Caroline Brettell

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.

Caroline Brettell
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

> Read more from the SMU Research blog

Faculty in the News: Sept. 28, 2010

Cover of 'The Creative Process Illustrated'Caroline Brettell, Anthropology, Dedman College, talked about birthright citizenship and the current controversy over the 14th Amendment with The New York Times’ Upfront Magazine Sept. 20, 2010.

Cal Jillson, Political Science, Dedman College, discussed the politics of candidates’ tax returns and the race for Texas governor with The Houston Chronicle Sept. 26, 2010.

Glenn Griffin, Temerlin Advertising Institute, Meadows School of the Arts, offered insight into the advertising creative process on the KERA Public Radio program “Think” Sept. 22, 2010. Griffin is co-author (with the University of Oregon’s Deborah Morrison) of The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising’s Big Ideas Are Born, published in September 2010 by How. Read more and listen to the interview with Krys Boyd. audio

Faculty in the News: May 25, 2010

Cal Jillson, Political Science, Dedman College, talked about strides being made by the Tea Party and its potential impact on the Republican Party with The Toronto Star May 19, 2010. He also discussed Texans with clout in Washington, D.C., with The San Antonio Express-News May 18, 2010.

Jean Kazez, Philosophy, Dedman College, discussed her new book, Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals, with host Krys Boyd on the KERA 90.1 FM program “Think” May 19, 2010. Listen to or download the program. audio

Dwight Lee, O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom, Cox School of Business, wrote an essay on why businessmen may be more honest than preachers, politicians and professors that appeared in the Winter 2010 edition of The Independent Review.

Mel Fugate, Management and Organizations, Cox School of Business, discussed the lack of progress in efforts to control executive pay in companies blamed for helping create the recent economic crisis for an article that appeared in The Pittsburgh Post May 16, 2010.

Caroline Brettell, Anthropology, Dedman College, talked about the social, political and economic impact of Dallas-Fort Worth-area immigrants with host Krys Boyd on the KERA 90.1 FM program “Think” May 18, 2010. Listen to or download the program. audio

Mary Spector, Civil Clinic, Dedman School of Law, talked about how the accomplishments of her mother, retired Texas Supreme Court Justice Rose Spector, influenced her own law career for an article that appeared in The Texas Lawyer May 3, 2010.

Brettell, Kofele-Kale named University Distinguished Professors

Two SMU faculty members have been named University Distinguished Professors, as announced by the Office of the Provost. Caroline Brettell of the Department of Anthropology, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, and Ndiva Kofele-Kale of the Dedman School of Law were recommended by an Advisory Committee to the Provost comprised of 4 current holders of SMU endowed chairs and 2 current holders of University Distinguished Professorships.

The University Distinguished Professorships were created in 1982 by SMU’s Board of Trustees to honor outstanding faculty members who meet the highest standards of academic achievement. University Distinguished Professors are appointed in perpetuity and receive cash awards of $10,000 per year for a 5-year rolling term.

Caroline BrettellCaroline Brettell, Dedman Family Distinguished Professor in Dedman College, served as chair of the Department of Anthropology from 1994 to 2004. She also served as president of the Faculty Senate in 2001-02 and director of the Women’s Studies Program from 1989 to 1994. She was honored with the SMU Distinguished University Citizen Award in 2004. Her research interests include migration and immigration, the cross-cultural study of gender, the intersections of anthropology and history, and European ethnography. Brettell has been a member of the SMU faculty since 1988. From July 2006 to June 2008, she served as acting dean of Dedman College.

Ndiva Kofele-KaleNdiva Kofele-Kale first came to SMU in 1988 as a visiting professor from the University of Tennessee School of Law. He became a full-time faculty member in the Dedman School of Law in fall 1989 and a full professor in 1998. An expert in international dispute resolution, human rights and public international law, Kofele-Kale served from 1990-96 as associate editor of The International Lawyer, a joint publication of the American Bar Association and the Dedman School of Law. He teaches courses in public and private international law and business associations.

Honors students explore ‘The Immigrant Experience’

SMU students Pia Lara and Ashley Michelle Howe with Meredith VieiraDuring Spring Break, 15 SMU honors students visited New York, where they explored 130-year-old tenement rooms on the Lower East Side, staged an impromptu performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and traced family histories at Ellis Island.

The students toured the city as part of the Honors Cultural Formations course “The Immigrant Experience,” which has focused this term on New York as a city of immigration throughout America’s history.

“The students saw firsthand what they have been reading about in class,” says Caroline Brettell, Dedman Family Distinguished Professor of Anthropology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, who teaches the course. “They experienced the rich and layered history of the city as well as its hyper-diversity. They saw the impact immigrants have on cities – how they claim space and construct neighborhoods.”

SMU’s Richter Fellowship Program, which has supported independent research at the University since 1999, funded the class trip as a way of getting students outside the traditional curriculum. Each student who participated will complete an independent research paper.

(Above, students Pia Lara and Ashley Michelle Howe with “Today” show host Meredith Vieira on the street outside the NBC television studios.)

Read more and see a slide show from SMU News. slide show

Load More Posts