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November 3, 2014

Rebecca CallahanEven though over 7.5 million potential voters between 18 and 24 were born abroad or in the U.S. to immigrant parents, very little research has been done on what affects the political and civic engagement of that large demographic. Do language barriers guide whether or not they register to vote? Do family opinions play a big part?

In their new book “Coming of Political Age: American Schools and the Civic Development of Immigrant Youth,” co-authors Rebecca Callahan and Chandra Muller argue that completion of high school social studies significantly influences immigrant students’ future voting habits.

Callahan is an assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Muller is a professor in the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Sociology.

According to the co-authors, the number of social studies credits completed in high school matters more for first- and second-generation immigrant children than for children of native-born parents when it comes to predicting voter participation. They also found that, although education affects who votes and registers to vote, it does not influence political party identification or the political perspective of immigrant youth.

Coming of Political Age by Rebecca Callahan“Previous research has focused on how immigrant parents and communities shape their children’s social and academic development,” said Callahan. “In this work, we focus on school as a critical location for understanding the political socialization processes of immigrant adolescents.”

Callahan and Muller used nationally representative high school student data, linked to future voting, as well as interviews with high school social studies teachers and their former Latino immigrant students, to show how schools can create a democratic citizenry.

The book notes that some efforts to increase English language proficiency by placing students in English language learning programs can result in fewer opportunities to take social science courses and less instruction in American political processes.

“Our study of adolescents’ civic socialization illustrates just how much schools shape immigrant youth’s political futures through the courses they take,” said Callahan. “This is a critical piece of the puzzle for anyone who’s interested in the youth vote. The future of American democracy is inextricably linked to the health of this country’s public schools.”