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Immigration policy course tackles complex questions of citizenship

Students in political science professor Jeffrey Staton’s course “Law and Politics of Immigration” are grappling with serious questions surrounding this complicated topic — one that, for many in the class, has a direct impact on their own lives. Emory Photo/Video

As U.S. immigration policy continues to be debated at the highest levels of government, students in an Emory College political science class this semester are grappling with serious analyses of the laws, practices and questions surrounding this complicated topic — one that often has direct impact on their own lives.

Political science professor Jeffrey Staton kicked off the course with an overview of U.S. immigration law and related court rulings before diving into policies that swing like a pendulum between very restrictive and very permissive. But the upper-level “Law and Politics of Immigration” course involves more than research and political modeling.

Students in the course range from those who have never left the country to the children of immigrants, as well as American citizens who have spent most of their lives abroad, and students who were brought to the United States as undocumented immigrants when they were small children.

That mix has informed classroom debates and the topics students selected for the research project required for the course.

“If you look at my class and hear their voices and accents and start guessing nationality status, you’re going to be wrong a lot,” Staton says. “We study the politics and policies, but one of the most important lessons of the class is how to have empathy. I don’t want to push any one view, but I do want them to understand how other people see their lives.”

One discussion, for instance, focused on the question of receiving citizenship by being born in the United States or by the citizenship of your parents, both of which are ways to secure American citizenship.

Staton, whose research focuses on judicial politics and Latin America, points out that citizenship by blood is more common globally. But even that raises questions, such as how far to go back into lineage to determine identity.

The point was driven home in class by two students — one who is an American citizen with a British accent, and another who has lived in the U.S. nearly all of her life, but is a French citizen who is trying, so far without success, to be naturalized.

The class debated whether the underlying policies were working as planned. But student Lucas Richard-Carvajal, a onetime Texan who has lived in London since he was five-years-old, says he appreciated the focus on facts first.

His research project for the class focuses on that very question: In an increasingly fragmented political landscape, are people who disagree with immigration policy more likely to use verifiable facts to make their case?

“I get very tired having conversations that end with my saying the words, ‘no, those are not facts,’” says Richard-Carvajal, a junior majoring in international studies. “If you’re serious about discussing something as sensitive as immigration, you have to do the research.”

The research has helped Sania Chandrani, a junior with a double major in business and international studies, think critically about the questions being posed in immigration policy. Congress, she thinks, is stuck on immigration policy because both sides have something to lose if members act.

That’s why her research is looking at voting patterns of naturalized citizens and second-generation immigrants, as compared to third-generation Americans, on the issue of immigration. It would take a push from one of those constituents for one side to insist on acting.

The issue is personal for Chandrani, who plans to become an immigration or public interest lawyer. She is a naturalized citizen, as are her parents. Her brother was born in the U.S., making him a first-generation American from the same home.

“Immigration is an academic question and a political construction,” Chandrani says. “It’s also a lived experience. I know what it’s like to wait in lines, fill out old forms, fill out new forms and wait in more lines. My brother saw that, but for him they’re just stories, not something he lived.”

Staton is proud of the connections students are making. This is the first term he has taught the course but, as he listens to students, he plans to add art and music as well as history to future courses, to emphasize how the political question of immigration connects to culture.

All of that shows how complex the seemingly simple issue is, he says. That complexity is something Reem Abdalla, a junior international studies major, appreciates.

“Immigration is not one-dimensional,” says Abdalla, who is going through the naturalization process. “So many facets influence it – industry, interest groups, politics – that you need to understand those sides as well as the emotion. Knowing how complex the immigration system is in the United States is the only way you can see what’s working and what needs to be changed.”

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