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Renowned Harvard Professor Lectures at Eastern

Published on February 18, 2015

Renowned Harvard Professor Lectures at Eastern

Harvard University Professor Mary Waters lectured at Eastern Connecticut State University on Feb. 11 about undocumented immigrants and immigration policy. Due to her outstanding contributions to the field of sociology, Waters received the Robin Williams Jr. Award from the Eastern Sociological Society (EES), and will receive an honorarium from ESS to speak at two universities — this year, Eastern and Lehigh University were chosen.

Waters is a nationally renowned scholar, having published more than 10 books and 40 journal articles on the topics of immigrants and immigration policy. Her work has focused largely on ethnic identity, the integration of immigrants and their children, and the measurement and meaning of racial and ethnic identity.

Eastern Sociology Professor William Lugo, a Mexican American from southern Texas, studied her work when he was a student, and said, “Waters’ research was instrumental in helping to shape my own ethnic identity.” “Immigration has diversified our society,” said Waters. According to her lecture, the U.S. population consists of 17 percent Latino, 12 percent black, 6 percent Asian, 3 percent mixed race and 62 percent white. “Most of our population’s growth is from immigration.” Approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population — or 42 million people — are immigrants. When it comes to taking care of older members of society —76 million Americans from the “baby boomer” generation are in or entering retirement — and paying into social security, “immigration is important for the health of the economy,” said Waters, pointing out that immigrants will help to fill job vacancies.


She also discussed the adverse effects of militarization along the border of Mexico. “Before the 1990s, immigration used to be a cyclical process, where Mexicans would come to the United States for a short while to earn money, then go home to their families,” said Waters. But since the border is so difficult to penetrate, “it has decreased the number of Mexicans returning to Mexico.”

Waters’ lecture also discussed models of assimilation, and how they have evolved over the years. First there was “Anglo conformity,” where all immigrant groups were assimilated into an Anglo-Saxon-focused culture. Then there was the concept of a “melting pot,” where the mixing of immigrant groups would theoretically produce an entirely new mainstream society and culture. Currently, the model of “cultural pluralism” is favorable, where different immigrant groups maintain their autonomy and culture within the context of a larger “American” culture.

How perceptions of immigrant groups evolve was also discussed. “Polish, Irish and Italian immigrants were once seen as unassimilable,” but now they are proud and productive members of U.S. society. This progression is perhaps due to “straight-line immigration,” which describes assimilation in which each generation does “better,” or further integrates, than the last. This is often dependent on “social/generational mobility,” or the ability for individuals within different strata of society to improve their situation.

In regard to crime and other behaviors that immigrants are disproportionately accused of committing, Waters said, “First-generation immigrants commit much less crime and are healthier, but by the third generation, they are more similar to Americans.” In other words, they are so good at adjusting that “they assimilate like Americans in both good and bad ways.”

Waters’ lecture concluded with talk on immigration policy and the negatives of having so many undocumented/illegal immigrants. “11 to 12 million people without rights is corrosive for a democracy, fair labor laws, race relations, crime control and women’s rights.” Furthermore, there are approximately 4.5 million citizen-children with undocumented parents, and Waters added, “Children with documented parents statistically do better in school.”

Written by Michael Rouleau