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© Frank


Immigration as Incorporation

by Irene Bloemaard
August 16, 2021

This interview with Irene Bloemraad, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Berkeley Interdisciplinary and Migration Initiative, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Irene | The Berkeley Interdisciplinary and Migration Initiative is a network of researchers and students on campus who are seeking to educate, train, and provide knowledge about migration, both in the Bay Area and globally.

My own interest in migration comes, as it does for a lot of other people, from my personal background. I was born in Europe and I migrated a number of different times before moving to the United States over 25 years ago. I have been at the University of California, Berkeley since 2003. 

frank | You write about immigration as not just about policy and border, but also about what happens once that movement has happened. Settlement both on the side of the migrant and on the side of the host country. Can you talk about the U.S. in that regard?

Sure. So in the United States, when people say immigration is a political issue or a policy issue, they almost always are thinking about border control or entry policy — who gets in as asylum seekers, who's allowed to stay as DACA recipients, or who we force out, more generally. It is really a conversation about the borders, but that's only half the story. Once people come in, they have to establish their lives. They have to get their kids into school. They have to look for work. They have to figure out how to use the healthcare system. They have to figure out how to be good neighbors. They have to learn the language. 

A lot of my research focuses on the integration and incorporation side. I have been very influenced in thinking through this, by comparing the United States to Canada. My earliest research looks at comparing people with legal, permanent residency in the two countries on whether they become citizens and why they become citizens.

I find that citizenship levels among immigrants in Canada are way higher than in the United States, even if you control people from the same country of origin and education level and human capital. 

When I was starting this work, I would go to very prominent, public figures on immigration — people in the government in Washington DC and think tanks and academics — and ask why this was the case? Why are the levels of citizenship among the immigrants in Canada so much higher than in the United States? The standard answer people would give me, was that Canada doesn't have as many undocumented immigrants as the United States, and Canada has an economic selection policy to choose its immigrants. Now, both of those things are true. Canada does have many fewer undocumented immigrants. And, obviously, it's impossible to become a citizen if you're undocumented, so that's going to depress levels of naturalization in the United States. And the second point is true, too.

Two-thirds of immigrants in the United States come in through family reunification, whereas in the Canadian case, one-half to two-thirds come in through some kind of economic selection procedure. 

The assumption again was that it was border control policy driving things like citizenship and political inclusion. However, my research showed that while border policy and immigration policy matter, it doesn't explain the entire gap. It explains about half the gap. I argued that in the Canadian case, there is much more public support for settlement and multicultural, diversity integration programs coming from the federal government, provincial governments, and sometimes from municipal governments. I focused often on the federal level. But you can go down to community-based organizations, public hospitals, and community colleges that are doing things like helping people learn English, hosting citizenship classes so that people can get naturalized, teaching programs for economic integration that help immigrants who have college degrees get their professional credentials. The U.S. has never had a federal integration policy with the exception of programs for refugees. If you're an officially resettled refugee coming in through the State Department and then getting resettled through some of the voluntary organizations, then there is some infrastructure of support. 

The communities that get this support, whether it is in Canada or in the United States among officially resettled refugees, tend to do better than those who don’t get this support. That is totally not surprising. You could imagine if you went to medical school and you take all of your classes and you get your nice little degree, and then they throw you into a hospital and tell you to go treat people, you're going to have a hard time. This is why we do things like residency programs. 

Money is a super important part of this. It is essential in running community based organizations, but it was also symbolic. I did lots of in-depth oral history interviews with immigrants, and Candian immigrants would talk about how they thought that the Canadian government cared about them, in a way that people in the United States did not. American immigrants did not have a feeling that the federal government really cared about them. They did not have the sense that they were legitimate stakeholders.

If the government is giving the Vietnamese Association of Toronto money to do English language training, for example, they feel valued and like they belong. Now, does that mean there was no discrimination? Absolutely not. People talked about discrimination and they talked about prejudice. It's not that this is a silver bullet, but it creates a sense of being wanted, and, because of that, a sense of engagement. 

By using another country as a comparison, you can really see what's missing in the U.S. If you live in the United States, you might be used to a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality because that is what immigrants have done for the last hundred years. It is taken for granted that that is normal. But by looking at Canada, at least in my case, it became clear that these settlement programs really make a difference. I think the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program is an amazing example of this. If you look at some of the most successful refugee communities, think of the Vietnamese community or the Cuban community, these are communities that have gotten a lot of support over the course of their time in the United States. And then if you think of other communities that have not gotten that level of support, because they weren't designated as official refugees, Central Americans, and Haitians, for example, it has not been quite as easy. 

This may be a silly question, but why is it so different? I mean, you listed all of the things that were different, and I can understand why they are impactful, but why are the attitudes of the governments so different?

That is a very good question.  I always point out the fact that there is support for refugee resettlement, which shows that it's not inevitable. When the U.S. wants to, we can have the political will to do this. Why were refugees helped? I mean, then you do get into politics and Cold War politics. You can't understand the U.S. refugee resettlement system and the help offered to official refugees without understanding that. Why was the door open to people from Vietnam and the Soviet Union and Cuba? Why was the door closed to people from Central America or Haiti? The answer lies in Cold War dynamics.

Now, at the same time, Americans are known to be fairly charitable and give much larger proportions of their salaries to charitable causes than many other countries. I do think there's a certain generosity in the United States, but it's certainly been politicized as to who we help. Canada has always had to work harder, at least historically, to attract immigrants because people want to come to the United States. For example, the United States was seen in the 19th century as the gold mountain where Chinese migrants wanted to come to make money during the gold rush. Canada was almost always the second choice.

The Canadian government is more interventionist. In general, Canadian politicians and the Canadian public believe more strongly in public intervention. 

The third reason is that after World War II, Canada had to reinvent its national identity. In those tensions between British Canada and French Canada, people latched onto this idea that Canada was a multicultural nation and that it was different than the United States.

It wasn't a melting pot, it was a mosaic.

It was different from the old world. It was different from Europe. It doesn't mean that there's no discrimination, there are not racial inequalities, but it's much more part of Canadian national identity to believe that we are a nation of immigrants and we are multicultural. In the United States, many believe that we're a nation of immigrants, but it's contested to a larger degree than it is currently in Canada. And it's much more of a, "We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps" narrative than it is a narrative of "We are going to help."

I would say the fourth thing is that once all those immigrants become citizens, they are voting. 20% of people in Canada are foreign-born and over 80% of the foreign-born people are citizens. If you do the math, that means that if you want to win office in Toronto or in Vancouver, you better watch what you say about immigrants. 

Can you talk about how you categorize migration in your research?

When I teach immigration, I underscore for students that there's a sociological way of understanding migration, and then there's a legal, political way of understanding migration. Both are very important.

The sociological way of understanding migration is very much about what happens when you move from one place to another. When your culture, your language, your norms are different, what does the process of feeling comfortable, learning how things work, and getting settled look like? 

On the side of law and politics, the rules that come with your visa or your status in the country have a huge impact on your ability to live your life. Whether you are a legal, permanent resident, temporary migrant, or undocumented, your status is going to impact your ability to get social benefits, your ability to go to school, especially post-secondary education, your ability to get a driver's license, to get a job, whether you're allowed to get social security once you turn 65 or 68. It impacts all areas of your life. Your legitimacy is constantly undermined. 

There are something like 45 million people who are foreign-born living in the United States, and less than half of them have become naturalized citizens. Thinking again about the politics of this, this means that over half of the foreign-born have no official voice in our electoral system. 

So about 20 to 21 million people are naturalized citizens. Another quarter, about 12 million, are legal, permanent residents. These people are allowed to stay in the United States indefinitely, as long as they don't commit a crime. This means that kids who came here when they were 10, 12, never bothered to become citizens, and have a run-in with the law in their 20's — maybe they're caught with some drugs, they're at a party that they shouldn't be at — can be deported back to their parents' homeland, even if they don't speak the language very well, and have nobody there. People used to think it was secure, and that as long as you have a green card, everything's fine. But, because of the uptick in enforcement and deportation and the narrowing of the grounds on which you can challenge deportation, all of these people are in a precarious status. 

On top of that, you have another 2 to 3 million people who are living in some kind of temporary resident status. This could be a temporary protected status for people who are from places where there's been a civil conflict or a huge natural disaster, earthquakes, or hurricanes. And then there are somewhere between 10 to 11 million people who are unauthorized or undocumented.