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2013 Fall Issue 4 (October 18, 2013)

Reputed Anthropology Professor Leo Chavez Speaks About Immigration

October 18, 2013
By Ben Strauss

If nothing else, last Friday’s convocation was timely. Congress will soon consider the same question that Leo Chavez, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Irvine, began his address with: “Who gets to be an American?”

Chavez argued that immigration has a large political impact for a relatively small phenomenon. Historically, only three percent of people in the world at any given time have lived outside the country of their birth and in the future,  demographers predict that this percentage will remain the same.

In spite of its relatively low occurrence, immigration from one country to another has always been difficult, though not for the reasons people commonly assume.

“How hard it is to integrate has often less to do with the immigrants’ attitudes than the attitudes of the people in the receiving country,” said Chavez, “ Do they provide a means of integration or do they view [the immigrants] as threats, so they are afraid of integrating?”

Those who promote the idea of “Latino threat” argue that Latinos do not assimilate, they do not learn English, they live apart from larger society, they out-reproduce Americans and they desire a re-conquest of the United States.

While Chavez points out the flaws of each argument individually, he sums up his response best by pointing to a 1974 issue of the American Legion. The magazine, sent to veterans of America’s armed services, depicts an “invasion of these folkloric backwards Mexicans who do not wear suits and ties and come here to destroy our institutions, schools, welfare, Medicare, jobs.”

Chavez said that some of his family members were veterans and some had lost their lives in Vietnam.

“Now they are getting this magazine telling them, you know what, you are the problem,” said Chavez.

Chavez’s message went over well with students and faculty.

“His presentation and speaking style was interesting, and not what I expected. I really liked his incorporation of the magazine cover pages and political cartoons,” said Charlotte Mann ’17.

Still, some wished Chavez presented more novel arguments about immigration.

“I thought Leo Chavez provided a cohesive argument, but it was nothing I haven’t heard before,” continued Mann, “It would have been great if he had presented some lesser-known ideas.”

“I thought he made some really good points about how Latinos have contributed to society [but] I would have liked him to talk about the economic impact more,” said Jake Wasserman ’16. “A large shock in the labor support can lead to a large decrease in wages and working conditions.”

Other students, however, found his perspective refreshing.

“What I liked best was that he did not make the immigrant case based on ‘America is the land of opportunity,” said Abhimanyu Lele ’16, “he portrayed immigration as just this natural process that has happened all the time, and as something we should not look at through a racial lens.”

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