Research Spotlight: Immigrants and American identity in North Texas

Who belongs in America?


EFE: “La inmigracion es una amenaza para los ciudadanos de Farmers Branch”

Immigration has sparked a raging national debate about that question – including in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, Texas, the first U.S. city to adopt an ordinance requiring renters to prove they are legal residents.

Contrary to what many believe, however, race isn’t the only driving reason that many white, middle-class people feel threatened by immigrants, according to a new analysis by Caroline Brettell, University Distinguished Professor in Anthropology, and Faith Nibbs a doctoral candidate in anthropology in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

White, middle-class people also perceive immigrants who are settling in their suburban communities as a threat to their class status and to their very identity as Americans, say the researchers. With cultures and traditions different from white suburbanites, they are viewed as an assault on long-standing symbols of American nationality – including middle-class values and tastes, and the perception that Americans are patriotic and law-abiding, they add.

“For many whites, American identity is wrapped up with being suburban and middle class, and when they see immigrants changing their communities and potentially threatening their class status, they react with anti-immigrant legislation,” Brettell says.

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Caroline Brettell
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Faith Nibbs

The anthropologists base their conclusion on a close analysis of Farmers Branch, a suburb of almost 28,000 people that made news in 2006 as the first U.S. city to adopt an ordinance requiring that apartment managers document tenants as legal residents. The researchers looked at newspaper articles and blogs, conducted a lengthy interview with a key City Council member, carried out background historical research and analyzed U.S. Census data.

The research has been accepted for publication in the journal International Migration in an article titled “Immigrant Suburban Settlement and the ‘Threat’ to Middle Class Status and Identity: The Case of Farmers Branch, Texas.”

New immigrants to the United States are settling in major gateway cities like Dallas and making their homes directly in middle-class suburbs, say Brettell and Nibbs. These suburbs – once called the “bourgeois utopia” where middle-class values triumph – are populated by white people who decades before fled the central cities to escape poor housing, deteriorating schools, and racial and ethnic diversity, the researchers say.

But when immigrants and white suburbs mix, the result can be explosive, as in the case of Farmers Branch. Whites view their hometown changing. And the changes feel very foreign to them – new religious institutions, ethnic strip-shopping malls, signs in languages other than English, and bilingual programs for education, health care and law-enforcement programs.

The historic roots of Farmers Branch lie in a land grant designed to draw “free and white” inhabitants to the area in the 1850s, say the researchers. Farmers Branch grew to 17,500 by 1970, and at that time there were 320 Hispanic surnames in the city. By 2000, however, the Hispanic population had grown to more than one-third of the total. By 2008, Hispanics were the largest demographic group, with 46.7 percent of the population.

Brettell and Nibbs say that white suburbanites have also invoked the “Rule of Law” in Farmers Branch and elsewhere.

“As the formulation of laws and their enforcement are disproportionately unavailable to ethnic minorities, and completely inaccessible to undocumented immigrants, the principle of Rule of Law has become a convenient weapon for the Farmers Branch middle class in their fight for status and the status quo,” say Brettell and Nibbs in the article. “Add to this a bit of the legacy of Texas frontier mentality and patriotism and you have a line drawn in the sand by those who stand for the Rule of Law as something absolutely fundamental to American identity and hence perceive illegal immigrants as a threat to that identity.”

In that way, the “Rule of Law” is a tool to exclude unauthorized immigrants and attempt to legislate a certain quality of life, such as English-only communication, as well as proof of citizenship to rent a dwelling, apply for food stamps or get school financial aid, say the researchers.

“Everyone is looking at race but not at class in the study of immigrants, and particularly in anti-immigrant backlash,” Brettell says. “We add to this literature the analysis of ‘Rule of Law’ as a newly rhetorical device that excludes illegal immigrants. Our article offers a new way of looking at this issue.”

Written by Margaret Allen

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About Kathleen Tibbetts

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