American Paradox

We embrace immigration, but often make scapegoats of immigrants, faculty say

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Students who help Adj. Asst. Prof. Daniel Kanstroom (Law) work with people seeking political asylum often think they've heard it all in the debate over US immigration. Then they listen to the clients.

"The human contact really changes their perspective," Kanstroom said. "It's one thing to label a group of people as 'illegal immigrants,' but it's quite another thing to sit across the table from a man who tearfully tells you what it means to be sent back to his country: arrest, torture, perhaps death. You realize the story is not so straightforward."

Adj. Asst. Prof. Daniel Kanstroom (Law), Asst. Prof. Kristin Butcher (Economics) and Assoc. Prof. Karen Aroian (SON). (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
Kanstroom is among a number of Boston College faculty whose teaching and research involve immigration-related issues, and who are concerned by what they see as an increasingly chilling environment for immigrants to the US. They note legislation recently passed or proposed curtailing social benefits and legal rights for immigrants - both legal and illegal - and sharply negative views voiced in the media and public on immigration.

While such controversies are not unique among nations, the US has long shown particular ambivalence toward immigrants, the faculty say. This wariness is evident in discussions on the economic and social impact of immigrants, they note, which often are characterized by misperceptions or incomplete information. It points up the need for a better understanding of immigrants and their experiences, faculty say, through programs such as Kanstroom's or other projects.

"We are one of the few countries to embrace immigration as part of our charter, our ideology," said Assoc. Prof. Karen Aroian (SON), who researches health-related aspects of immigration. "But immigration, and assimilation, is a very complex process, especially if you come from a vastly different culture. It involves far more than simply learning a new language; you have a new identity and a set of behaviors to go along with it. This has not been easy for Americans to grasp."

"Immigrants tend to be convenient scapegoats when a country is undergoing some form of struggle or transition," said Asst. Prof. Kristin Butcher (Economics). "Trouble is, we often don't know - or have not been able to easily discern - what their precise impact might be. But if there are negative effects, it's hard to find them in the data that's become available in recent years."

For example, Butcher says, there is no definitive empirical evidence to support the contention that immigrants take away jobs from native-born citizens or cause declines in wages. Studies also have refuted the idea that high immigration rates contribute to increases in the crime rates of major cities, she said, and have shown that, on average, immigrants are less likely to be jailed than native citizens.

Similarly, Butcher says there is no clear answer to another source of controversy, that some immigrants come to the US to take advantage of welfare benefits. On average, immigrants are more likely to use welfare than native citizens, she explains, but less so when compared in specific demographic categories such as age or level of education.

"In any case, legal immigrants constitute barely 1 percent of the population," Butcher said. "So to see eliminating their benefits as a key to, say, balancing the budget is wrong."

Dispelling misperceptions about immigrants is difficult, however, the faculty say. The apparent insularity among some immigrant groups often has sowed suspicion or mistrust in Americans, they explain, and the lack of familiarity with, or appreciation of, cultural differences raises a further obstacle. The faculty see this at work not only in their research but in their classrooms.

"I talk about Asians as the 'new poor' in the US, looking at the experiences of Vietnamese and Cambodians," said Prof. Andrew Buni (History), himself a child of immigrants. "But many students have a hard time thinking of Asians as poor, because they associate 'Asian' with Japanese or Chinese."

The unfamiliarity can have especially serious ramifications for immigrants seeking social services, Adj. Asst. Prof. Paul Kline (GSSW) points out.

"Unintentionally, the social services profession sometimes erects barriers to immigrant families," he said. "We may not know how to present our services in such a way that is sensitive to certain customs or traditions. For example, approaching an adolescent at school directly may be viewed as a disrespectful act by parents and endangers the likelihood of establishing a rapport."

Students in social work or related fields who have had such encounters usually find them a significant, albeit painful, rite of passage, Kline notes.

"It's unsettling for them and causes them to reflect on their own belief systems and values," he said. "The surrender of naiveté is often hard for us. Encountering difference is a personal and professional challenge, and coming to terms with it can cause anxiety, even fear. That's why we need to make ourselves familiar with the resources found in other disciplines, whether it's education, language arts, or health, so we can resolve these problems."

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