Update: This post was originally written in 2013 in an attempt to bring an anthropological perspective on studying immigration to what looked like could have been a comparatively rational legislative debate about immigration policy. Since that time, there has been more anthropological insight produced, but there is slim hope of policy change. It is somewhat ironic that one of the best articles highlighting anthropology on immigration in the United States appears in the UK Guardian, What anthropologists can tell you about the US border immigration crisis by Holly Norton. In addition to some of the authors below, Norton highlights Susan J. Terrio’s Whose Child Am I?: Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children in U.S. Immigration Custody.
My most recent attempt to teach about immigration is the 2021 Neoliberalism, NAFTA, Immigration.
Studying Immigration in the US
In 2013 a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the US Senate. We then heard from political hacks masquerading as academics. We heard from ideologues masquerading as law-makers. We could have heard much more from anthropologists studying immigration. The American Anthropological Association issued a well-founded Statement on Immigration. Alisse Waterston included this post in her edited collection World on the Move: Migration Stories as her finale for Open Anthropology.
But instead of comprehensive immigration reform, we got stagnation and impasse. And in 2018 the United States has not only been unable to resolve these issues with legislation but unleashed a horror of deportation and human rights abuses.
As Michele Statz and Lauren Heidbrink put it in Migration as Clickbait (February 2018):
Anthropology has failed to effectively engage in public policy. . . . It is not enough to critique the intended and unintended consequences of public policy; our response must be to harness our experiences and the expertise of the communities with which we work to address or even bypass these consequences. This includes participating in broad national networks and training in engaged public policy and even bringing our work and anthropological understandings into direct public service.
Anthropology combines statistics and big-picture research with ethnography and detailed examination. Here are some of the many anthropologists studying immigration in the United States:
- Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is a sociocultural anthropologist with research and teaching interests in political economy, migration, globalization, race/ethnicity/class, applied anthropology, and urban ethnography. Her research with Mexican immigrant workers in Chicago has explored how these workers negotiate perceptions of their labor as they struggle to attain autonomy, security, and dignity as undocumented immigrants in the United States. Her most recent book is Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed-Status Families (2016).
Gomberg-Muñoz previously published Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network. I’ve used Labor and Legality in my Introduction to Anthropology course. It is a very accessible and short book that can be combined with many anthropology textbooks. However, as of 2018 many of the accounts regarding workplace immigration raids and enforcement will need to be updated.
Gomberg-Muñoz also wrote the 2012 Public Anthropology Year in Review: Actually, Rick, Florida Could Use a Few More Anthropologists. Gomberg-Muñoz references my Anthropology–Best Major to Change Your Life in her review article. Many thanks!
- Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a long-term study of clandestine border crossing that uses a combination of ethnographic and archaeological approaches to understand this phenomenon in a variety of geographic contexts including the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona, Northern Mexican border towns, and the southern Mexico/Guatemala border. In 2013 Jason De León was named as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. In 2015, Jason De León published this fieldwork as an award-winning book: The Land of Open Graves. De León received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2017.
- Josiah McC. Heyman has been studying border issues, immigration, and political economy for many years. He deftly navigates both theoretical and applied anthropology. He is also a very nice and incredibly generous person–he helped me through my own fieldwork, thinking, and writing. Heyman wrote a policy-oriented book published by the American Anthropological Association, Finding a Moral Heart for U.S. Immigration Policy. In 2008, Heyman revisited that book in Anthropology News, Tough Questions in the US Immigration Debate:
Since writing the book, my own work has grown more closely connected with community-based organizations and coalitions advocating for human rights in the borderlands, including writing specific legislative language for border enforcement oversight and accountability and joining regional and national lobbying efforts. (2008:11)
In 2017 Heyman presented an enormously prescient paper Why Caution is Needed Before Hiring Additional Border Patrol Agents and ICE Officers. Yep.
- Debra Lattanzi Shutika is the author of Beyond the Borderlands: Migration and Belonging in the United States and Mexico, an ethnography that explores the lives of Mexican immigrants and their American neighbors in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and the transformation of their home community in Mexico. She teaches Folklore, ethnographic writing and ethnographic research methods at George Mason University and blogs at Living Ethnography.
- Leo Chavez‘s research examines various issues related to transnational migration, including immigrant families and households, labor market participation, motivations for migration, the use of medical services, and media constructions of “immigrant” and “nation.”
Leo Chavez’s books include Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society, which provides an ethnographic account of Mexican and Central American undocumented immigrants in San Diego County, California. Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation examines representations of immigrants in the media and popular discourse in the United States through the lens of magazine covers and their related articles. His book titled The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation examines issues of anti-Latino discourse, struggles over the meaning of citizenship, and role of media spectacles in society in relation to the politics of reproduction, organ transplants, the Minuteman Project, and immigrant marches and protests.
- Ann Miles works primarily in the southern Ecuadorian highland city of Cuenca where she has explored several research projects in the nearly 20 years she has been doing fieldwork. Her first and longest project concerns documenting the changing lives of families who first came to the city as rural to urban migrants and now engage in transnational migration to the United States. Miles is the author of From Cuenca to Queens: An Anthropological Story of Transnational Migration.
- Jason Pribilsky’s research areas include medical anthropology, science studies, and the history of anthropology. He works in the Andean region of South American and the urban United States.
Pribilsky is the author of La Chulla Vida: Gender, Migration, and the Family in Andean Ecaudor and New York City.
- Arizona Desert Swallows Migrants on Riskier Paths. A New York Times article on immigration was the one instance in 2013 when I saw anthropologists figure prominently, including forensic anthropologists Bruce Anderson and Angela Soler as well as cultural anthropologist Robin Christine Reineke at the University of Arizona.
Unlike on issues of gun reform, where as Hugh Gusterson points out in Making a Killing there was not much anthropological expertise, anthropologists have been directly studying immigration for many years.
In 2013, I was surprised to not see more of the anthropologists studying immigration in the media. The only example I saw was the article on desert migrants. Some anthropologists were working more in behind-the-scenes efforts, such as Josiah McC. Heyman’s work with community organizations as well as Jane Henrici with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In 2016-2018 as the issues seemed to become increasingly public and pressing, there has been more anthropological interventions, especially with the publication of Jason De León’s book. Nevertheless, the policy-making on immigration in the United States seems to have been almost completely divorced from anthropological research and intervention.
Updates on Studying Immigration
- June 2018: See How ICE’s Bogus Science Is Violating Human Rights by Elizabeth A. DiGangi in Sapiens. Di Gangi provides a good example of how studying immigration issues can also be part of a four-field anthropological investigation while speaking out against an unethical use of scientific estimation.
- March 2018: For a well-written update on studying immigration, see Where a River of Life Became a Border of Control by Ellie Lebovits in Sapiens. Lebovits also draws on Jason De León’s work.
Teaching & Studying Immigration
This post from 2013 is part of a series on teaching Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Other posts in the series include:
- The most recent Latin America & Caribbean Anthropology 2021 which blogs through the second edition of The Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean by Harry Sanabria.
- The 2019 Teaching Latin America and the 2019 Latin America Course Outline.
- The 2016 Teaching Latin America and Caribbean Anthropology and the Student Projects.
- The very first post that launched the series, from 2012: Teaching: Latin America & Caribbean.
These posts are all cataloged in the Latin America index tag for the site, which also includes related blog-posts.
To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Studying Immigration: Anthropology’s Contribution in the US.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropologists-studying-us-immigration/https://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropologists-studying-us-immigration/. Originally posted 25 May 2013 on the Anthropology Report website, http://anthropologyreport.com/anthropologists-studying-immigration/. Revised 18 July 2018.