This past spring, more than three million immigrants—most of them originally from Mexico—marched through the streets of dozens of U.S. cities to support a comprehensive reform that would legalize the status of undocumented immigrants. The size and number of the rallies caught almost everyone by surprise, including many in immigrant communities. Never before had Mexican migrants demanded such a visible role in a national policy discussion.

The ultimate impact of these marches on immigration reform remains uncertain. But the huge wave of Mexican civic engagement revealed a previously silent but steady and potentially profound transformation of the American political terrain: the emergence of Mexican migrants as civic and political actors.

More than 10 million Mexicans now live and work in the United States, including roughly one in eight adults worldwide who were born in Mexico. While the growing population is widely recognized, the presence of Mexican society in the United States has not been fully appreciated. The conventional view, pressed with particular energy by conservative nationalists, is that Mexican immigrants are highly insular. These critics point to lower rates of naturalization, English-language acquisition, and social mobility compared to other national-origin groups, as well as persistent pride by Mexican immigrants in their language and ethnicity. The large concentrations of Spanish-speaking immigrants in major cities are, the critics conclude, inherently unassimilable.

While many different factors may account for these low rates of naturalization and social mobility, it is well known that many Mexican migrants retain deep ties to their country of origin. Many work together with their paisanos to promote “philanthropy from below,” funding hundreds of community-development initiatives in their hometowns. And more than 40,000 signed up to exercise their newly won right to cast absentee ballots in Mexico’s 2006 presidential election.

But as the recent demonstrations suggest, things may now be changing as Mexican migrants create new ways of becoming American, with membership organizations playing a central role. Most migrant organizations—often with members from the same state in Mexico—started out focused exclusively on aid to their hometowns, but many have now developed programs for families in their new communities in the United States. They have thus become important arenas for migrants to hone the skills that allow them to enter U.S. civic life, as well as city and state politics. Migrants who participate in these associations often claim a kind of civic binationality—simultaneous membership in Mexican and U.S. society—with their initial engagement with hometowns abroad spurring their active engagement with adopted hometowns in the United States. These binational migrants have a great deal to teach us about new opportunities for encouraging immigrant integration into the United States today.

The most prominent group of membership organizations for migrants are the hometown associations (HTAs), but there are also worker organizations and religious congregations. The Mexican consulates have registered well over 600 HTAs, with some estimates exceeding 2,000. Typically the core membership is around two dozen families, though some have hundreds more. HTAs are primarily concentrated in metropolitan areas, and especially in Los Angeles and Chicago. Many HTA members are well established: the leaders are often economically stable and have legal status or citizenship. HTAs have in turn federated into associations that bring people from one state in Mexico together in one state in the United States, as in the flagship case of the numerous Zacatecas Federations.

A Sacramento Bee reporter recently estimated that Mexican HTAs have an active membership of between 250,000 and 500,000; and 14 percent of relatively recent Mexican migrants surveyed in 2005 said that they belonged to some kind of hometown association. HTAs have a long history, with the first Zacatecan club in California dating back to 1962, but their numbers and membership have boomed in the past 15 years. Within the United States, the massive regularization of undocumented workers that followed the 1986 immigration reform facilitated both economic improvement and increased cross-border freedom of movement for millions of migrants. On the Mexican side, the government deployed the convening power of its extensive consular apparatus, bringing together people from the same communities of origin and offering three-to-one community-development matching funds to encourage collective social investments of remittances. Though these efforts began as a response to pressures from organized Zacatecan migrants, they also served as a powerful inducement for other migrants to come together in formal organizations for the first time. In addition, in 1996 the Mexican state changed the tone of its relationship with the diaspora by formally permitting dual nationality for the first time. While many clubs emerged from below, many of the state-level federations were formed through engagement with the Mexican state.

But beyond the boom in sheer numbers, many Mexican migrant organizations are changing their political focus, shedding their prior disengagement from U.S. society and politics. Mexican HTAs did relatively little in the 1994 campaign against California’s notorious anti-immigrant Proposition 187. A decade later, when the state-level immigrant-rights advocacy campaign rallied for drivers’ licenses for the undocumented, HTA members were very actively involved, working the phone banks at the headquarters of Los Angeles’s formidable trade-union movement. The leadership of the Southern California Council of Presidents of Mexican Federations has now joined the fray of state politics. Some Mexican federations have also joined the migrant-led National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, especially in the Midwest. The AFL-CIO and the immigrant-led National Network of Day Laborers recently announced a collaborative agreement. These kinds of alliances would have been hard to imagine a decade ago.

Mainstream Latino politicians and public-interest groups in the United States are also making new efforts to reach out to Mexican HTAs. It is worth quoting the Sacramento Bee account in detail:

“Our goal has been to help our communities in Mexico. Now it is time to help our communities here,” said Salvador Garcia, the owner of a Los Angeles–area demolition company who serves as president of the Consejo [of Mexican HTA federations] as well as the hometown Federacio’ de Jalisco.

Recently, Garcia was chairman of a meeting—conducted in Spanish—at Sebastian Dominguez’s auto body shop with leaders representing collective hometown associations from eight Mexican states. They talked about raising money to pay for college scholarships for immigrant children and for soccer fields in Spanish-speaking communities in Los Angeles. A few weeks ago, Mexican politicians from the states of Michoaca’n and Oaxaca stopped by the auto body shop for the hometown associations’ support in encouraging Los Angeles residents to vote in the 2006 Mexican presidential election. On this night, the featured visitor was Ann Marie Tallman, national president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Tallman proposed a partnership, offering the Consejo presidents use of office space at the legal defense and education fund’s Los Angeles headquarters, business leadership classes and media training. . . . “We really need to reconnect with our roots,” Tallman said later. “They (hometown associations) are the eyes and ears of the community. This is a bona fide movement. . . . Shame on us for not noticing before.”

Traditional Latino organizations and Mexican migrant organizations often overlap in their issues and sometimes even membership, though they often have very different organizational structures, access to resources, and views on whether to pursue a binational or primarily U.S.-focused agenda. While traditional Latino organizations tend to be focused on civil-rights issues in the United States and questions of equal access to health care and education, migrant organizations tend to be focused on binational issues and on specific concerns of access to services that specifically affect immigrants. While U.S. Latino leaders are strongly committed to promoting immigrant incorporation, some have been skeptical about whether migrants’ binational perspectives foster civic integration into U.S. society.

Nonetheless, the gap between these agendas is narrowing as Mexican migrant organizations become increasingly U.S.-focused and Latino organizations increasingly embrace concerns of the growing number of U.S. Latinos who are migrants. Thus, the July 2006 national conference of the National Council of La Raza involved an unprecedented degree of outreach to immigrants, including widespread interest in citizenship promotion and Spanish-language workshops.

Mexican migrants have also become increasingly active in traditional U.S. social organizations, such as affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation. In addition, both Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches have seen much of their growth come from Latin American migrants. Some religious social organizations, such as New York City’s Asociación Tepeyac, see their role as building the social and political engagement of migrants to give them a voice in U.S. society while they continue to engage with their country of origin. These communities appropriate symbols and patterns of worship from migrants’ hometowns while addressing issues that migrants face in the United States.

Worker organizations have also been important vehicles of social integration. Despite their lack of prior experience with democratic unions, Mexican migrant workers express a similar level of interest in unions as others in the United States. Many migrants work in non-unionized industries—especially agriculture, residential construction, and services—and the emergence of worker support centers across the United States has proved particularly important. For immigrant farm workers, who are often geographically and socially isolated, outreach to U.S. public opinion has often involved consumer boycotts, usually involving alliances with religious communities and university students—as in the case of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ recent successful campaign against Taco Bell. (The spring 2006 marches constituted the largest mass mobilization of workers of any kind in the history of the United States.)

Finally, Spanish-language media also play a decisive role both in sharing information among migrants and creating pathways to engagement in U.S. society. Three major national television networks now broadcast in Spanish, along with dozens of local stations and cable channels, more than 300 radio stations, and over 700 newspapers. These media help address issues that matter particularly to migrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America in a way that neither English-language nor home-country media do (although migrants do use both of these extensively as well). The spring 2006 immigrant-rights protests showed the capacity of Spanish-language media to help mobilize millions of people. In many cities, radio hosts—many engaging with civic issues for the first time—played a central role in generating mass interest among migrants in participating in these protests. In other cases, these media also provide information on voting, health campaigns, and issues in the educational system, among many other matters of concern to migrants. Some public media, such as Radio Bilingue, were specifically created to serve as an information source for migrants to share and address their concerns, and even mainstream Spanish-language media leaders tend to see this as part of their mission.

Despite extensive gains in civic engagement, Mexican migrants’ electoral participation remains very low compared to their overall numbers. The large number of undocumented migrants—perhaps half of all Mexican migrants—is part of the reason for this. Even among those who are permanent residents and eligible for citizenship, however, the naturalization rate remains far below that of immigrants from other countries. This appears to be changing, though. Between 1995 and 2001 the estimated percentage of legal residents of Mexican origin who became citizens doubled from 17 to 34. For those who do become citizens, the voter-turnout rate tends to follow broader U.S. patterns, in which lower levels of formal education and income are associated with lower turnout. Yet studies that compared naturalized-citizen turnout in California with that of other states found that the state’s politicized environment of the 1990s encouraged significantly higher voting rates. It will be important to observe to what extent the recent mobilization will lead to an increase in the interest of Mexican legal permanent residents in becoming full citizens with voting rights.

Mexican migrants have an even lower degree of formal engagement in Mexican elections. In 2005, the Mexican Congress for the first time allowed Mexicans abroad to register to vote in Mexico by absentee ballot. Just over one percent of those eligible registered for the 2006 presidential elections (though in comparative terms, this is normal for first-time diasporic voting). The low registration rate—though still not well-understood—undoubtedly reflects the numerous procedural challenges involved in the complicated registration process. Voters had to register by registered mail more than six months before the elections, and long-distance voting rights were conditioned on a ban on Mexican political-party or campaign activity abroad, which meant that migrants had to depend almost exclusively on U.S. Spanish-language media to become informed voters.

Since the 1990s, the Mexican government has been seeking to increase its ties to migrants abroad—for example, it formed the Council of Mexicans Abroad, a group of Mexican migrants charged with advising the Mexican government on policy related to migrant communities. Although the results of this process in terms of actual influence on policy decisions are mixed, the council has built bridges between local migrant leaders and the Mexican government. The council’s membership, which is largely elected, also reflects a high degree of civic binationality, insofar as many of these leaders combine deep roots in U.S. civic, social, and business organizations with strong ties to migrant organizations and to Mexico.

The overall panorama of Mexican migrant civic participation is a hopeful one. The peaceful immigrant protests in dozens of U.S. cities in the spring of 2006 reflected an extraordinary level of civic discipline, largely modeled by the key mobilizing institutions—churches, the media, community organizations, and unions. Yet participation went far beyond these organizations and their members and drew in large numbers of normally unaffiliated migrants and their supporters. This suggests an even greater breadth of civic commitment beyond formal participation in existing organizations.

As the number of Mexicans in the United States grows, they are increasingly engaged in U.S. civic life—and they are reshaping it. Moreover, they are developing their own forms of civic association that represent their own needs and interests—just as past waves of immigrants to the United States did before restrictive policies closed the door in the early 1920s. So what’s new with Mexican migrants? After all, the percentage of foreign-born in the United States today is comparable to the peak of the last major wave. It is certainly new that migrants from one single country represent such a large share of the foreign-born population. It is also new that so many immigrants come from across the border rather than across an ocean, which encourages persistent home-country ties. What may be newest, however, is the challenge they pose to traditional conceptions of assimilation and nationalism. While conservative critics like Samuel Huntington assume that these trends will lead to insularity and pose a Quebec-style threat to the U.S. social fabric, Mexican migrants themselves are demonstrating their capacity to forge practices of civic binationality, campaigning for the right to be heard in both Mexico and the United States.