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“Part of ‘American-ness’ is what we’re taught – to be law-abiding citizens, to believe in the system. Unfortunately, the system wasn’t set up for everybody,”

Yalidy Matos

Defining Who Gets to Be American

How Geography, Psychology, and the Media Shape White Public Opinion

November 4th, 2015

With no foreign borders and a Latino population of less than 4 percent, Alabama would not appear to be facing an immediate immigration crisis. So why in 2011 did its governor sign into law one of the country’s most restrictive immigration bills, arguably ushering in what some are calling a Juan Crow era? The Beason-Hammon Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, or HB 56, requires, among other things, Alabama police to act as immigration agents during routine traffic stops and although repealed in court, Alabama school officials would have needed to ask children k-12 for citizenship status documents.

In a state that was the scene of many of the defining moments of the civil rights movement, political scientist Yalidy Matos sees a connection.

"Immigration needs to be looked at in a way that takes into account context and environments," says Matos, whose dissertation explored the intersection of politics with issues of race, ethnicity, and immigration. “Part of what interests me is what the socio-historical legacy of a place has to do with contemporary restrictive immigration laws."

That legacy, she says, is the notion of racialized spaces -- "having your own home with people that look like you" – that was so clearly embodied by the white flight phenomenon of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Added to that is the rhetoric surrounding those spaces -- the idea that immigrants are "coming into our neighborhoods" or "taking over." 

A second external factor, says Matos, is the media and how it frames immigration. It's not just that most frames are negative, it’s that "these frames use the language of “American-ness," distinguishing, for example, between "Americans" and "immigrants" in the same sentence, or conflating "undocumented," "criminals," and Hispanics/Latinos.

“Part of ‘American-ness’ is what we’re taught – to be law-abiding citizens, to believe in the system. Unfortunately, the system wasn’t set up for everybody,” she says.

In her dissertation Matos explored a third factor, this one internal: psychological predisposition. Measuring five of these – racial resentment, authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, moral traditionalism, and anti-egalitarianism – she found, not surprisingly, that “whites with higher racial resentment are more likely to have more restrictive immigration policy preferences.”

The novelty in Matos’s method is twofold: first, she looked at all five predispositions, instead of the usual two or three; and second, she tested to see whether geography has an effect on those predispositions. (It does.)

Matos applies this "holistic" approach to her work, exploring how all three separate but related factors are layered, how they build on each other.

It’s not just academic

Matos is both personally and professionally invested in attitudes toward immigration and immigration policy. She immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic when she was 7. As a first generation college student, she attended Connecticut College, where she studied government and gender and women’s studies, and worked closely with scholar-activist Mab Segrest, the author of Memoir of a Race Traitor, among many others.

“[Mab] pushed me academically and personally to be more than I even thought I could be myself,” says Matos. “She really made it such that her research and her personal life were aligned.”

Matos, too, wanted to align her personal experience with her work in political science, and so went on to earn a PhD in political science at Ohio State University, where she worked closely with Kathleen McGraw.

In part, Matos aims to publish information not necessarily provided by the media that the public, politicians, and policy-based organization can access. She also wants to point out “the ways in which ‘American-ness’ is being defined – and how exclusive it continues to be.

“I want to frame immigration in a more positive way, really get people thinking about the history of America and how [immigrants] are continuing that, as opposed to being different.”

Matos is well positioned to study – and teach about – questions of ethnicity and immigration policy and politics: she is Brown’s first Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow, based in both the Watson Institute and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. In her course, “Immigration: The Imaginaries of Race, Space, and Nation,” she gives students a more nuanced understanding of immigration in America from its inception to today.

"Professor Matos's course has given me the tools to analyze current immigration discourses through both theoretical and historical lens," says Renata Mauriz '17.5, a public policy concentrator. "I have gained a critical understanding of the role the construction of race has played in defining immigration laws that affect my own experiences as an immigrant living in the United States today."

At the end of the course, students will be asked to identify what’s not working – and come up with policy ideas they think will.

--Sarah C. Baldwin