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Debating immigration laws

Sociologist’s research shows how framing the issue affects policy

By Cheryl Walker ('88) Office of Communications and External Relations
Sociologist Hana Brown talks about immigration and welfare policy research with junior Le 'Ron Byrd in Carswell Hall.
Sociologist Hana Brown talks about immigration and welfare policy research with junior Le 'Ron Byrd in Carswell Hall.

As Congress considers comprehensive immigration reform this spring, new research by assistant professor of sociology Hana Brown shows the language used in the immigration debates can be as important as the legislation and can have long-term effects on other policies.

“Most of our attention is going to be on the laws up for debate,” Brown says.  “My study suggests that we should also pay close attention to the language political leaders use to justify those policies, in particular which groups they say are deserving and undeserving of different rights.”

Brown’s research and her classes bridge the space between politics and sociology.

Her new study, published in the April issue of The American Sociological Review, shows that in Arizona and California during the 1990s, the tenor of earlier immigration debates directly affected welfare reform battles later. “If lawmakers talk about immigration as a racial issue and argue that Hispanics are undeserving, this divisive rhetoric can easily translate into restrictive welfare policies.  On the other hand, if they discuss immigration as an issue of legal status and praise legal immigrants, that language unifies rather than divides diverse groups.  It can spur the development of powerful coalitions that can continue to affect policymaking even after immigration debates have ended.”

Le ’Ron Byrd, a junior sociology and philosophy major from Alaska, took Brown’s introduction to sociology course and then signed up for her political sociology course. He is now working as a research assistant on her next project:  looking at why some states—Alabama and Georgia—have passed restrictive anti-immigrant laws in recent years while others — North Carolina and Mississippi — have not.

“Dr. Brown knew I had an interest in making a difference in communities and in racial issues in the United States,” Byrd said. As part of his work with Brown, he attended a professional conference, The Southeast Summit: Forging a New Consensus on Immigrants and gained insight into the role immigrants and immigration play in the regional economy and how problems in the immigration system affect communities.

Several other students are also working with Brown on her research related to immigration issues and welfare programs.  Dianne Uwayo, a sophomore sociology major from Rwanda, is reviewing Congressional hearings on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and the food stamp program and examining potential patterns in legislative arguments for and against the programs.

“I think there is this assumption that once the debates are over, our immigration discussions are done,” said Brown, who will continue exploring how the way arguments are framed, in legal or racial terms, affects support for other policies. “The language that we use now is going to be a resource that people can draw on even after this current legislative debate winds down.”

Byrd admires Brown as a scholar and as a teacher and said Brown’s passion for teaching each student makes her distinctive. “After my third week in her class, I was sure I was her favorite student just by how she reached out to me through e-mail and our discussions during office hours,” he said. “However, I learned very soon after that this was how she interacted with every student.”

With plans for a career in family law, Byrd also credits Brown for encouraging him to become a public engagement fellow at Wake Forest and a Guardian Ad Litem (child advocate) volunteer in Winston-Salem.

More information

For an insider’s look at class discussions, take a look at the “Political Sociology” class blog »

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