Under the Microscope: Academics Seek to put a Human Face on Undocumented Hispanic Immigrants

Fear is the emotion most commonly associated with undocumented immigrants living in the United States today. Fear of being discovered during a routine traffic stop or a worksite raid. Fear of being deported and separated from one’s family.

But it turns out that fear is only one part of a complex emotional landscape that immigrants without legal status confront in their daily lives. A recent study of undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala found that many “linked the current threats to their families posed by deportation to a history of conflict and terror in their countries of origin.” In other words, they escaped the war at home only to relive their war-related anxieties in the U.S.

The study by the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, also discovered that the undocumented immigrants it surveyed reported symptoms including anxiety, weight loss and difficulty sleeping. Their children often had trouble keeping up in school and developing language skills.

The Boston College study is notable, not just for it’s troubling conclusions, but for its place in a large and growing movement by academic researchers. Studying undocumented immigrants — who according to most estimates number around 12-million in the U.S. – has become its own academic specialty.

The interest among researchers was highlighted last weekend as hundreds of professors and students from across the country met on the campus of Connecticut College in New London, Ct. for a conference called Undocumented Hispanic Migration: On the Margins of a Dream.

“The field is immense,” said Judith Adler Hellman, author of the recently published book The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place. Hellman remarked that years ago the popularity of studying Mexico’s indigenous cultures led to a joke among researchers:

Question: Name the members of a typical Mexican family? Answer: Two parents, 3.2 children and an anthropologist.

Judging by the size of last weekend’s conference, the same can now be said of Mexican families living in The Bronx or small towns throughout the South and Midwest. Researchers presented findings on subjects ranging from the impact of the border fence between Mexico and the U.S. to gang membership by undocumented teenagers to fertility rates among immigrant women.

The tone at the conference was scholarly, at times veering into obscure theoretical concepts of social science. But lurking in the background of almost every discussion were the real-world realities of increased enforcement of immigration laws and growing uncertainty over the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform under the Obama administration.

Many researchers said their work was motivated in part by the desire to put a human face on a population that is often overlooked or referred to mainly in statistical terms. “Research that promotes a positive view of immigrants has not been predominant,” complained Leo Chavez, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.

But it’s unclear what role, if any, scholarly research, positive or negative, will play when Congress finally gets around to debating a new immigration law.

Aarti Kohli served in Washington, DC on the staff of the House Immigration Subcommittee ten years ago. Today she’s the director of immigration policy at the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley. Kohli said that a decade ago members of Congress didn’t pay much attention to immigration research.

Now she sees signs of a more receptive attitude on Capitol Hill. She believes the debate over a possible guest worker program has been influenced by research documenting the abuses of the Bracero program of the 1940s through the 1960s that allowed Mexican men to work legally in the U.S. but denied adequate compensation to many.

But Kohli also argues that if academic researchers want their findings to be used by policy-makers they need to make some changes. Her suggestion, “translate the findings into concrete, easy-to-read language.”

What academic research has shown and what members of Congress are interested in “doesn’t always line up,” according to Kohli. But, she says, “its lining up more these days.”

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