Vassar Stories

Cool Courses: Children of Immigration

The immigrant population in the United States is at its highest level in 80 years; nearly 1 in 12 of those living here were born somewhere else. But their swelling numbers aren’t making their transition into American society any easier. In fact, recent events – the government’s reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the downturn in the economy – are posing severe challenges for many immigrants, especially children.

Central American children sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, TX. / AP Photo/Eric Gay

That’s the theme of a Latina/o Studies course being taught this semester by assistant sociology professor Erendira Rueda entitled “Children of Immigration.”

Rueda says she opens the course by cautioning her students not to view immigrants as a single entity. “Where they come from and where they are now plays an important role in their success,” she says. “Hispanic immigrants have been coming to this country for a long time, but they face a language barrier. Jamaicans have the benefit of speaking English, but they’re black and encounter the same racism as African-Americans.”

Particularly with respect to Hispanic immigrants, where they come from and where they choose to live in the United States can make a significant difference in the level of discrimination they face. Cubans who settle in long-standing Cuban-American neighborhoods in Miami, for example, have a greater chance of achieving economic success because they have support systems, including banks run by Cuban-Americans, to help them.

Nicaraguans, who are on the whole better educated than those who come from Cuba or Mexico, are fleeing their country largely for political reasons and may have a more difficult time transferring their skills to life in the U.S. “As a result, you’ll see Nicaraguan cab drivers here who were doctors or engineers in Nicaragua,” Rueda says.

In a recent class, Rueda and her students discussed the evolution of U.S. immigration policy over the past 20 years. In most instances, Rueda says, immigration laws passed during that period, and the subsequent court decisions and policies, have made life more difficult for most immigrants. For example, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act empowers the government to deport undocumented immigrants who commit relatively minor offenses. And in some cases, that includes offenses committed before the law was enacted. “Due process has been put on hold in many cases,” Rueda notes.

This crackdown on undocumented immigrants accelerated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as the federal government ramped up its “militarization” of its borders, particularly its border with Mexico, Rueda told the students. The fear tactics used by politicians in the post 9/11 era may be aimed primarily at Muslims, but they have resulted in distrust of people from many other cultures, she says.

Hostility toward immigrants increased again in 2007 when the economic downturn triggered job losses for millions of Americans. “People became more protective of their jobs and were more likely to resent immigrants who they saw as being in competition for those jobs,” Rueda says.

The news isn’t all bad, Rueda notes. Last year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that granted some temporary protections for young immigrants. And 15 states have passed laws granting limited amnesty and access to government benefits. But the protections in the executive order as well as those in the state laws are limited and provide no long-term solution to immigration issues, she says.

All of these issues profoundly affect the children of immigrants, even those who were born here and have American citizenship, Rueda says. If their parents are deported, they face a choice of having their children stay in the U.S. or return with them to lives of poverty or political danger that prompted them to leave in the first place. If the children remain here, they face the trauma of the separation and, often, economic hardships in foster homes or in the homes of relatives.

Students taking the class say it has broadened their understanding of American immigration policy. Kelsey Karpman ’16, an education and psychology double major from Laurel, MD, says she took the course because she expects to be working with immigrants and their children when she begins her teaching career. “The topics in this course are integral for working with immigrant students,” Karpman says, “and my understanding of immigration and assimilation is now significantly more nuanced.”

Sitara Mahtani ’15, a sociology major from Westport, CT, chose the course in part because she herself is from an immigrant family. “My dad is an immigrant from India – thus I am a ‘child of immigration’ – and I thought taking this class would be an interesting way to explore how his and my experiences fit into the larger social and political context of immigration in the U.S.,” Mahtani says. “I valued learning about this particular branch of sociology because I had so little knowledge of it before and it has directly impacted my life.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Thursday, November 13, 2014