly. Politics has become nationalized, in part because the media has become nationalized, and our partisan identities have become so much more polarized. It’s interesting to think that these same trends have also affected and shaped new immigrants.

You say Latino immigrants demonstrate far more civic resilience than withdrawal. What does that resilience look like?

We asked people about a whole range of what we think of as civic behaviors like, Do you get together with your neighbors to solve a problem? Do you attend your kids’ PTA? Do you register, and do you vote? And across all of these, there’s again this consistent pattern of people remaining engaged. It’s not that there’s a huge jump upwards, but it’s that there isn’t a pulling back either, and it’s the ‘pulling back’ narrative that we’re pushing against.

There’s a kind of doubling down, with people saying, ‘We’re here, and we’re going to make our voices heard.’

Why is this research important right now?

We’re entering into an election where many of these new immigrants are now voters and, perhaps even more importantly, many of their children are voters.

One of the things that we found was, for instance, that if you knew of someone who had been deported or feared that someone you knew what was going to be deported, this made you more likely to be civically engaged. We have a group of new political actors who are worried about themselves but are even more worried for people around them. As we enter into this election cycle in 2020, it’s those people who are going to be more engaged.

Do your findings offer a sneak peek into how Latino voters will turn out this election and what kind of influence that will have?

We have data that suggest in the 2018 midterms Latino voters turned out at higher than expected rates, higher even than other Americans. The indications are that they’re also deeply engaged in 2020. Why does this make a difference? A number of key battleground states or states that have been shifting from safely Republican to either battleground states or more Democratic states are being pushed in this direction by these new Latino voters, states like Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and, surprisingly, North Carolina and Georgia. Georgia has half a million Latinos living in the Atlanta metropolitan area. We don’t think of Latino voters in Georgia as being key actors, but in this kind of election, where Georgia is on the cusp of becoming a contested state, those Latino voters will make a difference.

The Democratic Party has not been great at reaching out to new voters and immigrant voters and has taken them for granted. One question going forward is will these Latino voters really think of themselves as Democrats? For Republicans, one takeaway if they lose in 2020 is that there will be a reckoning where they will have to come to terms with the fact that there are these demographic changes taking place in the country. The Republican Party did a reassessment after their loss in 2012, when Romney lost against Obama, and one of the big themes of that report was that they needed to be reaching out to new voters and particularly to new Latino voters and immigrant voters. Of course, then Trump came along, but we argue in the book that, regardless, the Republican Party will have to come back to that 2012 reassessment at some point. It’s not something that they can ignore forever.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Immigrants aren’t invisible, and they’re still making their voices heard. There’s a tendency both among liberals and conservatives to treat immigrants as people who are acted on rather than actors in their own right. The message of this book is that immigrants are significant political actors in their own right, and only going to be more so.

Michael Jones-Correa is the President’s Distinguished Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.