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Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · June 9, 2005

Power In Numbers? Not Necessarily…

Despite Large Population, California Immigrants Have Little Influence in City Politics

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 9, 2005– Among groups believed to influence a city’s politics and policies, organizations representing immigrants rank near the very bottom in California. This, despite the fact that immigrants make up more than one-quarter of the state’s residents, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

In an analysis based on surveys with mayors, city council members, police chiefs, and planning directors in over 300 cites with a high proportion of immigrants, only 7 percent of respondents said immigrant organizations were highly influential in city politics – compare that to neighborhood associations (41%), public employee unions (20%), and real estate interests (17%). In fact, over half of the officials (55%) could not name a single group they would contact to reach immigrant populations.

“This is the case in cities where at least 15 percent of the population is foreign-born,” says PPIC research fellow Karthick Ramakrishnan, who co-authored the study with PPIC program director Paul Lewis. “The low influence ranking and lack of knowledge about immigrant groups suggests that immigrants are a politically invisible population in most city governments, despite large numbers.”

The most likely reason is that many immigrants either cannot or do not vote – however, their low civic participation may be related to a serious disconnect: A typical expectation among city officials is that immigrants will mobilize and organize themselves if they are concerned about a local issue. “This is probably not realistic,” says Ramakrishnan. “There is a comprehension gap due to language barriers and because many immigrants come from very different political worlds and may need help understanding local politics. Low involvement doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have concerns.”

Given the gulf, it is not surprising that officials in only one in ten cities consider immigrant issues to be a significant concern. On the highly charged issue of housing, for example, little attention is paid to specific immigrant needs and circumstances. A notable exception, however, is on local police forces, which are more ethnically diverse and more likely to employ techniques aimed at serving the needs of immigrants. An overwhelming majority of police chiefs (81%) consider bilingualism to be an asset when recruiting job candidates, and 87 percent offer additional pay to bilingual officers.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.