Scaling The Ivory Tower

October 18, 2011

In my previous post, I described two presentations by post-graduate students invited to (New) Debates On Belonging, a workshop by the CUNY Graduate Center-seen above-devoted to exploring original research into the subjects of illegal immigration and the lives of illegal aliens within the United States. There were three other presentations that day, beginning with a discussion of the legal status and health of immigrants by Julia Gelatt of the Department of Sociology at Princeton University. 

 Ms. Gelatt’s research focused on immigrant-headed households in Los Angeles, as well as families led by parents who are illegal aliens. She divided her subjects into three distinct groups: legal immigrants, those families with mixed citizenship, i.e. where one family member was illegal while others were legal, and “undocumented,” which I will hereafter refer to as illegal. This research was grounded in the Los Angeles Family Neighborhood Study, which was a bilingual study undertaken from 2001-2002 and in 2005. She began with a clinical recitation of the numbers, e.g. 5.3 million children who have parents that are illegal aliens, 1 million children themselves who are not legal, the decline, from 1.5 to 1 million, in the number of illegal children,  and the one-third of Latinos who allegedly know someone who was deported from the country.

She then proceeded to describe how she believes assimilation theory plays into the health outcomes of these individuals. This theory purports to demonstrate a link between a parent’s immigration status and the well being of his or her child. She cited a previous study by Hirokazu Yoshikawa that found lower cognitive skills among children of illegal aliens, which is an observation that she hopes to extrapolate to other areas of  child development such as “externalizing” and behavioral problems among the children of illegals. Her focus relies upon studies of access to health insurance and medical care in Los Angeles County. She found access to the former limited among illegal aliens-who also had less access to welfare programs such as food stamps-but access to the former widespread, indicating that illegal status was not an obstacle to obtaining health care, as the many public hospitals in Los Angeles that have closed because of costs incurred treating illegal patients can attest to. 

My primary objection is to the underlying assumption of Ms. Gelatt’s presentation that it is the illegal status of these individuals that has resulted in health and behavioral problems among them and their family members, which even she undermined when she conceded that legal immigrant families also exhibited similar problems, albeit to a lesser degree. Left unaddressed is the ineluctable fact that many of these families-both legal and illegal-come from rural, undeveloped parts of Mexico and do not have the education and/or language skills necessary to adapt to life in a post-industrial, 21st century American metropolis. Although this subject is rarely touched upon in mainstream media outlets eager to portray California as a multicultural paradise, it has suffused life to such an extent that even reporters are reluctantly acknowledging the divide between traditional, American residents of California and newcomers who are both literally and figuratively aliens to the dominant culture and its mores. Although I’m certain that attributing these epidemiological problems to the immigrants themselves-rather than to what set of “documents” they do or do not have-would not endear Ms. Gelatt to her academic advisors, or to the institutions she’s seeking academic grants from, it would be a more open-minded, intellectually rigorous approach to the sociological problems she hopes to address. 

A presentation that I found much more compelling, both stylistically and substantively, was delivered by Bilesha Weeraratne, a PhD candidate in Economics at CUNY who has used a micro data-based approach to identify the population of unauthorized immigrants inside of the United States. In order to ascertain an accurate estimate of the number of illegal aliens living in the United States-and I should note that unlike all of the other speakers at this event she described them as illegal immigrants  rather than using the misleading euphemism undocumented-she used several important surveys as a frame of reference. 

One of these happened to be the Legalized Population Survey of 1989, which was a sample of over 6,000 illegal aliens who applied for legal permanent residence under the terms specified by the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986, known more widely by its shorthand, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. The chief shortcomings of using the LPS, obviously, are that it does not include statistics from non-naturalized aliens who did not meet the criteria set forth by ICRA, and overlooks the estimated 10 to 11 million illegal aliens who have entered the country since Simpson-Mazzoli was enacted into law. In order to compensate for these shortcomings, Weeraratne used another data set culled from the American Community Survey (2009), which determines the number of estimated illegal aliens by subtracting the population of legal residents from the total foreign-born population. Again, this method is not  perfect, since it does not take into account those who have left the country but are not properly tracked. Perhaps this explains why-as the speaker pointed out during her presentation-existing DHS figures mischaracterize nearly 1 in 4 legal immigrants as illegal. Even researchers who are well-immersed in the minutiae of this issue-such as the Pew Hispanic Center-often come up with imprecise numbers because of dubious assumptions, e.g. the unsubstantiated belief that the occupational structure of the illegal community remains constant, notwithstanding our incredibly dynamic economy. That’s why Bilesha Weeraratne believes that her micro data based methodology-which doesn’t rely upon static assumptions or merely one data set-is the best way of arriving at a precise figure for the number of illegal aliens living in the United States. After listenning to her incredibly well-researched presentation, it’s hard to disagree with that belief. 

The final paper of the afternoon-and by far, one of the least persuasive in my eyes-was a joint presentation by Brian Levin and Paul Lagunes, both doctoral candidates in Political Science from Yale, which was entitled “Documenting The Undocumented.” Along with Ruth Dittelman, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at the same university, they attempted to analyze the success of a New Haven program which gave illegal aliens a muncipal ID card called the Elm City Residence Card. After giving us a brief of overview of the political history behind Mayor John DeStefano’s decision to issue these ID cards-beginning with his unsuccessful run for the governorship of Connecticut-the presenters outlined the contours of their experiment, which entailed sending six males to different merchandisers in the state of Connecticut using both the Elm City ID Card and the Ameracard. The former being the “official” identity card issued as a means of documenting illegals-although, as pointed out during the presentation, it was available to legal residents-while the latter is a “fake”  card issued by a profit-seeking document mill

The point of the experiment was ostensibly to answer the question, “Are Latinos trustworthy?” In order to answer this question, the students picked both Latino and what they described as white males, all controlled for age, height, education, and other factors that might otherwise influence a retailer’s decision to discriminate-by asking for identification-against customers of Latino extraction. The findings were that the Latino subjects were 10 percent more likely to be asked for identification prior to making a transaction. The actual purchase comprised the second phase of this experiment, which was used as a barometer to compare the rates of acceptance for the “real” ID card issued by New Haven with that of the “fake” ID card. Lagunes and Levin found that the two cards were accepted at equal rates, leading them to conclude that the poor quality of the Elm City ID, and perhaps an insufficient public education campaign among local merchants, accounted for what they viewed as ignorance on the part of  those merchants. 

Leaving aside the pre-existing biases of these researchers, there are a number of problems with the both the methodology and conclusions of this study. First of all, “Latino” is a notoriously imprecise term, especially when it’s used to describe one’s race or ethnicity. The word Latino might describe the region in which one was born, or the language a person speaks, but it has no significance when it comes to finding examples of “racial profiling,” which was the intention of Lagunes and the co-authors of this paper. The fact that we couldn’t see photographs or video of the subjects they used for this experiment only further undermined their original hypothesis, in my opinion. 

Secondly, they didn’t seriously consider the possibility that the reason the Elm City Resident Card might not have been given any more credence than the Ameracard is because neither one is a truly legitimate, valid form of identification, regardless of what a city bureaucrat intent on undermining federal immigration law believes. This is illustrated by the fact that the person responsible in large measure for the New Haven card was working with the Mexican government to proliferate the notoriously fraudulent matricula consular. Although someone raised that very issue during the question and answer session that followed the final presentation, she was not given a satisfactory response. In fact, the question of this card becoming an invitation for New Haven to become a haven for breeder documents used by criminal aliens-and perhaps terrorists-which I posed was even more befuddling to Lagunes and Levin. The two had begun their presentation by asserting that there was such an overwhelming need for illegal aliens to be given “documents” in order to function in society that policies like that pursued by New Haven’s mayor were necessary. But when I asked them how New Haven could avoid becoming a beacon for illegal aliens seeking breeder documents-as is the case in states like New Mexico-they replied that the people seeking cards were living in New Haven, and that even this demand quickly dissipated. So which is it? They never seemed to resolve the contradiction.

Finally, and I found this to be supremely ironic given the context, the authors applauded the denial of a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request filed by opponents of the Elm City Resident Card that would have required the names, photographs and addresses of its recipients within New Haven. The same people agitating for a way to “document the undocumented” want to keep these poor, undocumented individuals stuck “in the shadows.” I have no doubt that if an open borders advocacy organization had filed suit to obtain similar information from a group of pro-enforcement, patriotic Arizonans opposing the recall of State Senator Russell Pearce their viewpoint on this particular “privacy” issue would have been worlds apart from the one they espoused during the Q&A session. 

 So the final part of this fascinating multi-hour workshop was disappointing. That said, I do think that the trip to Manhattan was a worthwhile endeavor, especially since it allowed me to learn more about the current state of social science research regarding the issue of immigrants living in America. To conclude, I’d have to say that while there are some very thoughtful researchers and academicians of this subject-such as the brilliant Bilesha Weeraratne-there is also much tendentious research pursued under the rubric of sociology, which was certainly on display at the CUNY Graduate Center this past week.  


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