- Irene Bloemraad (Author)
Becoming a Citizen: Incorperating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jerome H. Black
Democratic polities that receive large numbers of immigrants would do well to ensure that newcomers naturalize and become politically active. This is the point of departure in Irene Bloemraad’s excellent Becoming A Citizen. If the foreign born are not politically incorporated, “not only is the sense of shared enterprise undermined, but so, too, are the institutions of democratic government.” With most western countries facing ever-larger waves of immigrants, the stakes are high.
The volume’s central message, sustained by a comparison of Canada and the United States, is that the reception given the foreign born greatly affects their political incorporation. While immigrants’s characteristics (e.g., education, language skills) play their part, government can promote an “active citizenship” by encouraging naturalization, offering material and nonmaterial settlement support, and formally recognizing cultural diversity.
Bloemraad’s eclectic theoretical framework emphasizes institutional context, opportunity structure, the social and organizational nature of immigrant communities and the participation potential of newcomers and their leaders. Essentially, she argues that government interventionist discourse and policies open up psychological and action spaces that enhance stake-holding and political interest, which, in turn, increases naturalization and participation. Some effects are obviously “instrumental,” resulting from resources provided by government (e.g., funding, access); some are “interpretative,” flowing from language that validates newcomer diversity and political engagement.
A rich array of both quantitative and qualitative material comprise the study’s empirical base. Secondary sources include census reports, survey statistics and documentary evidence, while key primary material comes from 151 in-depth interviews, mostly conducted within the Portuguese and Vietnamese communities, both in Toronto and Boston.
Bloemraad rightfully emphasizes how little research has been done comparing Canada-US political integration even though the countries’s similarities, including liberal naturalization regimes, make them an ideal pairing for study. At the same time, she brings their differences into sharp relief. Government in Canada promotes citizenship more intensively, offers assistance for settlement and integration and officially advances multiculturalism to facilitate newcomers’s sense of belonging. By contrast, the United States is more oriented toward border control than integration, is generally laissez-faire about naturalization, provides few settlement services (except for refugees) and, with an almost exclusive focus on race relations, lacks a formal diversity policy that helps immigrants qua immigrants. Major indicators of political incorporation confirm the superior Canadian record. Already in the introduction, naturalization differences are highlighted: the rates similar for such a long time begin to diverge in the 1970s—“at exactly the point that Canada established a policy of multiculturalism and expanded government intervention in newcomer settlement.” Other measures reveal a greater proportion of foreign-born legislators in the House of Commons compared to Congress, and more community organization and advocacy in Canada.
Bloemraad is not the first academic to argue that Canada does a better job incorporating immigrants (e.g., Kymlicka’s Finding Our Way), but hers is the first systematic treatment—characterized by theoretical specificity and by creative and meticulous methodology. Consequently, her arguments are more solidly based and provide understanding of how government matters. With regard to methodology, the choice of the same two communities in two similarly-sized cities (a matching cases strategy) provides focus by reducing the number of variables needing consideration; another methodological highlight is a constant preoccupation with rival explanations.
The theoretical linkages are richly detailed (and empirically sustained) in the individual main chapters, each illuminating a specific area of knowledge, even as it is a constituent part of the larger contribution. Chapter 2 demonstrates the social underpinnings of political incorporation—how networks of family and friends and community organizations and leaders operate to encourage citizenship acquisition and participation. Chapter 3 details Canadian and American differences in policies, practices and program delivery in the three domains of naturalization, settlement and diversity. Chapter 4, drawing heavily on the interview data, portrays some of the interpretative effects flowing from these differences: Portuguese and Vietnamese immigrants in Toronto feel more connected to the new country than their American counterparts. On the instrumental side, Chapter 5 demonstrates how greater government support facilitates more numerous, diverse and active organizations within the two Canadian communities, while Chapter 6 shows how this organizational robustness assists community leaders to run for and win elective office. The final chapter, building on the positive Canadian evidence, champions the country’s multiculturalism model and argues it is still worth emulating even if it is falling out of favour elsewhere.
Areas needing more attention? The author correctly notes a lack of dedicated surveys directly comparing immigrant political incorporation in the two countries, but she could have juxtaposed results available from individual national surveys, thus bolstering the study’s generalizability (including consideration of other measures of participation). As well, Bloemraad’s analysis of differences in public opinion and party politics in the two countries is too underdeveloped to dismiss their contribution to the stronger Canadian record. Also given insufficient consideration is the complicating impact of US illegal immigration.
None of this, however, takes away from the fact that Becoming A Citizen has now set a new standard in the field.
- Three Solitudes by Laura J. Murray
Books reviewed: We Are Not You: First Nations and Canadian Modernity by Claude Denis
- The Present As Watershed by Lothar Honnighausen
Books reviewed: Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication, and Canada by Gerald Friesen and The Next Canada: In Search of Our Future Nation by Myrna Kostash
- Ivory Thoughts by Renée Hulan
Books reviewed: From Talking Chiefs to a Native Corporate Elite : The Birth of Class and Nationalism Among Canadian Inuit by Marybelle Mitchell and Ancient People of the Arctic by Robert McGhee
- (Re)collecting Urban Culture by Maia Joseph
Books reviewed: The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century by Birk Sproxton and The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto by Jonny Dovercourt, Christina Palassio, and Alana Wilcox
- Post-Race: Contemporary Black Writing by Karina Vernon
Books reviewed: Writing from the Borderlands: A Study of Chicano, Afro-Caribbean and Native Literatures in North America by Carmen Cáliz-Montoro, Race and Racism: Canada's Challenge by Leo Driedger and Shiva S. Halli, Dreaming Black Writing White: The Hagar Myth in American Cultural History by Janet Gabler-Hover, and Being Black: Essays by Althea Prince
MLA: Black, Jerome H. Comparative Citizenship. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 120 - 122)
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