Crossing America’s Borders, Mixing Cultures

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The United States still shines as a beacon to millions of citizens of other countries, many of whom continue to make their way to its borders. Currently the nation is experiencing the largest wave of immigration in its history: 12.4 percent of U.S. residents are immigrants; each year 1 million immigrants arrive legally and 300,000 to 500,000 arrive illegally.

After coming to America, however, how do these new arrivals integrate into the economic, social and political fabric of their new country? To determine their integration into the Dallas area, Dedman College faculty members from several different fields are conducting research supported by a three-year, $445,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Political scientist Jim Hollifield, anthropologist Caroline Brettell and historian Dennis Cordell are interpreting data they gathered from interviews with first-generation immigrants in the Vietnamese, Asian-Indian, Salvadorian, Nigerian and Mexican communities.

Researchers gathered information on their occupations, income, education and language skills. They also wanted to know if they participate politically, have become citizens and how active they are in their churches, community organizations and civic institutions.

“We tried to include every dimension of the community, from the bottom end of the labor market to the top end,” says Hollifield, the Arnold Professor of International Political Economy and director of the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies in Dedman College. “Dallas is growing because of immigration and has become a multicultural city.”

These immigrants to Dallas cherish the right to vote and participate in civic affairs in the United States but still feel close ties to their homelands, says Caroline Brettell, professor of anthropology and interim dean of Dedman College. “They don’t see a conflict between politically belonging to America while continuing to speak their own languages and observe their own cultural traditions.”

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Brettell is a co-investigator on another project on Asian immigrants and participatory citizenship funded by the Russell Sage Foundation. Brettell was one of the first to explore the role of women in migration and is the author of numerous journal articles and books on immigration issues. Migration Theory, Talking Across Disciplines (Routledge, 2000), edited by both Brettell and Hollifield, is the standard text in the field. They are preparing a second edition.

Hollifield writes about the inherent conflicts in a free society that arise from immigration. The movement of peoples brings both benefits and risks to democracies, he says. “There is a great pressure legally, politically and from a security standpoint to make sure you have some control over your borders.”

He is the author and editor of numerous books, including the most recent, The Emerging Migration State. In addition to Migration Theory, he co-authored Pathways to Democracy with SMU Political Science Professor Cal Jillson.

SMU’s Clements Center for Southwest Studies also is facilitating research on immigration to the United States. Deborah Kang accepted a postdoctoral fellowship with the center because she wanted to broaden her research and perspectives for a book she is writing on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The fellowship enables her to combine her interests and expertise in legal, political and immigration history, says Kang, who earned an M.A. in jurisprudence and social policy and a Ph.D. in U.S. history at the University of California-Berkeley.

An added bonus, she says, has been the presence of Hollifield and Cordell, as well as other faculty members with expertise in immigration issues in the Departments of History, Political Science and Anthropology. “As a result of their insights, I’ve discovered ways to transform what was a more narrow focus about a federal agency into a broader story about the border. The fellowship also has given me time to think about and develop the implications of my research for immigration debates taking place at the national level and in Dallas.”

— Susan White

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