Immigrants and Their New Home

USF researchers conduct a two-year study to examine what influences the feelings of immigrants.


By Saundra Amrhein

Special to


TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 15, 2010) - Immigrants who feel harassed and treated like common criminals by government officials could have a harder time building a psychological attachment to the United States and might feel too alienated to participate in civic life here, according to a study by two University of South Florida sociology professors.


In a survey of more than 1,200 South Florida immigrants that began two years ago, Elizabeth Aranda and Elizabeth Vaquera took a novel approach at examining what experts call “incorporation” or assimilation among immigrants.


In the past, scholars developed theories about the impact of government policies and programs on immigrant’s integration, Aranda and Vaquera explained. But they traditionally assessed how immigrants adjusted to life in the United States by looking at objective factors like income, education, citizenship and language use.


Aranda and Vaquera wanted to explore a more subjective factor, one that’s often overlooked by researchers: immigrants feelings of attachment to the United States. Those attachments, they theorized in their study, determine whether immigrants plant psychological roots and could be  “crucial to understanding patterns of community involvement.”


Aranda and Vaquera set out to learn how treatment by immigration officials impacts immigrant’s feelings of attachment to the United States. They did so, they said, during a period of higher government scrutiny of all immigrants and criminalizing policies that date back to the administration of former President George W. Bush.


Those policies involved increased worksite and home raids and arresting immigrants on civil charges and locking them up with violent felons.


Chief among their findings: those immigrants who reported negative experiences with immigration officials at the nation’s airports and in the process of becoming citizens were 35 percent to 45 percent less likely to say they felt the United States was their home.


Many of the respondents described rude and humiliating treatment as if they were “delinquents,” the study reported. In at least one case, the treatment was so bad that the respondent’s daughter decided to return to their native Cuba to live.


What’s more, those immigrants who reported having problems with authorities were more likely to think often about returning to their home countries, according to the study. However, the likelihood went down among the more affluent immigrants and those who had been here longer, but the connection did not completely disappear.


These weakened attachments to the United States and thoughts of returning to their home country could possibly decrease the immigrant’s involvement and civic engagement in their U.S. communities, Aranda and Vaquera said in an interview.


“The danger is that if you are unattached to a place, you are apathetic,” Aranda said.


When immigrants feel attached to the United States, their communities will be stronger and they will engage more in the country, Vaquera added. That could be through becoming citizens, voting, opening new businesses and getting involved in their children’s schools.


The researchers advised lawmakers to consider their findings as more states consider adopting policies similar to Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law – a law that has come under intense criticism for fears that it could lead to racial profiling.


How immigration policies are written, as well as how they are carried out could thwart the very goal that the nation’s leaders seek – the assimilation of immigrants, the professors said.


“While such efforts at increased enforcement intend to uphold national security by keeping out individuals who are assumed to not be committed to American ideals and values, these same polices are weakening immigrant’s attachments, which could ultimately affect their civic involvement and community life,” they concluded in their report.


In August, Vaquera and Aranda presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta. They developed their report from data collected during the summer and fall of 2008 as part of the Immigrant Transnationalism and Modes of Incorporation study (ITMI).


The ITMI study was conducted with the Institute for Public Opinion Research at Florida International University, with support from the National Science Foundation.


For the ITMI study, a questionnaire with more than 140 questions was administered to a random sample of 1,268 first-generation immigrants in South Florida.


The respondents came from 80 countries, though four countries represented more than half of the immigrants: 30 percent from Cuba; 9 percent from Colombia; 8 percent from Haiti; and about 5 percent from Nicaragua. The rest of the countries had contingents of less than 5 percent each.


The researchers did not ask the respondents for their immigration status, though almost 5 percent volunteered that they were undocumented at some point, either by entering the country without documentation or overstaying their visa. The average length of time lived in the United States was 22 years, though some had been in the country for a few months and others up to five decades.


The study had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent.


Vaquera is using the vast amount of data collected from the ITMI project to teach graduate courses at USF. Using the data, her students are encouraged to develop theses and dissertations on additional aspects of assimilation raised in the project.


The study expands commonly held views on the meaning of attachments and relationships immigrants hold with their country of origin.


For instance, Vaquera and Aranda said while their study addresses the importance of immigrant’s strong attachments to new communities, it also reveals that immigrants thrive when they maintain old support systems, too.


Immigrants who maintain their entire support system back home are not establishing ties here, Vaquera explained.


“But having no ties back home is equally bad,” she said.