Grassroots Citizenship at Multiple Scales: Rethinking Immigrant Civic Participation

Rachel Meyer, Janice Fine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Given the finding that the marginalized are less politically engaged, we examine those who are arguably the most marginalized—the undocumented—and ask: what underwrites recent cases where the undocumented have been politically engaged in meaningful and substantive ways? Additionally, how does this compare with the existing literature on the practice of citizenship for those with formal rights? And what are the implications for our understanding of political participation in the contemporary USA? We seek to address these questions by examining cases where undocumented immigrants act like citizens even though they lack formal political rights. Our cases deviate from previous literature which argues that more marginalized people participate less and that those without formal rights engage in contentious politics in lieu of “normal,” institutional politics. Our analysis of the DREAMers and of immigrant worker centers helps us rethink this traditional distinction between “normal” and contentious politics. Moving beyond a focus on the specific actions that fall into each category, we instead emphasize how the context for these actions is crucial to understanding the foundations of political participation. In particular, we argue that the same “normal” political actions taken by citizens versus noncitizens reveals different foundations underneath; for those without formal rights, what underwrites participation in “normal” and contentious politics alike is what we call grassroots citizenship. We examine how the political participation of undocumented workers and DREAMers takes place within immigrant organizations and how it relies on three pillars: solidarity, critical analysis, and collective action. While previous literature has emphasized the urban and local nature of active, alternative citizenships, our cases operate at multiple scales, demonstrating how grassroot citizenship can be leveraged and “scaled up” to state and national levels. Additionally, through an analysis of grassroots citizenship, we get some purchase on the question of why politicians sometimes listen to people who cannot vote.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)323-348
Number of pages26
JournalInternational Journal of Politics, Culture and Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


  • Citizenship
  • DREAMers
  • Immigrants
  • Political participation
  • Social movements
  • Worker centers


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