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Beyond voting: Migrants’ participation through consultative bodies and the Municipal Council for Immigrants in São Paulo

(Lillian) Vinícius Cruz Campos.jpg

Picture by Karen Axelrad on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The political participation of migrants in host societies is a contentious topic in integration studies. Despite the negative propaganda about the political integration of migrants brought up by populist governments, there is a close relationship between political participation, integration and democracy. When governments increase the avenues for the participation of migrants in political affairs, the foundation of a country’s democratic space gains strength. Alternatively, a lack of access to political rights among migrants can create problems regarding the legitimacy of the democratic system.


Generally, the public believes that migrants’ political participation is limited to electoral rights, i.e., the possibility of voting and being eligible in local or national elections. These are the traditional methods of political participation and indeed the focus of most studies. However, political participation can also take place in non-traditional ways, by volunteering and taking part in protests, as well as by joining trade unions, immigrant organisations, and the focus of this article, consultative bodies. 


Consultative bodies are structures created by governments at the local, regional or national level with the general aim of establishing an official framework for consultation and dialogue between migrants and government representatives regarding policy issues that are relevant to them. Consultative bodies are known to be a useful way of improving the quality of democracy, especially at the local level. In fact, there are strong links between consultation, migrants’ political integration, and political liberties; governments that invest in strong consultative bodies are better at promoting migrants’ political integration and score better in democracy ratings.


Brazil’s case is interesting because its legal framework is contradictory. On the one hand, it is progressive regarding socioeconomic rights, facilitating migrants’ access to public services and forbidding discrimination against foreigners in all spheres of society. Additionally, it simplifies the process of migrant regularisation and exempts migrants in difficult financial situations from migratory taxes. On the other hand, regarding political rights, it is very nationalistic and backwards since its constitution is the only one in South America that bans migrants’ electoral rights at all levels of the Federation.  


In contrast, the city of São Paulo was considered innovative when it created the Municipal Council for Immigrants (MCI), a local consultative body with the aim of ensuring that public policy is better suited for migrants’ needs. However, the existence of a consultative body is not a guarantee that migrants’ participation is effective. It is not uncommon for governments to be the biggest winners when they set up consultation mechanisms, because they improve their public image and seem to gain legitimacy even when participation of migrants is practically neutralised and non-existent. 


Therefore, it is highly important that the activities of the MCI be carefully analysed. In order to systematise the analysis, I will focus on five categories for examination: membership, which relates to how members of the consultative bodies are selected; mandate, focused on how strongly the MCI’s resolutions can influence public policy; meetings, i.e., the frequency with which members meet and whether power is well-distributed among its members; scope, that is, if the activities of the MCI focus on legal-political, socioeconomic, or cultural-religious aspects of integration; and resources, with regards to how the budget is managed and if there is public support to ensure that the body can function without financial constraints.


The MCI follows good practices when it comes to membership, meetings, and scope. It successfully implemented elections in 2018 – the first time the migrant population could vote in a local election in Brazil. Moreover, the Council established gender quotas (at least 50% of the members are women). Regarding meetings, the MCI meets frequently, and power is well distributed among its members – migrants and government build the agenda for the assembly together and hold the floor equally. Concerning its scope, the MCI is successful at keeping the focus on legal-political issues.


However, the MCI faces structural constraints regarding its mandate and resources. Its lack of decision-making power is highly problematic. When migrants do not see that their work is actually influencing policy, they lose interest in the consultative body. The decreasing turnout in recent elections might be a warning signal. The Council does not have a legal foundation to actually modify the policy-making process. The government can decide at any time to ignore its suggestions without paying a high political cost because the migrants cannot vote for local representatives. Therefore, recommendations issued by the MCI do not necessarily become anything other than ‘official’ statements.


Resources are the most deficient area in the MCI. The Council does not fund migrant organisations which would finance activities to reach out to the immigrant communities they represent. This would be a valuable strategy for engaging migrants in the political life of the city. Additionally, the members of the MCI do not have control over its limited budget and do not have a say in the allocation of resources. 

The MCI still has a long way to go in order to become a truly influential structure that can change the course of public policies in São Paulo. Despite that, the Council has functioned better than any other attempt in Brazil to politically integrate migrants at the local level and it has a strong symbolic value. It is worth stating that the struggle for migrants’ political integration must continue because only through constitutional changes will migrants attain the right to vote in elections at all levels of the Federation. That is to say, consultative bodies are a great start – but if there are no more improvements and, in a near future, migrants continue to be banned from voting and being elected, there may only be illusions of participation.

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Vinícius Cruz Campos

Vinícius is a Brazilian migration researcher and project analyst. He holds a Masters Degree in Migration and Intercultural Relations from the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the Federal University of Sergipe, Brazil. Vinícius is a project analyst at Migraflix, a social start-up based in São Paulo that promotes the socioeconomic inclusion of migrants through cultural entrepreneurship. His fields of interest include migrants’ political integration, labour mobility, and queer migration. Find Vinícius on Twitter @cruzvinicius1

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