Immigrants and those of immigrant-origins have long been targets of nativism and hostility, be it by the leaders and supporters of the 19th century “Know-Nothing” party that denigrated Catholic immigrants to the United States, or by the majority of Swiss voters who decided, in a 2014 referendum vote, to oppose “mass migration” and use quotas to limit new migration.
The vitriol in the United States has reached new heights (or, more precisely, lows) in recent months. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has labeled Mexican migrants drug traffickers and rapists, suggested “thousands” of Arab Americans celebrated the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York and, in a truly appalling move for anyone who has studied the Holocaust or Japanese internment in North America, suggested a national registry for all Muslims in the United States. Populist, far-right political leaders in Europe, from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Marianne Le Pen in France, sing the same xenophobic chorus. On either side of the Atlantic, opinion among the public reveals divided views on admitting and integrating immigrants. Continue reading
Nearly 10 years ago, protestors numbering in the hundreds of thousands marched in the streets of American cities in support of immigrant rights. Although activists had long been working towards comprehensive immigration reform, the protests were precipitated by a series of events that had long been developing.
One of the precipitating events was the introduction of HR 4437, which would have made it a crime for any agencies, including churches and charity organizations, to aid or assist undocumented immigrants, created stricter penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers, and allocated resources to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Although it failed in the Senate, HR 4437 paved the way for anti-immigrant legislation making it a crime to be undocumented. Continue reading
Immigrants and refugees are best viewed as a powerful source of mobilization and collective action in both civic engagement (solving community problems) and social movements (challenging a dominant group). They should not be viewed as passive groups that need to be taught by natives how to “act up.” I base this conclusion primarily on my research on the 60,000 Hmong Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul, an ethnic community initially formed by refugees from the spillover of the Vietnam War into Laos (Hein and Vang 2015; Hein 2014), and a close reading of Vang (2011). For conceptual clarity, immigrants refers to international migrants who move to join family members or find jobs, while refugees flee from violence (see Hein  for a more complex discussion of the similarities and differences between immigrants and refugees). Continue reading
Since the late twentieth century, the debate on transnationalism and assimilation has animated the field of migration studies. Empirical studies of first-generation Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Vietnamese in the United States, among others, show that the politics of migrants are homeward looking and that the shift in modes of incorporation does not necessarily accompany a shift in concerns (Itzigsohn and Villacrés 2008; Ong and Meyer 2008; Smith 2006). On the other hand, the children of migrants may consider transnational political membership through the acquisition of dual nationality, but this may eventually fade away over subsequent generations (Bauböck 2003). Although participation in homeland politics is the exception rather than the rule, even among the migrant cohort, competing evidence has encouraged social scientists to develop theories that elaborate on the interactive relationship between transnationalism and assimilation and thus move the discourse from dichotomies to synergy (see Levitt 2001; Waldinger 2015). Continue reading
These are the worst and best of times for today’s immigrant rights movement. On the one hand, leading immigrant rights organizations have failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform after 10 years of campaigning. Instead, the Obama administration rolled out and perfected one of the most efficient deportation regimes in American history (Secure Communities), which resulted in the record removal of approximately 403,000 undocumented immigrants per year during 2009-2013¹. On the other hand, we have witnessed the passage of smaller, piecemeal reforms by the Obama administration (DACA, DAPA²), states (e.g. Trust Act, drivers license, healthcare for undocumented immigrants, in-state university tuition), and cities (e.g. sanctuary city). This patchwork of small measures is not a permanent fix, but it can potentially provide relief, support, and some normalcy for millions of people. It slowly degrades the legal and political foundations of the immigration state while inspiring thousands of undocumented people to come out of the shadows and engage directly in the political sphere.
Well-resourced and politically well-connected national advocates have failed to push immigration reform through federal legislative channels, but poorer and politically marginalized activists and advocates have shown great ability to push for smaller piecemeal measures through niche political openings. This presents an interesting puzzle: we would expect better-resourced and connected organizations to dominate a social movement network and get close to achieving its principal goals. Instead, a relatively fluid network of marginalized activists has captured the momentum. Radicalized students (DREAMers) and day laborers have formed the core of this dispersed network. How is it that the margins of the movement (rather than national leadership) have done a better job in moving immigration reform forward? Continue reading
The activism of migrants who lack citizenship rights poses a real challenge for social movement studies, which often assume the legal status of its primary research subjects. Even for migrants that have full citizenship, substantial obstacles to effective mobilization prevail related to factors such as race, discrimination, poverty, religion, language and cultural capital. On top of these factors, non-citizens like the undocumented, who constitute substantial ‘shadow populations’ in many Western democracies, face the daunting task of having to fend for basic rights in a society wherein they are deemed legally ineligible and/or morally unworthy to claim such rights. This exclusion from basic citizenship rights not only bars them from traditional forms of political representation, but also severely limits their access to material and immaterial resources as well as the networks wherein these resources circulate. Political opportunities for these populations are scarce to say the least, thereby simultaneously constraining the potential resonance of their claims for inclusion. Mainstream ‘frames’ on undocumented immigrants tend to systematically criminalize, dehumanize and stigmatize them as a group by portraying them as lawbreakers, threats to social security, disintegrators of value systems and unwanted competitors on the lower tiers of the job market. Living a life ‘in the shadows’ and in fear of deportation moreover installs emotional and mental barriers to public engagement at the level of undocumented immigrants’ consciousness. All in all, it is thus fair to say that the undocumented are fairly unlikely candidates for activism according to what standard social movement theories would have us believe. Continue reading
The US is a nation of immigrants. It is the number one immigrant destination in the world, with a foreign-born population comprising 41 million persons, 61% of whom have entered since 2000 (Zong and Batalova 2015), and a record of extending refugee status to three million persons since 1975 (Inkpen and Igielnik 2014). Because of these numbers, many pundits and observers contend that the US population has traditionally held a highly favorable view of immigrants. Accordingly, recent expressions of hostility towards immigrants and refugees by wide swaths of the American public and the embrace of an anti-immigrant platform by one of the country’s two major political parties is seen as evidence of a fundamental transformation in American attitudes towards migration. Continue reading