Hot Topics: How the Immigration Issue Plays Locally

Hot Topics: How the Immigration Issue Plays Locally

Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona recently signed into law a bill making it a state crime for undocumented aliens to be in Arizona. The new law requires Arizona law enforcement officers to demand proof of legal residency or citizenship of people they believe may be in the United States illegally. Arizona’s new law has drawn considerable criticism from immigrant rights organizations, neighboring states and cities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, and enthusiastic support from those who advocate tighter controls on immigration and more rigorous enforcement of immigration laws. Rutgers Today recently spoke about the issue with Robyn Rodriguez, an assistant professor of sociology in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences, who studies the way immigration issues play out in the politics and social structures of local communities.

Robyn Rodriguez
Rutgers Today: Arizona is a border state, so much of the debate about immigration there has to do with the state of the border. How does that discussion differ, and how it is the same, in states like New Jersey that don’t share a border with a foreign country? 

Rodriguez: New Jersey may not be a border state, but it’s a state where borders matter – especially borders between its 566 municipalities. Maintaining those borders has always been a feature of New Jersey politics. The proximity of the 9/11 attacks and the lagging economy have heightened people’s sense of security in this state. Some communities have felt the need to secure their towns’ borders against those they think threaten their security. Immigrants, especially working-class, Latino immigrants, whom people often assume are illegal, and even their U.S.-citizen children, are seen as threats. Numerous local governments have tried introducing measures to either exclude or expel immigrants.  For example, when Don Cresitello was mayor of Morristown in 2007, he announced that he was applying to the federal program which would deputize local police as immigration enforcement officers.

Rutgers Today: New Jersey has been a destination for immigrants for centuries. In your work, you talk about different “routes” that people take when they immigrate to New Jersey. What do you mean by “routes,” and how have they changed over the years? 

Rodriguez: I’m talking about imaginative routes, not geographic ones. It’s important to understand why people decide to leave their countries in the first place. Carlos Decena (assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies) and I co-teach a course in which we try to broaden that understanding. We ask our students to consider histories of inequality between countries to understand why people leave. People immigrate to find a better life, but a “better” life is not just about jobs or education. There are deeply personal things – family issues and sexual orientation, for example – that shape the decision to immigrate. Finally, people who come here don’t just cut off their ties to the countries they leave. They and their U.S.- born children often sustain their homeland ties – in part, because they feel excluded here.

Rutgers Today: You’ve written that the United States helps create the conditions for emigration by its trade and foreign policies. How? 

Rodriguez: Immigration doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Take the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA), for example. It removes impediments to the flow of goods and services, but not people. So, cheaper agricultural products from the United States make it hard for small farmers in Mexico to compete. They may be forced to leave the land and move – either to a city, or to the United States, where they might end up harvesting the products that put them out of business. Also, changes in other countries’ economic policies demanded by U.S.-dominated institutions like the World Bank have made employment precarious and led to declines in income. Finally, U.S. foreign policies that favor oppressive regimes for strategic or economic reasons create conditions that cause people to leave.

Media Contact: Ken Branson
732-932-7084, ext. 633
E-mail: kbranson@ur.rutgers.edu