Vol. 17 No. 1 (January, 2007) pp.40-43


BECOMING A CITIZEN; INCORPORATING IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES IN THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA, by Irene Bloemraad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.  382pp.  Hardback. $55.00/£35.95 ISBN: 9780520248984.  Paperback. $21.95/£13.95.  ISBN: 9780520248991.


Reviewed by Dagmar Soennecken, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. E-mail: dagmar.soennecken [at] utoronto.ca.


In BECOMING A CITIZEN, Irene Bloemraad compares the political incorporation of immigrants in the United States with Canada. While the introductory chapter (which lays out the larger comparison) relies mainly on census and survey data together with documentary evidence, the heart of Bloemraad’s book is centred on in-depth interviews conducted in the Vietnamese and Portuguese communities in Boston and Toronto.


The puzzle that animates Bloemraad’s book is the diverging trajectory of political incorporation between the two countries. While the United States’ citizenship acquisition rate has declined dramatically since the 1950s (in 1950, 80 percent of all foreign-born residents were citizens, in 2004 fewer than 40 percent were, p.1) Canada’s has increased (in 2001, 72 percent of all foreign-born residents had acquired citizenship, p.2). This is indeed an intriguing question and is even more interesting, once one gets into the table with detailed country of origin data (pp.38-39), among others.


Bloemraad takes this puzzle as a starting point to ask larger questions about the political incorporation of immigrants in Canada and the United States. Political incorporation, after all, cannot simply be read from a country’s naturalization rate. Her book therefore investigates the attainment of ‘full citizenship,’ which she defines as naturalization plus substantive or participatory citizenship (p.5). Bloemraad’s central contention is it that differences in government intervention, or in settlement and diversity policies, create interpretive and instrumental differences that affect the political incorporation of immigrants (p.4). While the interpretive portion affects immigrants’ perceptions of their standing and ability to participate in the political process, the instrumental side shapes their actual mobilization and participation potential. Still her focus on government intervention does not lead Bloemraad to conclude that government intervention is the key factor in the political integration of newcomers. Civic involvement and political engagement originates just as much in the private realm.


Bloemraad evaluates participatory citizenship by first probing the importance of social networks for political incorporation. Political learning and mobilization, Chapter 2 argues, is facilitated by individual contact and social interaction with family and friends as well as community organizations. Only someone who has been sufficiently politically acclimatized in a new country and who has been shown the benefits of being active will be interested in [*41] acquiring citizenship. Bloemraad also addresses the fears of those who worry about immigrants who focus on their homeland because it diverts attention away from their host country’s life (p.94). She suggests that a homeland focus is only the first stage in a newcomer’s integration process. Her work underlines that more important than their continued contact with their homeland is involvement in other organizations that teach them how to get involved in their new home country.


That government policy plays a crucial role in the integration process is the central contention of Chapter 3. The Canadian government has pursued an official multiculturalism policy since the early 1970s. As a result of this policy, significantly more dollars have been injected into a wide range of programs than in the US. In particular, Bloemraad investigates differences in the immigration ministries’ official promotion of citizenship, bureaucratic attitudes and practices and the government’s settlement and integration policies for newcomers. These ‘interventionist’ programs, she concludes, have had an important, positive effect on the integration of newcomers. Few parallels can be found in the US. Only one comparable program exists in the area of refugee settlement (p.126).


In addition, Bloemraad’s analysis in Chapters 3 and 4 underscores that “the black-white color line fundamentally shapes immigrant incorporation dynamics” (p.133). Put more bluntly, the legacy of slavery and forced migration of African Americans and their descendants simply overshadows existing, albeit weak efforts to incorporate newcomers into the United States. Not only that, since many race-based policies were forced upon “southern states, government contractors, public and private institutions – using the federal government’s legal and coercive apparatus” (p.137), immigrants relying on these policies to gain inclusion face significant reluctance and resentment.


The next chapter in particular underlines the value of Bloemraad’s interview data vis-à-vis her other sources. Newcomers, she suggests in Chapter 4, judge governments on the degree to which they are open to “outsiders like themselves” (p.139). This evaluation takes place when immigrants encounter government officials (as illustrated in the previous chapter, p.114ff) but also when confronted with national beliefs about diversity. For instance, while Portuguese and Vietnamese Canadians interviewed identify with the standard ‘cultural mosaic’ mantra, their American counterparts had trouble with the stereotypical ‘melting pot’ idea (p.145). Identification with the “symbolic meaning of citizenship,” as Bloemraad puts it (p.139), is a powerful motivator that can encourage or discourage political involvement and interest.


Chapter 4 continues Bloemraad’s critique of the race-based American model of citizenship. The Black community, she notes, feels proprietary over certain government programs (p.154), making it hard for non-blacks, here Vietnamese [*42] Americans, to make a claim, while some Portuguese Americans, who are considered ‘white’ today, feel closely allied with Hispanic communities and would prefer a different designation (p.152). These examples underline the divisive nature of current government policies in the United States, according to Bloemraad.


Her detailed comparative analysis of Vietnamese and Portuguese community organizations in Boston and Toronto in Chapter 5 fleshes out a key point already introduced in earlier chapters. Government promotion of community organizations does not “crowd out civic participation” (p.162), as some critics allege, but increases organizational capacity and as a consequence the potential for political integration. In this chapter, Bloemraad also deals with the critics of state intervention. She notes that government intervention is a two-way street. It allows groups a number of ways of resisting becoming government-dependent (p.171). Bloemraad demonstrates through a range of examples in the chapter that government funding does not ‘muzzle’ community organizations (p.177ff) and indeed, that organizations can affect government policy by walking a fine line between lobbying and advocacy.


Perhaps the height of the political integration of an immigrant is his or her running for public office. Comparing the degree to which Portuguese and Vietnamese immigrants become leaders in their community and run for public office is therefore the focus of Bloemraad’s last substantive chapter. Developing what she calls an ‘advocacy framework’ (p.197), or a perspective that takes pride in one’s ethnic background is at the core to becoming a community leader. Pride in background and connection to their community is also more likely to lead to a successful run for public office, Bloemraad suggests, though most interviewees claimed they would vote for the ‘best candidate’ regardless of ethnicity (p.223). The chapter also emphasizes that the US system, though once praised for mobilizing immigrants, today impedes the rise of persons with immigrant newcomers to political office by “keeping power in the hands of party old-timers” (p.210).


Bloemraad’s book concludes with a broad outlook on the future of state-lead multiculturalism. Overall, she does not consider the recent rise in theoretical criticism and retreat from multiculturalism in Australia and the Netherlands, sufficient enough to conclude that the Canadian state-led type of multiculturalism is past its peak (p.233ff). Countries with large foreign-born populations in Europe with welfare state systems similar to Canada would be most likely candidates for the Canadian model, though the American approach may also be helpful to some due to its strong self-image as a nation of immigrants (p.244). Bloemraad views the future of immigrant integration in the United States post 9/11 in a much bleaker light. The US’s overwhelming emphasis on security is likely to drown out any recent upswings in naturalization (p.248ff). Yet Bloemraad also views the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as an opportunity for organizational and cultural change in favour of political integration, since naturalization and immigration is now [*43] more clearly separated from border control and internal enforcement (p.249).


Bloemraad’s book appeals to a number of audiences, aside from those interested in citizenship, integration and immigration. Scholars interested in increasing US voter turnout may find Bloemraad’s discussion of political mobilization of newcomers valuable, as would scholars working on race-relations in the United States. Scholars interested in the legal mobilization of immigrants and refugees are better served by turning to the work of Susan Coutin and others (Coutin 2000), as there is little discussion of the role of courts here. This book will also be of only limited interest to refugee scholars. Although the book discusses the history of the Vietnamese migration to North America, as well as refugee policy and government funding targeted at refugees, Bloemraad does not distinguish between refugees and economic migrants in her subsequent discussion on political incorporation. This may in part be due to a methodological difficulty (see p.69).


A rich book in my view raises a range of follow-up questions, and Bloemraad’s book is no exception. Although I had a number of difficulties with her methodology and at times wondered about the generalizibility of her findings, particularly in light of the crushing number of Mexican migrants in the United States, I will turn to some substantive points instead. There are a number of issues Bloemraad flags as outside of the scope of the book that should have been given more attention. For instance, she alludes to the importance of the welfare state (e.g., p.137), she hardly devotes any attention to this point, which emerges as even more central in her conclusions regarding the transferability of the Canadian model to European states.


Her discussion of the role of political institutions is also somewhat underdeveloped. I found that at times, it appears as if Bloemraad conflates institutions with government policy. This could have been rectified by extending her brief introductory reference to the role of institutions (p.9) or by adding a more substantive theoretical discussion to her concluding chapter, but this may be a preference of the publisher.


I also would have preferred to see a number of the larger questions and debates raised in her last chapter moved to the beginning of the book. Bloemraad dismisses the broader, theoretical literature on citizenship as ‘abstract discussions’ with an insufficient grounding in empirical research (pp.11-12), yet she returns to many of these abstract discussions in her conclusion. Why not let these discussions frame the analysis from the outset? In my view, this could have only strengthened the theoretical framework without detracting from her empirical work.



Bibler Coutin, Susan. LEGALIZING MOVES; SALVADORAN IMMIGRANTS’ STRUGGLE FOR U.S. RESIDENCY. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, 2000.


© Copyright 2007 by the author, Dagmar Soennecken.