Teaching Students to Consider
Immigration with Empathy
By Miguel Vasquez, President's Distinguished
Teaching Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at
Northern Arizona University
Arizona State University
In the past few years, fierce debates about the rights
of unauthorized immigrants have raged across the nation.
The outcome of these debates will have tremendous demographic,
economic, social, cultural, and political ramifications
that will shape the country's future and the future
of higher education. My adopted state, Arizona, has
become "ground zero" in these disputes as they relate
to Mexican immigration. As Michael Crow, president of
Arizona State University, has observed in discussing
the abysmal graduation rates of Latino high school students,
Arizona and the nation at large will "face a social
revolution and economic train wreck" if policymakers,
educators, and citizens do not address immigration soon
and in a constructive way (2004).
This is, of course, easier said than done. Immigration is a highly controversial issue, and as such, it is one that we educators cannot ignore. In Peoples of the Southwest, an anthropology course I teach at Northern Arizona University (informally known as "Cowboys, Indians, Mexicans, and Mormons"), immigration is problema número uno for many students. In order to discuss the region's distinguishing cultures and backgrounds, the class must grapple with contemporary controversies, including those surrounding immigration. Students want to know about immigration and border issues as we consider Mexican and Mexican American culture from diverse perspectives.
As educators, we have a unique opportunity to help students develop the civic skills that will enable them to operate in and contribute to the modern globalized world. These skills may be the most powerful tools we can teach students to use. With this in mind, my goal in facilitating learning is simple. I want to help students see the world in new ways--through both indigenous and innovative lenses that expand their horizons beyond the often ethno-, class-, or gender-centric viewpoints they may encounter among family and friends, in their previous schooling, and in the media. I want to help them use new understandings to make practical and positive differences in the world. I ask students to see cultures, including their own, as experiments in sustainability. I encourage them to ask, "If we continue as we are (in this case, without immigration reform), what will things look like forty years from now--and what do we want them to look like?"
The Complexities of Mexican Emigration
Although recent national priorities have pushed immigration reform into the background of media coverage, the realities of immigration persist. In Arizona, Mexican immigration is particularly controversial, and I want to help my students grapple with its complexity.
that Encourage Students to Think Systemically about
Narratives can help students consider the systemic
effects of Mexican immigration through an empathetic
lens. Suggested assignments include:
- Arau, S. 2004. A day without a Mexican.
- Chavez, L. 1998. Shadowed lives: Undocumented
immigrants in American society. Fort Worth:
Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
- Gonzales, R. I am Joaquin. Film
available on youtube.com.
- Urrea, L. 1993. Across the wire: Life
and hard times on the Mexican border. New
York: Anchor Books.
Mexican emigration is not a new phenomenon; it has
been happening for centuries. But in the past fifteen
years, the rate of immigration to the United States
from rural Mexico has accelerated dramatically, even
doubling by some accounts (Pew Hispanic Center 2005).
The United States has not loosened control of the southern
border, which is more militarized than ever. But military
might cannot guard against the economic effects of initiatives
like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Originally touted by free trade proponents as a move
that would boost Mexico's economy and end immigration,
this 1994 agreement has had the opposite effect, leading
to the devastation of the rural Mexican economy. With
food prices doubling, Mexican farmers and small businesses
have been displaced, unable to compete with subsidized
American agribusiness and corporate clout.
Refugees from this economic process have few options but to leave their home communities in record numbers. Many rural towns and villages are now empty of all but the very young and very old. Adults of working age have moved to urban areas across Mexico, where rampant unemployment exists, even in the maquilladora sector, where many manufacturers have moved to China. Little growth occurs outside of the burgeoning narco-tráfico (narcotics trafficking) sector. Thus many Mexicans find themselves compelled to cross the border illegally for jobs that Americans don't want. Millions of immigrants seeking a better life cross the desert into the American Southwest. These migrants have taken the initiative to leave home, family, community, language--all that is familiar--for el norte. Having risked everything to come to the United States, they often encounter substandard wages and constant fear of the federal immigration raids that humiliate them, separate their families, and turn needed workers into criminals. Although their cheap labor helps lower American production costs and subsidizes American lifestyles, they are nonetheless demonized in the media and public discourse.
Politicians and theoreticians on the left, right, and center have focused their arguments on NAFTA's impact on North American business and labor, but many have ignored its impacts on Mexican businesses and workers. Theoretical attempts to make sense of rampant immigration identify a variety of "push" and "pull" factors that encourage undocumented people to cross the southern border: wage differentials between Mexico and the United States, a desire for cheap labor and inexpensive services on the part of U.S. employers and consumers, corrupt and callous Mexican officials dependent on the remittances Mexican immigrants send home to their families as a major source of national revenue. But few mainstream politicians and pundits express interest in NAFTA's impact on immigrants themselves or its implications for humane immigration policy. Buried in heated rhetoric, immigrants' stories are often invisible, and public debates reflect little understanding of the underlying reasons for immigration or its impacts on their lives.
Framing the Issue Systemically
On the topic of immigration, and in regard to larger issues of social justice, a cultural divide emerges--a moral division between fundamentally different world views that has Americans on both sides of the issue talking past each other. As educators, it is our role to help our students bridge this divide and consider immigration with intelligence and empathy. Our students--America's future citizens, politicians, and pundits--must learn to explore the economic and moral effects of immigration policy as they engage in the public debates.
The work of cognitive scientist George Lakoff suggests a way to approach discussion of this topic. Lakoff proposes that the basis for the cultural divide lies in the different mental frames with which humans see reality, which reflect the brain's neural functioning. Thus links between thoughts are links between neurons, and metaphors and narratives are "physically constitute[d] in the brain" (2008). Depending on one's "frame of mind," immigration can seem like a "no-brainer." For example, one might view unauthorized immigration in terms of what Lakoff calls direct causation. This approach might suggest that because undocumented people have "broken the law," they are criminals with no rights and should be deported. Alternatively, one might view immigration in terms of systemic causation, examining the issue within a broader framework. An observation made by former Arizona governor and current head of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano reflects this systemic perspective: "[W]hether we like it or not, in our three major industries in Arizona--tourism, agriculture, and construction--we are absolutely dependent on undocumented Mexican workers" (2004). In this frame, immigration is part of a complex codependent system, where native-born Americans depend on immigrants just as immigrants depend on American economic opportunities and their home communities depend on remittances immigrants send.
A systemic causation frame acknowledges that the economic and social disruption American policies cause in Mexico and other countries is not irrelevant to American concerns or an inevitable (and thus acceptable) consequence of the "free market." It takes into account the complex consequences of policies like NAFTA, including the economic exodus of displaced workers and their families (Lakoff 2008, Appadurai 1996). Instead of framing these people's lives as externalities, and them as "others" who don't really matter (unless they decide to emigrate and "take American jobs"), it recognizes the complicated realities that we must equip our students to address.
Facilitating new perspectives that enable students to see beyond the anti-immigrant rhetoric of what Lakoff refers to as "othering" requires educators to move beyond abstract theory. If, as Lakoff contends, human understanding is facilitated by a process of mental "framing"--of placing new knowledge and experiences within a larger, already-familiar context--educators can help students develop systemic cognitive frames. Narratives, including stories, anecdotes, jokes, and myths, help contextualize abstract and theoretical concepts, framing them within students' life experiences. Social theory is notoriously dry, obtuse, and difficult to digest; but everyone experiences the world, and most of us try to make sense of it. Narrative helps students frame issues in ways that make sense to their lives.
In Peoples of the Southwest, I use students' life experiences and narrative techniques to help students think systemically. We open the class sessions on immigration with a writing exercise that asks students to reflect on their experiences and draft a paragraph in response to the statement, "Immigrants are taking American jobs." I ask students not to put their names on what they have written. Students then pass the papers around until no one knows whose paper they have, and students with interesting responses read them aloud. Anonymity eliminates the intimidation students might feel in being identified with a particular belief, and the exercise provides a starting point for discussing a spectrum of viewpoints while separating issues from individuals. From there, we move to a thought experiment, applying "free market" logic to the following employment scenario:
I explain that I am a watermelon grower in Yuma, Arizona, with two hundred acres of watermelon ready to harvest in August. It's 115 degrees Fahrenheit and there is a weeklong window before the crop becomes worthless. I propose a better-than-minimum-wage pay of ten dollars an hour and ask students if they would be willing to work under these terms. When there are no takers, I raise the pay to twelve dollars an hour, then fifteen dollars an hour. It is not until the hypothetical pay approaches twenty dollars an hour that enough student "workers" raise their hands to compose a work crew adequate to complete the job. I then ask the students what they would expect to pay for one watermelon for a family Labor Day picnic. Students often respond with newfound understanding of their role in the labor economy. After identifying their participation in the system, most students are more willing to think empathetically about the conditions for immigrant workers.
Once my students have brought empathy to the discussion, the class is able to explore other previously unexamined assumptions about undocumented immigrants. As a class, we discuss the complicated set of presumptions and stereotypes that portray unauthorized immigrants as bankrupting our healthcare and education systems, increasing crime, eluding taxes, refusing to enter the United States by legal means, refusing to assimilate or learn English, or bringing diseases across the border. Most importantly, we critique the assumption that undocumented immigrants have no legal or human rights.
In my experience, many students seem to fundamentally comprehend that inequity exists in the contemporary world, and that it is wrong. But they often have not been given the tools or the time to examine questions of equity and justice in any depth. Class exercises in "framing" become a means to help students see immigration and other contemporary issues confronting their world, including diversity, globalization, climate change, and sustainability, in the systemic context of their own lives. Having made these connections, students can develop cultural sensitivity and the capacity to recognize and transcend ethnocentrism. These capacities appear in the essays they write in later sessions, as well as in the ways many become engaged in organizations, projects, and events beyond the classroom.
Historically, we as a country have only imperfectly embodied the American ideals of democracy and social justice. But our "unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" have their roots in concepts of empathy and responsibility--capacities we must teach our students. President Obama has argued that a "deficit of empathy"--a "lack of caring"--plagues the United States and ultimately endangers our democracy. Educators have a pivotal role to play in helping students eliminate this deficit with down payments on democracy's future and on America's survival.
Appadurai, A. 1996. Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Crow, M. 2004. Speech delivered at the annual meeting of the Arizona Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, Tempe, AZ. November 12.
Lakoff, G. 2008. The political mind: A cognitive scientist's guide to your brain and its politics. New York: Viking.
Napolitano, J. 2004. Speech delivered at a meeting of local Latino leaders, Flagstaff, AZ. December 12.
Pew Hispanic Center. 2005. Estimates of the size and
characteristics of the undocumented population. pewhispanic.org/files/reports/44.pdf.