Anthropology on ImmigrationThe American Anthropological Association issued a General Statement on Immigration in 2011. This remains an important statement at our present political juncture, although it could be updated in the context of new national legislation–see the Anthropologists Studying Immigration and the Call for Blog Posts – Anthropology on Immigration.

The AAA statement takes us back to Franz Boas, himself an immigrant, and who also published some of anthropology’s most important work to shatter racial stereotyping based on measurements of immigrants:

American anthropology has a long history of scientific interest in and professional concern for immigrant populations.  For example, Franz Boas, the founding father of American anthropology, wrote and spoke extensively on erroneous beliefs, anchored in pseudoscience, that immigrants in the early twentieth century from Southern and Eastern Europe were genetically inferior.  A century of anthropological research on immigration and host society responses to immigration shows that immigration tends to be driven by economic deprivation and political persecution, that first generation immigrants are frequently stereotyped in inaccurate and demeaning ways, that scapegoating of immigrants escalates in times of economic contraction (the degree of scapegoating being roughly proportionate to the degree of economic contraction), and that anti-immigrant campaigns tend to be premised on erroneous factual claims and predictions.

Many anthropology classes discuss the importance of Boas–this is a contemporary connection to politics and anthropology on immigration.

The AAA Statement is also important in the context of Josiah Heyman’s work, Finding a Moral Heart for U.S. Immigration Policy: An Anthropological Perspective which is published by the AAA and pushes us to capture the moral optimism of anthropology.

Although there is a belief in an enormous separation between “legal” immigrants and “illegal” immigrants, the experiences of most immigrants historically is tremendously complicated. Fluctuations in laws have made those distinctions quite arbitrary, as many immigrants could be on either side of the legal/illegal line with changing circumstances. The current immigration system is capricious and irrational, making the legal/illegal distinction mostly a refuge for an anti-immigrant posture.

Interestingly this is also something Josiah Heyman has written about and compiled in his edited volume States and Illegal Practices. State practice has an interest in drawing lines between the official and the unofficial, the legal and the illegal, the legitimate and the criminal–anthropology needs to draw attention to how those lines are constructed and maintained, often disguising very similar practices.

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