© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

No place like home: Annually, thousands of immigrants naturalize here, but do they vote?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 1, 2012 - When war broke out in Bosnia, Ibro Tucakovic and his family didn’t stay for long.

One summer day, it was bright and hot and he hung around with friends at a playground near his Sarajevo home. When shells fell on the playground killing neighborhood kids, his family had enough.

“We left two days after that,” he says.

Tucakovic came to St. Louis with a wave of Bosnain refugees in the 1990s.

Since then, he’s gotten married, established a professional life as an insurance agent, had two children, and, in 2008, he became a citizen.

In the four years that have followed, Tucakovic’s voted in nearly every election. 

“It’s one of the obligations of the citizens of this country, all of us, have to do,” he says.

But he sees many people, both native-born and in the St. Louis Bosnian community, failing to fulfill that obligation.

“Lots of Bosnians have become citizens in the past five years, but one thing that’s lacking is voting,” says Tucakovic.

Last year, more than 4,000 people became U.S. citizens in Missouri. In the St. Louis metro area that year, more than 2,400 people became citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security

And while we don’t have a huge immigrant community, St. Louis is home to many small ones: Asians, Latinos and Bosnians. They own businesses and homes, revive neighborhoods and build lives here. Many of them also become citizens. With that, they earn the right to vote. But are they using it?

A city of nations

For one weekend every summer, Tower Grove Park fills up with people from around the world. The Festival of Nationsoffers food, dance, music, art and jewelry from more than 80 ethnic groups, many which are in St. Louis.

Over time, those populations have grown. 

In 1990, St. Louis’ Asian population was 0.9 percent of the total population. In 2010, it was 2.1. The Hispanic population in the metro area in 1990 was 0.3, and in 2010 it was 2.6, according to last year’s edition of “Where We Stand,”by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.

The foreign-born population in St. Louis is 4.49 percent of the total, according to “The Economic Impact of Immigration on St. Louis,” a report out this year from Jack Strauss, an economics professor at St. Louis University.

The top regions or countries with people in St. Louis are Europe, Mexico, India, Bosnia-Herzegovina, China, Vietnam, Russia, Korea and the Philippines, 

While that number is a sliver of the total population, those people represent a diversity of countries and backgrounds. According to Strauss’ study, more than 40 percent have college and advanced degrees and the average income is more than $83,000. 

“It’s very diverse,” says Omar Maldonado, president of the Hispanic Leaders Group of Greater St. Louis. “We have the biggest population of the Bosnian community right here in St. Louis. You have a large Hispanic community, a lot of different ethnicities and nationalities that are coming to St. Louis.”

St. Louis is not typically the first stop for immigrants, he says, and the Hispanic Leaders Group is working with other organizations on making the city more friendly to newcomers. They’re also working on getting people registered to vote and in helping them understand the issues. 

“There has to be a buy-in,” he says. “Regardless of how hard we work, there has to be a buy-in from the voters. Why is it important for them to get registered? They need to understand that.”

Show me the vote

Statewide, the Migration Policy Institutereports that 43.1 percent of immigrants in Missouri, or more than 100,000 people, are naturalized citizens. And among registered voters statewide, new Americans made up 2.2 percent of the population.

But, for those who’ve naturalized, are they having that impact at the polls?

Statistically, naturalized citizens register and vote at lower rates than native-born Americans.

In 2010, according to the Census, 66.1 percent of native citizens were registered to vote, and 46.3 reported that they voted nationwide.

That same year, 54.2 percent of naturalized citizens were registered, and only 37 percent voted.

In the last presidential election, when turnout is generally higher, naturalized citizens still lagged behind. In 2008, 71.8 percent of native citizens nationwide were registered to vote and 64.4 voted. That year, 60.5 percent of naturalized citizens were registered and 54 percent voted.

Several reasons are often cited as to why naturalized citizens don’t vote at higher rates, including poor English, lack of education and trouble getting to the polls on election day because of jobs or transportation.

“We are just starting to do some research into that precise sector of our potential electorate. Why aren’t people participating?” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of NAELO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “What we’re getting back is a sense of a loss of faith or confidence in our political system, a belief that politics is not going to change your life, and that candidates just make promises and don’t deliver.”

“There is lack of connection,” Maldando agrees. 

Often, he says, potential voters fail to identify with politicians or candidates.

“There is a need in the St. Louis community,” he says. “They have to be able to say, this person gets me, and I identity with this person.”

To and from

Tangled up with education, socioeconomic status and language proficiency, a person’s experience from their own country could also influence them.

“We tend to look at immigrants after they come here and say, OK, they don’t vote or they do vote,” says Uma Segal, a professor in the School of Social Work & International Studies and Programs at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. 

But certainly, she says, people's experience before they came to the U.S. does influence who they are, and whether or not they’ll vote, once they’re here.

How educated a person is when they get here can also be a major factor in their voting habits, says Segal. 

“There’s such an interplay of factors and a lot of what causes the interplay is that education piece and that human capital,” she says. “Are they educated? Do they understand the process? Do they understand the language? How integrated are they into the majority culture?”

In a report for the Migration Policy Institute, Tomas Jimenez, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, shows that in 2008, Candadian-born naturalized citizens voted at the highest rate, 76.2 percent. Next came European-born naturalized citizens, at 57.3 percent, then Latin American-born citizens, at 56.4, with Asian-born citizens at the bottom, with 47.8 percent voting.

But a naturalized citizen from Mexico who comes as an engineer and one who comes as a migrant worker may not see the process, or its benefits, the same, Segal says. 

“All immigrants from a particular country are not the same, so the way they behave is not the same,” she says. “Often it's the human capital that defines how people behave when they move out of their country.”

You’d have to get down to a micro level, examining person by person, to understand how culture impacts people’s civic behavior, says Richard Middleton, associate professor of political science at UMSL and adjunct assistant professor of law at St. Louis University. New Americans bring a whole mosaic of perspectives and experiences with them that are specific not just to where those people are from, but to those people themselves.

“They’re pulling that traditional immigrant culture with them to the United States,” he says. “And we can’t expect that in a short amount of time that that all is going to be washed away with the American experience.”

"No Place Like Home" is part one of two-part project that came out of a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Justice. Kristen Hare was one of 14 journalists from the U.S. and abroad chosen for the week-long fellowship at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College in Norman this April.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.