A Conversation with Irene Bloemraad

Irene Bloemraad
July 1, 2016

Irene Bloemraad is Professor of Sociology and the Thomas Garden Barnes Chair of Canadian Studies. She is also a Senior Fellow with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and served as a member of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences committee reporting on the integration of immigrants into American society. Bloemraad is an IGS Affiliated Faculty member. Her research interests include immigration, political sociology, race and ethnicity, social movements and nationalism. Here, she discusses her research and forthcoming work.  

What are some of the larger themes and questions that inform your work?

Most of my work is interested in the challenge of reconciling diversity and democracy. In democratic countries, we prize the idea that we have government by and for the people, and people should have a say in how decisions are made. But at the same time we know that a majority may make a decision that may impact a minority. Who is a member of our political society, what kind of voice do we give immigrants, what kind of actions should we take on their behalf and where do we draw these lines? What kind of obligations do you have to people who have just moved to or don’t live in your country?

You were recently one of over a dozen scholars convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to pull together a report entitled The Integration of Immigrants into American Society. Can you discuss your role in that project?

One of the main reasons I was invited to join the panel was my work on immigrant political integration, which is understudied in academia. Among sociologists, the focus has been on social and economic integration. Do immigrants learn English? How do their kids do in educational institutions? Sociologists have been quiet on political integration. In political science, the long standing concern has been minority politics. Because that focuses on broad racial categories, other aspects of the immigrant experience are overlooked a little bit. The presumption is that racial minorities are citizens and can vote. The reality is there are those who are non-citizens and don’t have access to the franchise. I was invited to the panel due to my expertise related to naturalization and citizenship.

What were some of the most interesting findings from the report, or from your work more broadly?

One of the things that I am always struck by is that the U.S. has a very strong narrative as a country of immigrant integration and looks proudly on its history and culture of integrating immigrants. When asked, 80-90% of immigrants want to become U.S. citizens. But if you actually look at the numbers, barely half of immigrants have actually become citizens. Excluding those with limited legal status, only 60% of people who are eligible have gotten citizenship. I think this is a failure of public policy and civil society: the numbers are quite low.

The U.S. lags far behind Canada and Australia in the percentage of immigrants who have become citizens. Cost figures into it but it’s not just a simple case of cost vs. benefits. In my research, I argue that path to Canadian citizenship is part of a larger public policy issue, which includes symbolic and community support and a language of multiculturalism and inclusion. Immigrants in Canada feel like they should become citizens and are given assistance to do so, through community organizations for example. Until recently, Congress didn’t give money to help with integration or citizenship efforts in the U.S. In general, there is a positive rhetoric towards naturalization here, but it isn’t backed up with support to assist that.

Generally, what are some of the challenges you face, data related or otherwise? How does that influence your research methodology?

It is very hard to get administrative data from USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), especially around naturalization. You can see in the report that the Academy asked repeatedly for information, which was not provided. Among academic data collection efforts – national election surveys or the federal Current Population Surveys – the questions used to identify immigrants or the children of immigrants tend to be poor or nonexistent.  

A lot of my research is mixed methods – I am a firm believer in data triangulation. Statistics can give you important information. But it’s very hard to show the mechanisms that go behind statistics. What’s going on in people’s brains? For example, immigrants in Canada have become citizens much more quickly. When you ask people “Why do you want to become a citizen?” you get instrumental reasons or an emotional response – but that doesn’t actually tell you the process by which they become a citizen. When you interview people they can walk you through that process. In asking procedural questions I saw in the Canadian case that immigrants can move quite quickly from the idea to the acquisition of citizenship. In the U.S. you can see the lag time from idea to acquisition wasn’t because immigrants were opposed, it was because there were obstacles to the process.

What do you enjoy the most about the work that you do?

I really enjoy the interface between research and teaching on one side and public knowledge transfer on the other side. My research is on immigration, and one of the very exciting things about being faculty at UC Berkeley is that 2/3 of our undergrads are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Students are living this experience – I can share my knowledge and research. I can also check in with them and see if I am out of touch: whether it’s students with H1B visa parents, undocumented students, refugee students. I get great satisfaction engaging research and teaching in such a tight manner.

One of the things I appreciated, that came with the privilege of serving on the National Academy of Sciences panel, was the broad reach of the report and the ability to get information out to the public about crime and immigrants. Recently, for example, I was up in Sacramento giving a briefing; it was exciting to share this research with those in the senate and legislature. I’ll also be doing a webinar for the California Department of Education.

Can you speak a little about your forthcoming work?

While I am on sabbatical in Europe I hope to finish writing up results from a project, partially supported by IGS, around the political socialization of mixed status families living here in the Bay Area. In political science there is a long tradition of thinking about young people becoming politically active based on what their parents did. Interestingly, in the case of immigrants – especially those non-citizens coming from non-democratic regimes – how can kids learn from parents? Is it possible that kids are teaching their parents what they learn in school? Do they encourage their parents to vote and become citizens? Going to Europe will be particularly interesting because of the refugee crisis. I am also thinking of a new project related to human rights claims, public benefits and immigration. This paper is based on an IGS poll from a few years ago where Kim Voss and I asked different survey questions to registered California voters to see what kind of framing shapes thinking on immigrant rights.

Can you speak about your role at IGS and how you are part of the IGS community?

I came to Berkeley as an assistant professor straight out to graduate school and now I am a full professor; I have gone through the whole academic ladder at Berkeley. IGS was very important in supporting me as a young scholar, helping me apply for grants to do my next projects. The Race, Ethnicity and Immigration Colloquium has also been a wonderful opportunity to meet colleagues across campus, and when I led the Colloquium for two years, I was able to invite scholars in to talk. As I mentioned, thanks to recent IGS surveys of California registered voters, we were able to ask questions that lead to the publication of a paper, co-authored by Fabiana Silvia, a graduate student in Sociology, and my faculty colleague Kim Voss. I really appreciate how IGS supports graduate students, including the Synar fellowship, which a number of my students were fortunate to win.