It’s All about Race: How State Legislators Respond to Immigrant Constituents

AuthorChristopher J. Fariss,Micah Gell-Redman,Charles Crabtree,Neil Visalvanich
Date01 September 2018
Published date01 September 2018
Subject MatterArticles
749322PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917749322Political Research QuarterlyGell-Redman et al.
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(3) 517 –531
It’s All about Race: How State Legislators © 2018 University of Utah
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Respond to Immigrant Constituents
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917749322
Micah Gell-Redman1, Neil Visalvanich2, Charles Crabtree3 ,
and Christopher J. Fariss3
How do elected representatives respond to the needs of immigrant constituents? We report the results of a field
experiment on U.S. state legislators in which the nativity, likelihood of voting, and race/ethnicity of a hypothetical
constituent are independently manipulated. The experimental design allows us to contribute new insights by isolating
the various elements that may impede the connection between immigrants and elected representatives. Moreover, we
explore racial/ethnic identities beyond black and white by including Latino and Asian aliases. Contrary to expectations,
nativity and voting status do not affect response rates. Instead, legislator behavior appears to be driven by racial/
ethnic bias. Whites benefit from the highest response rate, while blacks, Hispanics, and Asians all receive lower rates,
respectively. This bias follows a partisan logic. The low response rate for Hispanic constituents comes primarily
from Republican legislators, whereas Asians experience bias from representatives of both parties. We argue that this
difference may result from Hispanic identity sending a stronger signal about partisan affiliation, or from a prejudicial
view of Asians as outsiders. In this last interpretation, rather than the model minority, Asians become the excluded
race and ethnic politics, representation, experiment, audit study
In a recent case brought before the Supreme Court,1 the
Hajnal and Lee 2011). Minority groups consistently list
plaintiffs claimed that legislative apportionment by popu-
political representation as an important concern (Bowler
lation was unconstitutional because it counted those who
and Segura 2011; Mansbridge 1999; J. Wong et al. 2011).
could not vote, including persons under the age of eigh-
Quality of representation and perception of treatment by
teen, disenfranchised felons, and noncitizens. The political elites have the potential to socialize immigrants
Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs, leaving it to
and their children toward political participation and iden-
the states to determine the measure by which they appor-
tification with certain political parties (Garcia-Bedolla
tion their legislative districts. This case raises a number
2005). If representatives are largely nonresponsive to
of provocative and still unanswered questions. Among
immigrants, this exclusion could impact an entire genera-
them is the motivating question of our study: how do
tion of voters through the important channel of parental
elected representatives respond to the needs of immigrant
influence (Campbell et al. 1960). In addition to these
downstream electoral effects, representatives being non-
The matter of political representation of immigrants is
responsive to immigrants would seem to violate a general
important partly because immigrants constitute a sub-
norm of fairness and equality. This lack of fairness is all
stantial portion of the U.S. population. The United States
the more important given that the relatively weak influ-
is roughly 12 percent immigrant, including those who
ence of immigrants on the legislative process may
have naturalized, those who are legal immigrants, and
those who are undocumented.
1University of Georgia, Athens, USA
Inadequate political representation of these immi-
Durham University, UK
3University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA
grants may have serious social consequences. Immigrants
to the United States are the parents of a large group of
Corresponding Author:
voters whose party identification and level of political
Charles Crabtree, Department of Political Science, University of
Michigan, 5700 Haven Hall, 505 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109,
participation are not predetermined, in spite of popular
perceptions to the contrary (Abrajano and Alvarez 2010;

Political Research Quarterly 71(3)
partially explain increasing inequality in the United
as legislators of both parties respond to this group at a
States (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006).
significantly lower rate. Finally, preferential treatment of
Existing scholarship points to two mechanisms that
whites is not the result of legislators implicitly believing
could lead representatives to be less responsive to immi-
that racial minorities direct costlier requests to their
grants. The first is self-interest. Office-seeking legislators
offices, as the differential response rate is present within
(Mayhew 1974), making strategically motivated choices
different types of requests.
about communicating with constituents (Fenno 1978),
might see immigrants as less decisive to their reelection
Race, Political Representation, and
calculus as many immigrants cannot vote. A second
Legislator Responsiveness
source of diminished responsiveness is out-group bias.
Immigrants may be exposed to bias because they are out-
Political representation is a core feature of democracy,
siders in terms of their national origin, or because they
and the representation of minority groups (whether
belong to a minority ethno-racial group. A substantial
descriptive or substantive) has long been viewed as cen-
body of literature has established that racial prejudice
tral to a vibrant democratic society. The quality of politi-
often drives public opinion toward certain political issues
cal representation is connected to minority trust in
(Kinder and Kam 2009) and that legislators often, in turn,
government, political participation, and partisan align-
discriminate against their constituents of color (Butler
ment. Considering that many minority groups, especially
and Broockman 2011).
Latinos and Asians, participate at lower rates than whites
Recent work on representation has provided new theo-
and blacks, responsive representation could offer a path-
retical and empirical insights into the racial biases of
way for parties to recruit a generation of new voters into
elected officials, but most scholarship around race and
their electoral coalitions (Hajnal and Lee 2011).
responsiveness of representation has focused on the
Despite the prevailing preference for high-quality rep-
black–white divide (Butler and Broockman 2011; Butler
resentation, there is ample evidence that political elites do
and Crabtree 2017; Grose 2011).2 To our knowledge, no
not prioritize engagement with minority groups. The lit-
prior studies have attempted to determine the relative
erature on substantive representation has found mixed
importance of self-interest and bias as sources of dimin-
results as to whether minorities are better represented by
ished responsiveness to immigrants. We provide such a
white Democrats. While some studies have found little
test by conducting a field experiment on state legislators
difference in the representation of minority constituents
in the United States. Our experiment leverages random-
by co-ethnic as opposed to non–co-ethnic representatives
ized cues that independently manipulate the nativity, like-
(Cameron, Epstein, and O’Halloran 1996; Hero and
lihood of voting, and race of a hypothetical constituent.
Tolbert 1995; Swain 1993), others have found that co-
We do not find that legislators change their behavior in
ethnics provide higher quality representation (Lublin
response to variation in the immigrant characteristics that
1999; Tate 2003). Studies that explore other means of
shape electoral incentives or define national membership.
citizen and legislator interaction have found more consis-
Instead, our results suggest that the racial/ethnic identity
tent evidence of bias against minority constituents.
of a constituent drives representative behavior indepen-
Notably, Broockman (2013) finds that white legislators
dently of additional information about where a constitu-
are significantly less likely to respond to black constitu-
ent was born and whether or not that constituent is likely
ents when the political benefits of doing so were dimin-
to vote. While this finding is consistent with the existing
ished. In addition, Grose (2011) finds that black legislators
literature, our experiment contributes to the field by
are more likely to pursue particularistic benefits for black
showing that this form of prejudicial behavior applies not
communities as well as place field offices in black areas
only to a binary, black/white difference between constitu-
when compared with white legislators. Finally, studies
ents, but to a wide range of racial identities. Whites ben-
have found that political campaigns use constituents’
efit from the highest degree of responsiveness, with
socioeconomic status to focus their mobilization efforts,
blacks, Hispanics, and Asians all receiving respectively
which leads to significantly lower levels of contact with
lower response rates to their requests.
black, Latino, and Asian voters compared with whites.
Moreover, we find that...

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