Abstract: Redefining Engagement through Exclusion: How Undocumented Latinx Immigrants Define Political Participation (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

680P Redefining Engagement through Exclusion: How Undocumented Latinx Immigrants Define Political Participation

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Nicolaus Espitia, MSW, PhD student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose:

Recently the political participation of undocumented Latinx immigrants has become the focus of national debate within the policy, advocacy, and community organizing professions. While it is clear that undocumented Latinx immigrants have been engaging in social protest, lobbying elected officials, and organizing around political issues (Hope, Keels, and Durkee, 2014; Perez, 2015; Seif, 2016). These traditional definitions of political participation are relevant to undocumented Latinx immigrants however, they focus mostly on engaging with elected officials and overlook that undocumented immigrants are excluded from the voting process. This raises an interesting question, given that undocumented Latinx immigrants are formally excluded from voting and other formal aspects of the political process how do they define political participation? Are there other activities that they consider to be forms of political participation that are being left out of the discussion? As social workers how can we move towards more inclusive definitions of participation that capture the full range of activities of undocumented Latinx immigrants?

This project addresses two research questions. First, how do undocumented Latinx immigrants living in the United States define political participation? Second, how does social context and geographic location influence how undocumented Latinx immigrants define political participation. 


This project utilizes 30 in-depth interviews with undocumented Latinx immigrants to better understand how they define political participation. Participants lived in either a large urban area within a large Latinx population or smaller predominantly white rural area.  The open-ended and narrative nature of these interviews will produce deeper and more extensive responses than a close-ended survey (Weiss, 1994).


Definitions of political participation range from those that fall in line with traditional definitions found in political participation literature to more informal definitions that include things such has attending school, being “out” as undocumented, and providing informal support to peers. Surprisingly voting still plays a central role in how undocumented define political participation. Being excluded from voting has emphasized the importance of engaging with elected officials and being informed about current legislative debates. Many participants in this study have found their most meaningful form of political participation to serve as a “vote influencer”. Because they cannot cast their own votes they take it upon themselves to influence those in their networks to vote in their interest. Geographic location did seem to influence how participants defined political participation and how they engaged in advocacy. 

Conclusions and Implications:

This project has several implications for the field of social work. First, it will allow practitioners to gain a better understanding of how undocumented Latinx immigrants define political participation and expand how we define the term. Next, it allows researchers to better understand how geographic location and social context influence these definitions. This information will help social work researches and practitioners to develop more effective organizing strategies and better support the undocumented community. Additionally, this study will help community organizers better understand the unique challenges facing undocumented populations and allow the undocumented community to inform how we think about political participation.