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SPSSI Policy News RSS Feed - April 13, 2010

By Jutta Tobias

An Investigation of Policy Discourse as it Relates to Immigration Research

Following my earlier call for SPSSI expertise on immigration research, and my communications with SPSSI immigration experts, I would like to make available to a wider audience at SPSSI my recent analysis of the public policy discourse in Washington, D.C., related to new research themes of interest to immigration researchers. This is timely, as the U.S. immigration policy debate is heating up again, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announcing this past Monday, April 12, 2010, that he plans to move swiftly to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) by summer.
Using a Grounded Theory approach, I conducted a meta-inquiry of the landscape of the federal policy debate relating to immigration reform, alongside an exchange with SPSSI members who are expert scholars on research relating to immigration. My motivation in this was influenced by three factors; one, to educate U.S. policy-makers about SPSSI’s policy-relevant scientific expertise, and two, to feed back to interested SPSSI members what new research may be helpful to inform sound policy. This motivation emerged after my first few conversations with immigration policy makers, as it seemed that new and additional research avenues may be worthwhile research topics for SPSSI members, and sought-after by policy-makers in Washington. Finally, I would like to offer my services as broker of new research partnerships between SPSSI scholars and immigration groups. Due to my physical presence in Washington, D.C., I am able to act as a ‘middle-person’ between our scholarly expertise and the current policy ‘pulse’ related to the immigration debate, in the hopes to assist both SPSSI’s immigration researchers and immigration policy-makers alike.
As suggested by Glaser (1978), I started this discovery process with a minimum of predetermined ideas, open to the discovery of new knowledge. Through semi-structured interviews with a selection of national immigration advocacy groups and relevant Congressional offices, I conducted an assessment of the landscape of the federal policy debate in Washington, D.C., specifically related to the underlying social science of this important issue.
Below is a summary of my analysis of the current policy ‘pulse’ specifically related to additional research themes of importance to the immigration debate. I discovered the following themes, or questions that immigration policy agenda-setters grapple with:
1) National immigration advocacy groups, as well as Congressional offices working on immigration reform initiatives, seem interested in more scientific data of current U.S. immigration apprehension & detention policies on the psychosocial effects on immigrant families and host communities;
2) What is the effect of different immigration groups on economic outcomes and social cohesion in communities;
3) How do particular message frames shape immigration attitudes among the general public; and 4) How experiences of other countries can inform US immigration policy.
RE 1: National immigration advocacy groups, as well as Congressional offices working on immigration reform initiatives, indicate that there is a dearth of (and hence urgent need for) scientific data on the psychosocial effects on immigrant families and host communities of current US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), in particular:
  • ICE raids, apprehensions, and detention policies and the outcomes of this for the families of undocumented immigrants.
  • The experiences and consequences of mixed-status families (i.e. with children who are US citizens), e.g. parental deportation, family separation.
  • Recent border reinforcements and its effect on security and social cohesion.
  • Unaccompanied children crossing the border into the US.
  • The effect of Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), permitting state and local law enforcement agencies to perform immigration law enforcement functions.
I have to date been unsuccessful in identifying any existing or ongoing SPSSI research in the above areas, and would be grateful to find out more. If little existing research exists, I would gladly facilitate access to immigrant families for SPSSI researchers, through collaborations with groups or charities that have previously hosted researchers or helped identify and broker contact with mixed-status families in a safe environment. I could also facilitate research collaborations with federal immigration policy institutes if this were of interest.
RE 2: When discussing social psychological research with immigration policy agenda-setters, they seek scientific evidence on the actual consequences of different types of immigration groups on the outcomes of host communities as well as mixed communities. This applies both to the economic well-being of all people dwelling in these communities, as well as to the social capital in these communities. Scientific data that may answer the following salient questions in the public discourse seems particularly relevant:
  • How might different immigration groups (positively or negatively) affect the economic security of host citizens?
  • What is the actual effect of immigrants on social cohesion in communities, and why?
  • To what extent do immigrant groups use public money and social services (health, education) differentially from host communities? What is the effect on host communities?
I have found some research evidence for this but would be grateful to be pointed towards further resources, or scholars who are engaged in this line of research.
RE 3: Concerning research on message framing concerning immigration, this research is very much sought-after by policy-makers. Agenda-setters are interested in communication techniques that have been shown to reduce prejudice towards immigrants, and that have the potential to change people’s attitudes towards immigration.
During my fact-find mission, I have already shared some the research on this topic with Congressional offices and advocacy groups, in particular the expertise of Vicki Esses, Felicia Pratto, Anthony Lemieux, Walter Stephan, Henry Danso, and their colleagues, and was told that such research is very much in demand in Washington DC. Please let me know about additional research in this area, and if you might be interested in being involved in partnering with Washington-based immigration groups for your future research efforts.
RE 4: SPSSI is an international membership association, and as such, a host of relevant research on immigration can be brought to bear on the current US immigration policy debate, as I have found when reading through the initial responses to my email request. One of the ideas we have discussed in the wake of this is to produce a white paper, and perhaps additional resources, on international research related to the above questions, and how this research may inform US immigration policy.
In conclusion, I hope that this report assists SPSSI researchers to develop new theories and to conduct immigration research that reflects the Grounded Theory principle of understanding and appreciating data collection in its relevance to the ecology and meaning-making of the ‘beneficiaries’ of immigration research for their work.
Again, if you would like to contribute or point me towards additional relevant resources, please contact me. Please also forward this email to any researcher who you think might also be interested in this effort.
With best wishes,
Jutta Tobias, Ph.D., James Marshall Public Policy Fellow, SPSSI, Ph. (202) 675-6956, email

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