Helen Marrow ’00 examines immigration in the rural South

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A native of a small, Southern town in North Carolina, Helen Marrow ’00 realized the area around her home, whose population of Mexicans was growing, would be a good place to study the consequences of a national trend: Immigrants are increasingly settling in small, rural and suburban towns particularly within the South instead of urban gateways like New York and Los Angeles. So Marrow, an assistant professor of sociology at Tufts University, headed home to interview Hispanic newcomers and non-Hispanic Southerners in two counties to find out about the immigrants’ experience, how rapid Hispanic immigration influences Southern race relations, and how institutions like schools and public health centers are dealing with undocumented residents. Her findings are in her new book New Destination Dreaming: Immigration, Race, and Legal Status in the Rural American South (Stanford University Press). Marrow spoke with Katherine Federici Greenwood.

How are Hispanic newcomers doing economically in the South?
I found a cautiously optimistic story about how they are becoming economically incorporated. It wasn’t a big move up into the middle class really quickly. I was finding that a lot of these people were achieving what I call lateral mobility – or economic stability. Some were achieving upward mobility, even if it was what I would call a short distance.
You also examine the relationship between Hispanics and African-Americans and their relationship with white Southerners. What did you find?
The findings in the book are really controversial. … In many ways the Hispanic newcomers are judging their relationships with blacks as more tense than their relationships with whites. For that to be the case among a group of white Southerners who have generally been taken to be pretty darn racist and pretty conservative in the rural parts of the region – that is a hard story, but it is one that has to be dealt with.

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Why are the Hispanic newcomers sensing more tension in their relationship with black Southerners than white Southerners?

There are a lot of reasons. But the two really important ones come down to class and citizenship. Because of the history of racial subjugation, African-Americans are in a worse position when newcomers come in. They feel like they are vying for public space, housing, or jobs. From the Hispanics point of view, what they are saying is, “The blacks don’t like us and they don’t like us more than the whites don’t like us. The blacks think we are taking their jobs.” … Regardless of whether this is true or not, the perception is so strong.  
The second one is citizenship. … [Hispanics] feel they are rejected [because they do not have full American citizenship]. … But since I was on the ground, anti-immigrant sentiment has increased and white Southerners have joined that fray. And Hispanics are sensing more negative relations with whites now. I have also seen more African-American groups get involved in things like black-brown coalitions and conferences to build awareness and build coalitions between them.
How are Hispanics doing in terms of their political representation in these small, urban and suburban Southern towns?
There’s very little formal political incorporation. There’s not a whole lot of attention from politicians. Many of [the politicians] don’t feel accountable to the unauthorized immigrants at all. They question whether they should even represent them. So you have a fundamental dilemma of lot of people living in this region who have virtually have no political power.
But what I’m more cautiously optimistic about is that underneath that picture there are a range of things happening in what I call public bureaucracy that were unexpected to me and have really shown me that there are people working in these public bureaucracies that are doing things to incorporate these newcomers, even the undocumented ones. …  Particularly in education and healthcare, there are some amazing things going on to get people into the system and to really support them.
Since you did your fieldwork in 2003-04, lots of anti-immigrant legislation has been enacted. How has that changed things?
“These laws and policies intend to make life a living hell, particularly for undocumented immigrants.”
I still feel fairly optimistic but I feel less so than before. What has happened is that so many laws and policies have been passed since 2005 all over the nation, especially in the South and Arizona. These laws and policies intend to make life a living hell, particularly for undocumented immigrants. … [Before these laws were enacted] I saw this cautiously optimistic picture that these newcomers were going to be able to find a foothold. It might not be a dramatic story of upward mobility, but it was a good story of economic stability. … They were doing OK. … But these laws are going to change everything.
You have laws now everywhere in the nation [that mean that] you cannot get a drivers license if you are undocumented, which can effectively curb your entire life. All kinds of laws now restrict the provision of healthcare and don’t allow undocumented students to go to college. If you think of the children of these groups — that is really what will create an underclass.
You make a number of policy recommendations as a result of your research. Can you highlight a couple of them?
You have to legalize the undocumented population whether you like it or not. There are more undocumented immigrants living in this country today than there were African Americans living in the Jim Crow south. … If you don’t want to create an underclass, you have to legalize them. And you’ve got to let the children of these newcomers have access to a college education that is affordable. If you don’t want them to be a burden on your society, you have to give them the opportunity.
Interview has been condensed.