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Trump’s attacks prompted Latino immigrants to get more involved in American civic life

Our surveys find a spike in engagement after the 2017 inauguration

Family members of detainees protest at the Adelanto Immigration Detention Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump launched his 2016 campaign for president on a strongly anti-immigrant agenda. His announcement speech attacked Mexican immigrants as violent and as drug traffickers, with statements that were easy to debunk.

Since his inauguration as president, Trump has consistently pursued this anti-immigrant agenda. He broadened immigration enforcement, separated migrant families in detention centers, eliminated protections for noncitizens, forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico and drastically reduced refugee admissions, among other moves. Meanwhile, Trump’s rhetoric since taking office has remained harsh and inflammatory. Not long after the inauguration, he tweeted such messages as “We must keep ‘evil’ out of the country!” and “People pouring in. Bad!” Two years later, at a rally in May 2019, Trump asked supporters, “How do you stop these people?!” When someone shouted “Shoot them!” the president smiled as the crowd cheered.

How has all this affected Latino immigrants, the targets of this rhetoric and these policies? We surveyed Latino immigrants before and after the election and found patterns of civic resilience. Latino immigrants remain engaged in civic life and are poised to influence U.S. politics.

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How we did our research

In fall 2012, 853 immigrants from Latin America — including naturalized U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and immigrants who were not legal permanent residents — were randomly selected nationwide for a telephone interview. We sampled from contact lists obtained from marketing research firms, with both cellphone and landline numbers included in approximately equal number. Nearly all interviews were in Spanish. Further details about response rates, weighting and question wordings are available in a publicly archived code book.

In summer 2016, a fresh sample of 1,800 Latino immigrants was drawn using largely the same methods as in 2012. After the election, we re-contacted as many respondents as possible (576) for a follow-up survey during the presidential transition. In the second survey wave, we included 260 fresh respondents to gauge and correct for any attrition biases. In summer 2017, we fielded a third survey wave, which included 321 respondents from the second round of calls along with 233 from the first round who did not answer the second. In the third wave, 500 fresh respondents were added so that the total number of immigrants in the panel amounts to 2,560.

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Civic stress under Trump

Unsurprisingly, respondents expressed a great deal of anxiety. In summer 2017, for example, 53 percent said that Donald Trump scared them. More than 8 in 10 worried that friends or family would be deported. A similarly large majority worried about family finances.

But fear was not the only emotion that immigrants, citizens and noncitizens alike, reported. Many — about 40 percent — also expressed anger toward the president, and an additional 30 percent were angry but not afraid.

How fear and anger affected political attitudes

How did such emotions affect attitudes toward the government and the country overall? We found a pronounced increase in cynicism about U.S. politics under Trump. In each survey wave, Latino immigrants responded to these two questions on government legitimacy, which have long appeared in the American National Election Study:

  • How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?
  • Would you say the government in Washington is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or is it run for the benefit of all people?

In summer 2016, 54 percent said that they trusted the government only “sometimes” or “never,” a drop in pessimism from 2012. However, during the transition to Trump and continuing into summer 2017, immigrants’ distrust climbed higher than they expressed in 2012. We found a similar trajectory when asked about whether the government is run for a few “big interests.”

Panel survey regression models let us gauge how fear and anger affected attitudes from one period to the next. Deportation worries and feeling both anxious and angry about Trump led to significant increases in political cynicism by mid-2017.

But respondents didn’t lose faith in the trustworthiness of Americans at large. In fall 2012 and across the three survey waves in 2016 to 2017, roughly the same proportion — about a third of respondents — said they “sometimes” or “never” trusted Americans.

Where they wanted to live didn’t shift markedly either. When asked in each period whether they planned to return to their birth country or stay in the United States, only a small minority mentioned plans to leave.

Immigrants stayed involved in civic life even while being afraid or angry or both

After the 2016 election, immigrants did not go underground. In the summer of 2017, 22 percent reported that they’d attended an immigrant rights march or rally. As you can see in the figure below, when asked in summer 2016 whether they had recently attended any political rallies, fewer than 10 percent said yes — about as many as, in 2012, had gone to rallies over the previous four years. While the percentage of Latino immigrants taking part in street demonstrations in 2017 did not reach the level from 2006 — the year that the contemporary “immigrant rights” movement was born — the contrast with 2016 and 2012 is striking.

Regression modeling confirms that fear and anger prompted such engagement. What’s more, by summer 2017, Latino immigrants told us they’d became more involved in conventional kinds of civic life, such as attending community meetings to solve neighborhood problems.

What does this mean for November 2020?

Our findings suggest that foreign-born Latinos are getting involved in U.S. democracy and — if citizens — will be inclined to vote in November. Despite attacks, Latino immigrants have continued to respect Americans, want to remain in this country and are ready — despite risks — to make their views heard.

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James A. McCann is a professor of political science at Purdue University.

Michael Jones-Correa is the president’s distinguished professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Immigration at the University of Pennsylvania.

This piece draws from “Holding Fast: Resilience and Civic Engagement Among Latino Immigrants” (Russell Sage Foundation, 2020).