November 06, 2008

Faculty member to discuss immigration research

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Immigration research conducted locally last year contributed to the development of the League of Women Voters’ national stance on the issue and points to new directions for social work education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Assistant Professor Dona J. Reese will talk about that research at noon Thursday, Nov. 13, in Room 219 of Wham Education Building on the SIUC campus as part of the College of Education and Human Services’ free brown bag lecture series. Those attending may bring their lunches; the dean’s office will provide light refreshments.

Reese, whose research interests focus on intercultural relationships, joined Carbondale’s League of Women Voters in 2007 when the national body was in the midst of gathering information to aid in developing its position on immigration. The data it sought included particulars on the reasons people immigrate, input on federal policy and attitudes about immigration. To Reese, that spelled “participatory action” research project.

“It’s participatory because the people you are focusing on help design the study, and the results support social action,” Reese explained.

Reese took a two-pronged approach, concentrating on local Hispanic immigrants to get a feel for why they came to this country and on University students to look more closely at their knowledge of and attitudes toward immigration. Her research team included Hispanic participants, local social workers, University professors, League members and community leaders.

They began with the immigrants, holding a panel discussion on immigration in general and then breaking into focus groups.

“The things that came out in the focus groups were very, very moving,” Reese said.

These immigrants came to the United States not just to make money but because, as was true of previous waves of immigrants, they felt drawn to America’s ideals: That people are created equal, that they have a right to fair treatment, that hard work will be rewarded.

“They said to us, ‘We come here by choice, and now we are fighting for America (in Iraq). Our soldiers are overseas giving their lives for liberty. Why do people hate us?’” Reese said.

While work does serve as a huge draw, Reese noted the jobs immigrants generally take are those no one else wants. And although they do send money back to family members in their home countries, they also spend their wages here, assisting the U.S. economy. In addition, even those without papers pay taxes, though they can’t collect refunds or tax-supported benefits.

Changes people in the focus groups would like to see in terms of how they’re treated include being allowed to work, receiving fair wages and having wider access to visas, driver’s licenses and services. They asked for tolerance for those unable to learn English and spoke out against deportations that needlessly disrupt families.

“The suggestions made by the participants were practical, realistic and fair,” Reese said. “They wanted us to take their views to someone who could make a difference (in immigration policy). We’re still working on strategies for doing that.”

(Learn more about the position the national League took on immigration this year at

To assess attitudes, Reese and her team created a questionnaire designed to determine whether demographics, racist or ethnocentric attitudes, financial insecurity or belief in cultural myths -- America is being overrun with immigrants, immigrants are taking Americans’ jobs, immigrants are often terrorists, for example -- could predict respondents’ support for harsher policies related to immigrants.

They distributed the questionnaire to more than 100 students from SIUC’s School of Social Work, its law school and the curriculum and instruction department.

“The departments that participated are educating professionals that will practice with immigrants,” she said.

“There is literature that indicates new professionals are not well educated about migrants so their clients aren’t getting proper services -- they’re not being helped. If the professionals also have racist attitudes, they won’t be able to work with immigrants. It’s our responsibility as educators to provide correct information to our students and to help them think about their values regarding immigration so they will be better able to work in this area.”

The sample size was small, and participants were not randomly selected, which led Reese to caution against broad generalizations. Still, she noted, participants demonstrated a wide range of attitudes, with some at either extreme and the bulk somewhere in the middle -- the classic bell curve.

Gender, age, race, country of origin, marital status and political stance did not predict policy preference, the team found; education and religious preference did. Students who had fewer years under their educational belts tended to favor exclusionary policies as did Protestants and Catholics, while more experienced students, Buddhists and Muslims did not.

Those with racist or ethnocentric attitudes supported stringent controls in all policies related to immigrants.

“If (the respondents) didn’t have those attitudes, they didn’t support those policies -- the pattern was highly significant,” Reese said.

Those who subscribed to economic myths, such as the effect of immigrants in depressing wages or their high numbers on welfare rolls, also tended to support exclusionary policies in terms of law enforcement, economics and human rights.

Surprisingly, those who felt anxious about their own financial circumstances supported exclusionary policies related not to economics but to law enforcement, though Reese said fewer survey questions related to financial insecurity, which may have skewed these results somewhat.

Reese presented her findings during the Council on Social Work Education’s annual meeting, held Oct. 30-Nov. 2 in Philadelphia. She hopes on this 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights to use what she’s found as a springboard for introducing more content on immigrants and immigration policy implications in coursework.

“No matter what happens, immigrants are not going away,” she said.

“We have a responsibility here if for no other reason than being humane.”