Anthropology on Immigration

@AmericanAnthro insists protection of #DACADreamers be re-instituted indefinitely & without exception.Click To Tweet
Update February 2018: Strong statement on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) from the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The AAA “insists that protection of the ‘DREAMers’ be reinstituted indefinitely and without exception.” The AAA further writes that “let there be no mistaking DACA for comprehensive immigration reform.” The themes in the statement echo the post below:

Anthropological scholarship sheds light on many of the issues central to comprehensive immigration reform, and our association welcomes the chance to share our members’ expertise. However, given (1) the urgent timelines that specifically relate to DACA and (2) the core ethic of our discipline that says all people matter, what is of critical importance right now is the protection of people who, when they ”came out of the shadows,” were promised safety and the chance to contribute to society by gainfully employing their skills and interests. DACA has been a genuine success, allowing its recipients, who came to the US as children accompanying their parents, to become teachers, doctors, nurses, managers, and serving other productive roles in society.

And, in an encouraging move, a revamped Members’ Programmatic Advisory and Advocacy Committee will be prioritizing DACA and sexual harassment for 2018.

Immigration: Rethinking Policy & Creating Community

The February 2018 actions build on what the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued in its 2011 General Statement on Immigration. This 2011 statement endures as a testimony to a need for rethinking immigration policy.

The statement remains important as it underlies policy on immigration issues. Issuing this statement is one of the reasons the AAA was able to quickly respond in January 2017 and call for an Immediate Reversal of Executive Order Banning Immigrants. In September 2017, the AAA declared Phasing Out DACA is a Grave Injustice. And in February 2018, the AAA “insists that protection of the ‘DREAMers’ be reinstituted indefinitely and without exception.”

Anthropology, Immigration, Franz Boas

The AAA policy and statements take us back to one of the founding fathers of US Anthropology: Franz Boas. Boas was an immigrant, and 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.

American anthropology has a long history of scientific interest in and professional concern for immigrant populations.Click To Tweet
Many Introduction to Anthropology classes discuss the importance of Boas. There is a clear contemporary connection to politics and anthropology on immigration.

The AAA policy statements are 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. Heyman’s “moral heart” pushes us to capture the moral optimism of anthropology. Also check out the 2017 edited volume The U.S.-Mexico Transborder Region: Cultural Dynamics and Historical Interactions

People have always migrated

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.

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 socially constructed and maintained, often disguising very similar practices.

Updates on Immigration & Anthropology

  • January 2018: Desolation on the Border by Kevin Pyle is “an illustrated response to an anthropologist’s urgent, vividly drawn inquiry into the havoc wreaked on human life by America’s immigration policy.” Pyle’s review is in response to Jason De León’s book Land of Open Graves.
  • September 2017: The Hidden Costs Of Mass Deportation by Beth Baker in Anthropology News:

    At a community level, the economic and social costs are clearly far more profound than current policy or scholarship recognizes. Seventy percent of the deportees surveyed paid income taxes before deportation. In addition to a shrinking tax base, local communities lose the income these people provided to their households.

Seventy percent of the deportees surveyed paid income taxes before deportation (Baker 2017, Hidden Costs of Mass Deportation)Click To Tweet

Related Resources on Anthropology & Immigration


To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Immigration: The American Anthropological Association General Statement.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology-on-immigration-the-aaa-general-statement/. First posted 9 September 2011. Revised 2 February 2018.


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