What’s Missing in the U.S. Immigration Debate?

Dawn McCarty

Nov 7, 11 •

What’s Missing in the U.S. Immigration Debate?

Dawn McCarty
Lamar University, U.S.A.

I intend to do a series of depth interviews in San Miguel de Allende of family members who have lost contact with partners, husbands, or fathers who have migrated from Mexico to the U.S. for work. The purpose of the project is to add to the current U.S. immigration debate a missing component: the experiences of family members left behind. In addition, the study will attempt to add a different slant to the research method itself by using the methods of emancipatory research.

Dangers of the Traditional Research Paradigm

Standard social science research tries to understand and explain economic, social and political phenomenon by using the traditional hierarchical system of researcher as expert. The others who participate in the endeavor are often referred to as “subjects,” but “objects” would be a more accurate term, since they are not actors, but rather merely things acted upon. The researcher decides what needs to be known and how to go about obtaining knowledge. The participant, with no real say in the matter, becomes alienated from the process (Oliver, 1997). The relationship between researcher and subject, far from empowering, can become another tool that supports the status quo, a replication of the oppressor and oppressed relationship (Freire & Ramos, 1970).

The traditional research paradigm has proven itself effective in gathering and interpreting data. However it provides limited opportunity for the participants to transform their own realities and to participate in the creation of a new world. In the face of globalization, where a few have power over the many, the need for a process that does not further dehumanize participants is pressing. The danger of dehumanization and further disenfranchisement is particularly acute when researchers from privileged nations attempt to study the “third world poor.” To change the research process into one that is meaningful for marginalized groups, a new research methodology must be found, one that can function as a catalyst for structural change (Boog, 2003).

Researchers in helping professions such as social work have recognized the alienating character of traditional research methods and have turned to advocacy-based research to address the power imbalance between researcher, participant and society and to promote social change as an outcome of the research process (Gilbert, 1997). However advocacy alone does not work to empower actual participants of the research process. Researchers may be advocates for the subjects, but they are still the actors and those being advocated for are still “subjects.” The information gained from advocacy-based studies is still under the control of the researchers; it is their responsibility to make sure the outcome is beneficial. The subjects of the research really have no responsibility at all.

Emancipatory Research

In emancipatory research, on the other hand, participants are more than a means to an end; they are co-designers and co-facilitators of the entire research process. More of a paradigm than an actual method, emancipatory research provides an opportunity to use research in a radically different way (Lather, 1986; Oliver, 1997). Grounded in feminist theory, emancipatory research acknowledges that power in all forms (including the power of research) is inherently political and therefore never neutral. Lather (1986) writes in support of a new research paradigm, that, “Theory adequate to the task of changing the world must be open-minded, nondogmatic, informing, and grounded in the circumstances of everyday life” (Lather, 1986, p. 262).

Emancipatory research is based on fundamental assumptions that most traditional researchers in the helping professions would agree with, such as the importance of power sharing, mutual gain and empowerment. However the actual application of these principles in the research process means a purposeful change in the social relations of all participants (Oliver, 1997;Zarb, 1992). Power sharing and mutual gain mean that the researcher does not own the means to develop knowledge; the process becomes a cooperative experience between researcher and subject in a way that supports a mutual participant-researcher gain from the outcome. Participants decide if or what they want to know, and how the information will be used. This shift allows the process of research to be used to fully support the empowerment process in such a way that can transform the critical balance of power in societies (Brueggemann, 2006). Used specially with marginalized populations, the process can be revolutionary (Ngai, 2002).

The formation and implementation of the emancipatory research paradigm grew out of disillusionment with the effectiveness of traditional research methods to understand the lived experiences and needs of people with disabilities (Oliver, 1997). Faced with a research situation in which the non-disabled researchers controlled the process and made all the decisions, the “subjects” of the research felt oppressed, not empowered. With the best of intentions, the researchers were, from the point of view of the other research participants, adding to their problems, not solving them. From its beginnings in disability studies, the emancipatory paradigm has spread to other fields of study including child health (Irwin, 2006), mental health (Snelling, 2005), education (Smith, 2004;Roth, 1994), peace studies (Fuller, 1992), and even in one case, European migration research (Black, 2003).

The emancipatory research paradigm has been so attractive and exciting to researches on the political left that some critics argue that the approach as been taken too far. Indeed, to the extent that some enthusiasts insist that emancipatory research is the only valid research methodology for disability research, it may undermining other valuable work; the proponents may be excluding other voices just as they feel that they have been excluded (Danieli & Woodhams, 2005). Other critics have suggested that the paradigm sounds good but is too idealistic for practical use, since the real controllers of the directions of research are neither the researchers nor the participants, but rather the funding sources. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine sending off a grant proposal with the section on research design stating that “to be determined later by a democratic process involving all participants.” But even though political realities must be considered, the emancipatory paradigm can be approximated and used as a direction for the process (Oliver, 1997). The mere possibility that research can be conducted in a way that increases participant involvement and creates a spark to ignite change is an exciting proposition. Just as another world for marginalized individuals and nations is possible, another paradigm for looking at the research process is possible.

The Immigration Debate- What is Being Left Out?

In the current U.S. immigration debate, many voices are heard, with one significant exception; there is virtually no attempt to analyze the issues of U.S. immigration policy and practices from the perspective of those family members left behind. Recent demonstrations throughout the U.S. have shown that the immigrants themselves are not voiceless. Protesters are organized, asserting their voices and influencing the direction of the U.S. debate. On the other side, the anti-immigrant crowd has their say through their monopoly of cable news and talk radio. We hear the voices of the undocumented in the U.S. and their U.S supporters on one hand and Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs on the other, but who speaks for the wives and children forced by macroeconomic and political policies in which they have no voice to live without their husbands and fathers?

The Literature on Global Immigration

What is available in the literature on global immigration can be organized into three areas: 1) macroeconomic factors and their impacts of migration and immigration, 2) social changes due to immigration and emigration on individuals, family/gender roles, community and society, and finally, 3) how both the macro and micro issues impact the family members left behind.

From a macroeconomic perspective, remittances, as they flow across borders emphasize shared economic ties. The amount of money earned in the U.S. and sent back to Mexico and Central America continues to grow, from more than in 14 billion dollars per year in 2002 (Suro, 2003) to over 20 billion today. In Mexico, remittances are the third leading source of revenue, behind only oil and tourism.

The very system involved sending the remittances raises important justice issues. Most attendees of this conference will transfer money from their home county to themselves here in Mexico by using an ATM machine, a quick and convenient process that carries a very low fee. Two- thirds of the of remittances from migrants in the U.S. to Mexico, however, are sent through non-bank companies, such as Western Union and MoneyGram, at comparatively exorbitant fees, since many migrants are prevented by regulations or policies from using inexpensive bank transfers.

How remittance money is utilized in the receiving county is also an area of research focus (Newland, 2003;Durand, Kandel, Parrado, & Massey, 1996). Are remittances economic development opportunities for poor countries, building blocks for family economic growth and stability, or simply part of the consumer market designed to meet short-range and emergency needs? These issues are important to understand as we determine the economic impacts of immigration.

The social implications and factors that drive U.S.-Mexico immigration (Kanaiaupuni, 2000;Massey & Expinosa, 1997), and the social and cultural changes that occur at the individual, family and social level as a result (Massey, 1995) are also important research areas. Immigration from Mexico changes the fabric of culture for the U.S. For Mexico, the reverse is also an issue. With migration heavily focused in a relatively small area of central-western states including Guanajuato, Jalisco and Michoacan, the cultural impacts on those communities are significant (Durand, Massey, & Zenteno, 2001). Exploring the causes and conditions that contribute to these patterns is an important area of study.

Literature on Those Left Behind

Previous research on families left behind when breadwinners emigrate bring the economic and cultural impacts of immigration to the micro level of individual human experience. Representing the experiences of many cultures and countries, the research ranges from simple qualitative analyses of changes in income for families left behind (Semyonov & Gorodzeisky, 2004) to examining and identifying changes in the status of women, relaxed gender role expectation, and increased opportunities to gain social power when males are absent due to emigration (Brink, 1991;Hadi, 2001;Kadioglu, 1994;Khaled, 1995;Louhichi, 1997). Some researchers have focused on the negative psychological and social experiences of left-behind family members for specific populations such as the elderly and the aged (Geest, Mul, & Vermeulen, 2004;(Miltiades, 2002), and for larger-scale analyses of overall well being measured on multiple variables (Hadi, 1999). In a comprehensive study of transnational families in the Philippines, Parrenas (2004) explores how gender expectations work to define and determine experiences and outcomes of those left behind. Following the families of woman as well as men who migrate, she analyzes the alienation and struggles of children, spouses and extended family as globalization-driven migration creates conflict at all levels by forcing a break-down of gender role expectations.

The Proposed Project in San Miguel de Allende

The studies mentioned above tell us very important thing that we need to know. How the economic system works, how families change, their struggles, the complex and new social arrangements and systems that develop are important to understand. In addition, many of the studies have contributed to empowerment by the very act of listening, by allowing participants to share experiences and talk about important matters like family and community, the effects on children, and changes in family structure. Yet they fall short of the emancipatory goals of participant empowerment by replicating the researcher-as-expert model. There is no focus on empowerment or on what the participants can do to bring about a new experience for themselves.

The study of the families left behind in San Miguel that I will be working on for the rest of this year will be qualitative, relying on depth interviews of mothers and children who have lost contact with their husbands, partners and fathers after they emigrated to find work in the U.S. I will rely on a snowball sample, allowing the participants to suggest other participants. But beyond that, the specifics of the research design will be emerge on the fly through a democratic process involving, to the extent possible, the input of all concerned. I am excited about the possibilities of this approach to researching a very important topic.

But for some reason, I didn’t get a grant.


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