Caroline Brettell, University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at SMU and Chair of Southern Methodist University's Anthropology Department, discusses gender roles in migration. She also reports on the contribution that civic associations make to the integration of immigrants into American life.
Caroline Brettell is the University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at SMU, where she previously served as President of the Faculty Senate and as a member of Southern Methodist University’s Board of Trustees. A native of Canada who became a U.S. citizen in 1993, Brettell has spent her career researching and writing about immigration and identity issues in Europe, Canada, and the United States. She particularly has explored the role gender plays in immigration decisions. As part of her role as a member of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which she is a member, she recently authored a paper on the political and civic engagement of immigrants.
Brettell, the Chair of SMU’s Anthropology Department, drew upon her extensive work on immigration issues during this conversation with Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager for the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute. She explains how gender roles affect migration patterns, how the technological revolution impacts immigrants, and the contribution that civic associations and community projects make to the integration of immigrants into the life of their new country.
You’ve examined the role that gender plays in migration across the world. To what extent do gender roles prohibit women from migrating to another country? And how do those roles come into play once a woman has migrated into a new country?
Gender permeates the issue of immigration. This goes back over a century in ways that we don’t fully realize. Even in our family reunification policy, there are gender biases. As we think about revamping immigration policies, we should think about those biases and how they impact particular individuals, male or female. We also need to think about gender as a driver of economic migration.
In terms of gender roles in sending societies, migration streams can be male dominated, balanced, or female dominated, depending upon different countries. Sometimes, those differences relate to the labor market needs of the country of immigration.
In other ways, they’re affected by what’s going on in the sending society. In Sub-Saharan Africa, and certainly in the Middle East, it’s not very common for women to migrate because of gender roles that constrain their freedom and activities. What it means to be a male or female shape the opportunities.
As we think about revamping immigration policies, we should think about those biases and how they impact particular individuals, male or female.
In the receiving society, all kinds of things can happen. In general, there’s a move toward domestic equality. But in others, especially in mixed-status families, where you might have a husband who’s legal and a wife who’s been brought illegally, that status difference will impact the gender roles within a family. Very often, it’s the woman who’s in a dependent position, not legalized and hence vulnerable.
Yet, there are also cases of more companionate marriages and more equal decision-making that emerge in the immigration context. In some situations now, women often will have jobs and men will follow them. That’s true of, say, Indian nurses who come to America and their husbands might follow.
One interesting article I have read focuses on Somalians in the Minnesota area, where the men experience a sense of emasculation because it is their wives who interface with the welfare system and hence have access to resources that they do not. More broadly, I am interested in the interface between local or state governments and immigrant families, where resources are coming from, and whether that creates imbalances that upset the gender ideologies that the family members have carried with them. This may create problems within immigrant families.
Another dimension in terms of the sending country, which is true in some Mexican families today, is that if a male has immigrated and the wife and children are left behind, responsibilities fall on the wife to take over the agricultural work, management of the household, and the interface between the household and the local government. That changes gender dynamics. Years ago, I documented the same thing within Portuguese families where, as in the title of one of my books, men migrated and women waited in their home villages.
You’ve also examined the connection between the technological revolution and immigration. How has the technology boom of the last few decades affected immigration patterns? And what effect has that had on major American technology hubs?
I am not an expert on hubs of technology, but technology has impacted particular migration streams.
The importance of this connection first hit me when I was going for an interview with an Indian family in the DFW area. As I walked into the household, where I was scheduled to interview the male of the household, I heard a voice coming from the living room. There was his wife, sitting in front of her computer having a conversation with her mother back in India. It blew my mind. This was in the early 2000s, when nobody could imagine Zoom. That moment attuned me to the impact of the internet on the entire migration process.
Technology works in a lot of ways. For one thing, people are very well-informed about where they’re going. I had interviewees tell me they did a lot of internet research on where they were headed. And, as an observer, I noticed how cell phones were used during the Syrian migration to pass information from one group ahead to another further behind on the path toward Germany. They were navigating their way using the GPS on their phones, warning people who were behind them about what was in front of them.
The IT and health sectors are big draws for people from India and other parts of Asia. We should remember that only about 3.5% of the world’s population is mobile, but IT has made it possible for a lot of people who never leave their countries to progress within their own environment. IT provides a way to succeed without having to be mobile.
The last thing I would say goes back to the example of the woman sitting in her living room. Technology has made it so much easier for people to live in two worlds. They can keep a foot back in their sending society as they are incorporating and integrating themselves into the country they immigrated to, including the United States.
And what is the impact of social media and other forms of communication, including ethnic language newspapers, on immigration? How do they become a way for immigrants to engage with each other in their new lives, but also to engage and integrate into American life?
Social media obviously creates new kinds of community, and community is important to any immigrant population. Old forms of media, like ethnic newspapers and radio stations, are still going strong in some immigrant communities to link people together and to get news from back home and from their own environments.
Whether old-fashioned media or social media, these are sources of education that you can use to inform yourself. And social media gets information out fast to immigrant communities, although I think people in general rely too much on social media rather than going to a source itself for information.
Technology has made it so much easier for people to live in two worlds. They can keep a foot back in their sending society as they are incorporating and integrating themselves into the country they immigrated to, including the United States.
Also, in many of the immigrant and ethnic organizations in which I have worked, their websites help organize people, particularly the children of immigrants. It is an important tool for political and civic mobilization.
So, technology is powerful in terms of integration. It gives everybody access to the communities they may want to find and participate in.
You wrote a paper for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the civic and political engagement of immigrants. What strategies work well in encouraging engagement in the larger American society?
I’m particularly interested in the role of voluntary associations as a stepping-stone to further integration. Some people will think it is isolating if immigrants are just in their own church or clubs. But these organizations are real springboards.
I learned from a book I wrote on civic engagement with my colleague Deborah Reed-Danahay that many people learn civic skills in organizations that we think of as “communities of practice.” You pick up lobbying skills and networking skills that you can use when you eventually have to move outside into the broader public sphere.
I see these associations as a ladder. Somebody would start with their religious institution, which are really important pathways into the larger community. You might start in your Hindu temple, then get involved in a regional organization like the Indian Association of North Texas, and then the Asian Chamber of Commerce, and then maybe the Dallas Regional Chamber. This involves a process of increasing civic engagement as people move from the peripheries of their communities of practice to being in the center of those communities in the civic arena.
Some people will think it is isolating if immigrants are just in their own church or clubs. But these organizations are real springboards.
This kind of laddered step, moving outward from an immediate comfort zone, is like moving from creating “bonding social capital” among immigrants to “bridging social capital” with the larger community. And politicians who see the political clout, particularly of the well-resourced Asian community but equally true of Latinos, reach out to people on their own turf and make the effort to create a bridge.
Another step is mobilization. The marches in the Latino community to protest legislation around 2005 and 2006 got people engaged. They learned what is possible through collective action. You start with a local issue and learn how to interface with the people who have the power to get things done. Then, you constantly scale up.
When I was working on this paper, I also became enamored with the potential for libraries as spaces for fostering participation and engagement. They are interesting civic spaces because they are recognizable, safe spaces in small and large communities. All kinds of activities could bring people in there. I think libraries have to reform themselves in some ways as community centers.
On the topic of naturalization, which pertains to your concerns about democratic stability, we should naturalize as many people as we can. If we don’t, we leave people outside of the civic sphere. To me, naturalizing people and making voting processes simpler and more accessible are ways to strengthen our democracy. We should be working on ways to bring people into the community of citizens.
On the topic of naturalization, which pertains to your concerns about democratic stability, we should naturalize as many people as we can. If we don’t, we leave people outside of the civic sphere.
And this speaks to what goes on in schools. There are immigrant kids of all backgrounds in our public schools. Some are children of immigrants who are now coming to adulthood. Some are even children of children of immigrants. They are a powerhouse population. Getting them engaged will benefit our democracy.
Going back to the community projects and civic associations you mentioned, how do you make sure that the particularity of those organizations does not deter integration into the larger society?
The way to do it is for non-immigrant associations to make an effort to link up with immigrant associations in joint projects. And equally, leaders of an ethnic association can reach out. That is building “bridging social capital,” which involves moving out of the safe space and toward central spaces.
There are other ways to get organizations involved in something larger than themselves. For example, a lot of charitable activity exists. The DFW Hindu Temple distributes turkeys to the general population at Thanksgiving. Or they partner with other agencies, like the Union Gospel Mission. Certainly, some volunteer associations are founded to deal with something back home, but we shouldn’t assume that people are isolated in these organizations.
How we create bridges and unity is part of the larger national conversation we’re having. We have to start talking across our differences and some of those are cultural, religious, and ethnic. But you’ve got to start somewhere. I think that if people are starting from a familiar space with others whom they have immediate shared interests, and then move outward, that ballasts people in trying to build bridges.
I want to bring us back to something you said at the top of the discussion. You are an anthropologist who compares different societies in different countries. So, how would you contrast the assimilation of immigrants here in the United States to that of other Western democracies?
I’m not so sure that anybody is doing this well. I used to think that Canada, which is my birth country, was doing pretty well with multiculturalism, but I’m not so sure anymore. There are still differences beneath it, although a study by Irene Bloemraad, a political sociologist who compared Portuguese and Vietnamese groups in Canada with those in the Boston area, found that the groups in Canada, under its push for integration, were much more successful. I’m not so sure that the United States has ever had an integration policy.
Even our refugee policy, which gives you only a little bit of language training, and leaves you on your own after three months, is wanting. Nobody can learn a second language in three months. There could be more enduring ways to integrate refugees successfully. What I’ve been talking about in terms of bridging organizations might be part of a better integration plan.
I give lectures from time to time in the community and I always get asked: Why can’t they assimilate? Why can’t they speak the language? I always start with, “If you had gone into the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1900, you would have heard 70 different languages in that community. But guess what? The children of those people or the grandchildren of those people are perfectly well assimilated into this country.“
We tend to be obsessed with the first generation, but the second generation is really the sign of assimilation. And assimilation doesn’t mean that you can’t retain your native language. It’s a benefit. I was brought up in a bilingual environment in Quebec. It’s a benefit to have two languages, if not more in this global world.
There are immigrant kids of all backgrounds in our public schools. Some are children of immigrants who are now coming to adulthood. Some are even children of children of immigrants. They are a powerhouse population. Getting them engaged will benefit our democracy.
With regard to other countries, certainly France has its issues. It has a very large Muslim population, and a policy which leaves religion out of the conversation. So, Muslims were ignored for a very long time. France also has ignored its racism, denying that it exists in that context.
A lot of Europe may not be doing as well as we are, even though that’s hard to say in terms of the second generation. We all have to come to terms with these issues and give everybody a fair shake to participate.
My faith is in the second generation. And what we do in our schools with that generation is really important.