Misguided Energies: An Analysis of the Immigration-Related Theses

By David North on November 22, 2009

CIS does all of us a service by its annual listing of Immigration-Related Theses and Dissertations, such as Matt Graham's most recent edition published earlier this month.

Each of the approximately 360 papers listed for 2008 represents from one to two year's full-time work, sometimes more, and its completion is usually the last step on the way to the writer's securing a Ph.D. In these studies could contain a treasure-chest of highly useful information and insights that could help the nation as it struggles to define its immigration policy.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The overwhelming majority of the 2008 papers were not immigration-related, at all, they were immigrant-related, discussing the challenges to and the accommodations made by specific subsets of recent migrant populations. The title of the first thesis listed by Graham, by alphabetical happenstance, is pretty typical of the lot:

"Brown Picket Fences: Patterns of giving back, ethnic identity and ethnic associations among the Mexican-origin middle class", by Jody Agius Vallejo, a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Irvine.

It is typical for several reasons: 1) it deals with a relatively small subset of the nation's migrant population, people from the Mexican middle class (the overwhelming majority of migrants from Mexico are not from the middle class); 2) it is written by a graduate student with a name that sounds as if it belongs to the studied population; 3) it is written for an educational institution located in an area heavily impacted by the studied migrants; and 4) it sounds like, from its title, that it focuses entirely on the experiences of, and the internal workings of, this subpopulation.

I have not read the thesis and it may be remarkably perceptive and a highly useful addition to the literature, but all too many of the listed papers have this or a similarly limited focus; few, if any of these scholarly efforts have paid attention to the impacts of immigration on the nation's population size, on its environment, on its labor markets, or its law enforcement issues.

That's the problem.

Some of the papers focus on really tiny subpopulations, some with cheerful overtones and others with troubled ones. My favorite light-hearted one is "A qualitative study of the language learning experience of Latin-born professional baseball players." This is hardly a study of public policy problem, as the Latin athletes who get through the immigration and baseball recruitment processes are a lucky lot, if not linguistically gifted.

Then there is: "English as a second language (ESL) students' perceptions of the ESL program at Mississippi State University" by Chun Fu Lin, who is probably struggling with a Mandarin-influenced southern accent.

Another tiny population, with a grimmer future, is described in "Factors impacting Korean-American families who are raising a child with hearing loss."

Sometimes the find mechanism on one's computer can be helpful in examining a data set. In this case I ran some words against the some 360 titles and found this: Mexico or Mexican, 34; Latin, Latino or Latina, 30; Hispanic, 14; Chinese 10; Somali, 8; Indian (from India), 7; Vietnam and Vietnamese, 5; Iranian and Armenian, 4 each; and British, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Swedish, 0 in every case.

In other words there is a heavy emphasis on current migrant populations, their current challenges and problems, and little in the way of historical analysis. There were, however, four papers that included crime in their title, but two dealt with crime in Japan and Turkey; and two dealt with trafficking, in which the immigrants were the victims.

I could find none that dealt with immigrant crime rates in the U.S., or immigrant birth rates, or with immigrants and the environment, or with immigrant-impacted labor markets, or similar policy issues.

I know from my volunteer income tax assistance work with University of Maryland graduate students that most of them belong to the working poor, often getting deeper in debt as time passes. Maybe a foundation could help steer some graduate papers in the directions of immigration-impact studies, or examinations of immigration policies or immigration-management issues. There could be up-front stipends of $2,000 or $3,000 for thesis outlines in these subject areas, and annual prizes of $5,000 or $10,000 for the best completed papers.

This might broaden the range of topics covered in the, say, 2012 edition of CIS' annual listing.