Category: immigrants/immigration

What immigrants are good for

It’s an interesting question. A crude parallel can be made between this question and the question of bilingualism. Both enrich the host country (the former, the U.S. or any other literal receiving nation; the latter, the “host” of the speaker’s brain/cognitive function), both contribute various forms of diversity, benefitting the economy in the former case and one’s ability to think creatively and adapt to new situations (see here, here and here for examples of associated research), and both add resources in times of deficit and change.

But if you’re not connected to immigrants or a variety of languages through your work or your social environment, why should you care, really? The trope espoused by Donald Trump and others, that immigrants are here to steal work from and violate the native-born, has been soundly defeated by solid research over the years, and yet threads through an American consciousness increasingly clotted with fear and anger as powerlessness and disaffection rise. The brown people he indicts publicly in his displays of chest-beating become a fearsome enemy to be inspected for benefit, briefly, before the doors are shut and walls are built. Demographically overlapping at times though not synonymous with “immigrants,” speakers of languages other than English tend to be found in urban centers, far from the safe belts of White conservatives whose “authentic American” thinking is referred to as politicos and pundits haggle over issues like “political correctness” in critiquing decisions about gender-neutral bathrooms or trans-friendly policies.

In truth, the reasons why foreign-born participants in U.S. society are “valuable” can indict the interests particular to the person listing them. A video showing the fervent arguments of Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics where I study at the Graduate Center in New York, is a case in point. Kaku asserts that foreign-born students benefit the science community in the United States, which struggles with the shoddy fodder provided by our intellectually deficient educational system (with, Kaku states, its rising “stupid index”), buoying up our economy as it is driven by Silicon Valley and other job creators in business. Importantly, the distinction between “immigrant” and “foreign-born” should be made (as it is unfortunately not in the blog post that inspired me to write). Nonetheless, this expresses the neoliberal ideology that defines how we perceive value and normalcy in education, business, and other human pursuits in the 21st century. The value of foreigners, says this viewpoint, is directly related to how they can contribute to our economy, to our ability to compete on the world stage with other major economic powers. Donald Trump himself could not disagree with this, as low-status Mexican workers helped him build major components of his empire. Thus, we can justify their presence here on such apolitical terms that allay American anxiety over the precarious hold we seem to have over our position as leader of the world in so many respects.

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By Субочева Юлия (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Is this what immigrants are good for? I can’t answer this question directly but must instead ask another: Would we suggest that our own children are valuable and “good” for the United States for the same reasons, e.g., their fitting into the puzzle of how to remain in our most assumed position of global economic power? What rings as a reductive stance for our innocent progeny seems somehow acceptable for adults who speak and look different from us coming to this country. Kaku may feel passionate about the need to challenge our ignorance of how we maintain global preeminence in science and technology, but his rather romanticized discussion still invokes a discourse that dehumanizes and constrains human potential, agency, and variety in an apolitical and logical course of events. Foreign-born people should not be commodified and sorted according to how much they keep us on top. Arguing from such a perspective reinforces the same neoliberal model in which atomization, dehumanization, and alienation have become commonplace and, worse, increasingly normal.

Silence in education and ed research: taking off the crusader’s cape

I’m reading a book entitled “Perspectives on Silence,” an oldie-but-goodie text on the various constructions, interpretations, and meanings of silence from various disciplinary perspectives. I’m very interested in this topic as it relates to my work on how research involving asymmetries of power influence the construction of knowledge, particularly in interviewing and survey-based data collection. Explorations of this topic by Miller (2010) and others update the conversation as it relates to adult immigrants, especially those who are not first-language speakers of English. Questions include, “How does a researcher’s position of power, in terms of cultural capital and linguistic capital, social class, race/ethnicity and senses of belonging, and symbolic status as a highly educated person, influence the way information is shared?” and “How does silence express more than a speaker’s pause to gather her thoughts?”

I spoke with some of my graduate students last night — all of whom are teachers in New York public schools — asking them about how they see silence in educational contexts. The response I got from several students, all raised and schooled in China, added dimension to the insights from the text. They stated that in their country’s schools, speaking in class, especially in order to challenge a teacher’s authority on a particular topic, was considered to be a sign of disrespect. Further, such a communicative move could open the speaker up to embarrassment and shaming. My students volunteered that even in group settings without an explicit authority figure, it was often the case that silence was a tacit offer of approval to a speaker, even though the listener might ask questions or contradict the speaker in private later. Such interesting ideas, and of course it begs questions relating to cultural difference, as well as how my students, as teachers, evaluated things like fluency or considered questions of personality, which in reality are very much culturally defined (case in point: many ESL teachers will say that Japanese and Korean students are “shy,” which is a self-contradicting comment…if they are all shy, then none of them are shy.)

These thoughts bring me back to my upcoming research, in which I work with adult immigrants who are “low-status” in terms of educational background, social class, language ability, race/ethnicity, gender, (dis)ability, and/or many other reasons, and how my participants could be silent in their interviews or their talk in focus groups. Perhaps I could even silence them in the ways I collect information, through question design and even the ways our socially-based power relationship plays out in a micro environment like a conversation in English. Such questions relate to the concept of interactional dynamics and speak to epistemological inconsistencies in research. Papers by Dodson and Schmalzbauer (2005) and Miller (2011) explore these topics and will shape my work as I move forward toward into the dissertation phase of my PhD. The real preoccupation is the political commitment to what lies beneath the work: to understanding that even the greatest of social crusaders can write over the stories of her participants through unequal power dynamics and assumptions about research participants who are poor, speak and think differently, and have different abilities and literacies than she does.

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Source: http://comicvine.gamespot.com/images/1300-4347966

Immersion and the bilingual “every-child-USA” narrative

Students who are first-language speakers of a language other than English are, in America, categorized as English Language Learners, or ELLs, and our country’s history of working with these learners has been complicated and politically fraught. Oftentimes, references to federal decisions such the landmark Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols in 1974 or state-level legislation such as California’s Proposition 227 in 1998 come into the conversation as markers of the pendulum that swings between conservative and progressive viewpoints. The former view tends to advocate for an assimilation-minded view favoring transitioning students into the mainstream classroom as quickly as possible, in which ELLs’ home language is seen as a barrier to academic, social, and economic opportunity (and, in earlier times, a form of deviance deserving of shaming and punishment). The latter, in contrast, asserts that ELLs’ home language is a cultural resource and a dimension of their identities which must be incorporated as a necessary dimension of equitable and ethical education.

Sometimes, through all of these important and lofty ideas, the actual local experience of a learner can get lost. We in academia argue passionately about what Paulo Freire would say, how Gloria Anzaldúa expressed this struggle to self-identify as a linguistic being in the face of intersecting, possessing forces, what Ofelia García argues is the politically committed way of thinking about the education of linguistically non-dominant learners…yet the imagination can get bound up with constructs and move away from lived experience.

I found a short movie today that brings this lived experience, different for every learner, into focus for overthinkers in the ivory tower. The movie, called “Immersion,” tells the story of Moises, a young Spanish-speaking boy who struggles to navigate education in an English-only classroom, in modest yet potent tones. The 12-odd minutes are worth the reconnection to the complex and fragile,”every-child-USA” narrative told through his eyes. (For more information on the movie and how to get involved, check out the website at http://www.immersionfilm.com/.)

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Pro-immigrant activism in Boston

Yesterday morning I went with organizers from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (https://www.miracoalition.org/) to the State House in Boston to advocate for the support of amendments to the state budget which protect immigrants’ access to housing, in-state tuition, education, and health care. We spoke with representatives and their aides and interns about this complicated but yet very human process of passing laws. Inspiring to think about how shaking hands, seeing people face to face (if not eye to eye), can still influence change. We are all civically connected!

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I’m also attaching the a link to the documents which listed the talking points we brought with us to speak with the representatives. MIRA made it accessible and real for everyone involved. A great model to follow in considering how to participate in the health and protection of our community in partnership with our elected leaders!

MIRA opposes Public Housing Discrimination 1
Please co-sponsor these amendments_&_opposed amendements for action

The eye in the sky and “low-status” domestic workers

Not long ago, I watched a PBS Frontline video called “Rape on the Night Shift,” an expose delving into the abuse of and violence, often by their own supervisors, against female immigrants who work as janitors for poor wages in buildings that I would wager the majority of Americans have frequented for one reason or another. One of the reasons for the lack of oversight and protection of these women is due to the fact that they are invisible, so to speak, in terms of labor rights, or else cannot pursue recourse. Many of them are undocumented and/or lack the literacies and language use needed to advocate for themselves, things which most of us born as citizens and into English-speaking worlds have more access to.

How is it possible that we can allow such things to take place? It’s hard to fathom that we don’t feel compunction when we hear of such events, and I imagine that since Frontline added this to the queue, it has an audience. Still, there is a seemingly long distance between one’s couch and the ballot box or the street, where political action takes place…but where does this distance come from? I connect this to two points: the first, one of geopolitically-/economically-derived guilt, which inadvertently commits the middle-class White American to an uneasy avoidance, and the second, the straight-up social (and even geographic) distance we have from such lived experiences.

In my sociology class this semester entitled Immigration in an Era of Globalization, our class read a book called Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, which charted the experiences of Mexican and Central American women who work as nannies and housecleaners for wealthy White and Latino families in Los Angeles. These workers are not referred to as such, according to the text, by many employers, who prefer to call them “the babysitter” or “the help” because class guilt makes more direct (and perhaps honest) references distasteful. This doesn’t just happen in LA; I know people who use such indirect ways of speaking about physical laborers who come to their houses, almost as an aside when talking about what’s happening with their day. “We need to be out of the house when the cleaners come,” they say, “because we don’t want to be here when they’re here.”

The Eye in the Sky allusion in the title of this post brings in my second thought, which is one more of the lack of global consciousness (if such a thing exists) of those of us in positions of wealth and power in the world relative to those who have less. I saw a movie tonight with the same title, which brought much of this home to me. Eye in the Sky deals with the complex philosophical terrain underneath the decision-making in questions of war, especially as it relates to questions of contingency and the value of human life held in the hand as an abstraction or a real proposition. I strongly recommend the film, especially as it brings to bear the same struggle I mention above, asking the following question: Does our ability to disarticulate ourselves from others, especially those who are dark, who are poor, who are foreign-tongued and strange-ritualed, who live far away from us geographically and/or culturally, make it easier to ignore their suffering? Clearly put: do we employ an “eye in the sky” when we train our sights on those whose lives are convenient to us only insofar as we do not see a better reason to extinguish them? Does this metaphysical distance cloak these people with an invisibility that is only vaguely and temporarily lifted (if at all, when the other risk of course is commodification, a topic which merits its own post) by Frontline or a well-crafted movie?

ca. 1910 - 1930 --- Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS
ca. 1910 – 1930 — Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

PS – Such questions are clearly philosophical but require deeper exploration using various lenses, including postcolonial and critical race theory as well as feminist theory, among many. Another good step is to avoid luxuriating in white guilt and other Western catharses.

Hesitation and dehumanization in the Syrian refugee crisis

Pope Francis, a beacon of what many from various quarters hope could be a new trend in religious leadership, today has taken three families who are refugees from the Syrian Civil War with him to the Vatican. The war, which rages on into its fifth year and finds thousands of people continuing to flee the conflict, often ending up in squalid conditions in refugee camps, under threat of renewed violence by receiving countries, or worse, has created an international dialogue about how to resolve the eternal question of how to care for our fellow human being while maintaining our own stability and security.

Or is it? I had a professor challenge me on a comment I made last year about immigration, in which I discussed the relationship between the Global North and the Global South, and how those of “us” in the former category owed a moral commitment to those in the latter. The division, as I read more, becomes clear as a discursively constructed dichotomy which, not surprisingly (considering the source, e.g., American and Western European intellectual types) positions people living in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world in the Southern Hemisphere as “lower” in value and stature while appearing to describe this distinction in political and socioeconomic terms. I’m becoming more aware of the fact that seeing someone as “lesser” in some way derives justification from one’s relative ability to dehumanize them, whose precedent precedes written history.

This quiet illumination notwithstanding, my professor’s challenge was a simple one which dredged up much confusion: “So are you saying we should just get rid of borders and have everyone move anywhere they want?” I hesitated, and, being a grad student, came up with a deft though ultimately noncommittal hedge: “Well, we’d need to build a lot more infrastructure and consider the economic and political, not to mention social, changes that such a decision would imply.”

Where does this hesitation come from? Certainly it is true that I am not an international relations specialist, or a political leader of any sort. I can plead a certain amount of ignorance about the matter. Still, I wonder how much “hesitation” is staying the hands of those who have, indeed, studied and been trained in the resolution of border-complicating questions like mass migrations due to war or natural disaster. And why is it that Pope Francis can respond with such a bold and non-bureaucratic act? Is this simply symbolic, meant to inspire and change minds, or is it substantive as a commentary on the inaction, the discursive reduction of the thousands of refugees being held in detention camps to animals in cages both by their treatment on the borders of Macedonia, Turkey, and other countries as well as by the international prattle?

Great reporting is offered by PBS Newshour, as it includes the voices of many participants rather than simply creating images for shock and consumption that are bandied around on Facebook and then forgotten like the most recent episode of GoT. It seems, too, particularly important to think about where we get our information from and how the truth is distilled from so many versions of the story. Our historical capacity to forget how to think critically — let alone engage ethically — is one against which we must struggle.

Immigration and the question of assimilation

When I was in in masters program at UMass Boston, the word assimilation came up occasionally in conversations about how immigrants adapt — or not — to their new cultural, social, and political environments. The old model of assimilation (defined here on Wikipedia) gets a bad rep, in part because it implies that (1) immigrants who come to a new country will invariably acclimate to their new surroundings in a unidirectional fashion, and (2) the receiving society by definition provides the cultural target that guides the process of adaptation. Newer visions, including one I’ve been exploring in a class at the GC with Richard Alba and Nancy Foner, discusses the relationship between individual, interpersonal, collective, and institutional dynamics as ecological conditions in which immigrants and residents in a receiving society interact and influence each other. I’m curious to learn more about some of the following:

(1) How does the political economic climate of any given time shift both public discourse as well as intellectual movements relating to how immigrants are perceived, received, and conceptualized (and, accordingly, humanized or dehumanized)? For example, the challenge to the old assimilation model came, not surprisingly, in the 1960s, when civil rights questions sat right in the middle of civic consciousness.
(2) How does academia overlook the structural barriers that exist to marginalize immigrants in the form of gatekeepers (teachers, employers, local representatives, etc.) and the ways in which their prejudices can unconsciously/consciously structure the outcomes of immigrants’ experiences of assimilation?
(3) How is the acceptance of new valid cultural ways of being — anything from the relatively new attractiveness of people of varied and uncertain cultural backgrounds (the Benetton ads of the 1990s come to mind) to the popularity of Trevor Noah — relate in part to processes of commodification under the heading of capitalism and its creation of consumer culture in the U.S.?
United Colors of Benetton
(4) What about racism, then? I’m not sure it’s gone. Rather, it seems to fade or flourish depending upon the political economic climate in which people live. At a geopolitical moment of economic uncertainty, fear, and anger, I think people are persuaded by arguments that our stability is further threatened by foreign-language-speaking Brown people, some of whom (according to two of 2016’s presidential candidates, see here and here) may be rapists or terrorists. How do the fluctuations in political economy and public discourse influence processes of assimilation and cultural experience of immigrants who come to this country? How does this change the conversation about topics like equality, access, and inclusion, as well as safety, security, and integrity?
To add a final real-life touch to these thoughts, I’m including a sign I saw on the NYC subway yesterday. It’s a campaign to poke fun at stereotypes about Muslims. I get it. But it makes me angry that it’s assumed that I’m a racist, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe. And it’s even more insulting to think that Muslims should have to apologize or explain themselves, even in encoded “jk” form.
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Undocumented immigrants and schooling: a class discussion

I’m teaching a grad course on Bilingualism and tonight we discussed the important but under-explored issues related to working with students who are undocumented/unprotected. Students in my class come from all backgrounds, some of which include being children of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and some have even been undocumented at some point in their own lives. Rather than parse the complex and deeply emotional and personal space our class created once again as we worked together on topics drawn from a paper by Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, Teranishi and Suárez-Orozco entitled Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status, I’ll share what I posted, humbled and deeply grateful, to my students tonight after class.

Hi everyone,

Transculturation: a new culture of signs, new signs of culture

Cultural transformation and the movement of immigrants into, among, within, and across cultural repertoires is an idiom, un modismo, which requires a shift in thinking. Those of us whose realities are nested, in earlier contexts if not the current one, in mainstream thinking, being, and knowing must challenge our assumptions about what is truewhat is valid, and, in fact, what is, period. Ofelia García refers to Fernando Ortiz’s conceptualization of this disruption to cultural standards in Theorizing and Enacting Translanguaging for Social Justice as a process of transculturación, which she says “dissolves solid differences while creating new realities. We are not in the presence of a synthesis or even of a hybrid mixture. Rather, we are in a space that creates a new reality because not one part of the equation is seen as static or dominant, but rather operates within a dynamic network of cultural transformations.” While García’s discussion refers to the dynamic potential of translanguaging, a framework for theoretical and pedagogical change that prioritizes the voice of minoritzed language speakers in majority classrooms, the possibilities can be extended to many other spheres and intersects with different cultural practices. The “trans” mode of thinking serves to provide new ways of perceiving the education of immigrants; as people who have cultural ways of being and knowing that are pluripotential, iterative, dynamic, fluid, and anti-categorical (compared to American stock categories of race, ethnicity, ability, and even language use), they are different learners from those born and raised here. It could be argued, even, that disruption is less an act of political change and more of an uncovering, a challenging of fixed categories that perhaps never really describe any of us except to confer power to those who name, separate, and fix us into receiving postures.

Where else do we see transculturación, translanguaging, transculturing, and disruptions of meaning in spontaneous and heretofore unseen fashion? Many places, but one of my favorites is hip-hop as a dance form. I’m no expert, just enjoy watching the videos online. But considering how a hip-hop dancer becomes a spontaneous user of a cultural idiolectic by observing some traditions, dashing others, and creating new ones, there is a lot to be said for the new culture of signs, and new signs of culture, that occur in every dance. One of my recent favorites: Missy Elliott – WTF (Where They From) @_TriciaMiranda Choreography – Filmed by @TimMilgram I recommend watching all the way through, and again.