From August 2016 through December 2018 I was a student in the Applied Anthropology Master’s Program at the University of North Texas. For much of that time I was working on my graduate thesis research project and paper. The subject of my project was interesting and timely, so I thought I’d summarize it briefly (as short as I possibly can!) in a blog post. Some of this post was written based on the summary of my thesis research that I wrote and presented in mid-December, 2018.
The title of my project is Welcoming Communities: Examining the Experiences of Dallas Area Immigrants on the Path to U.S. Citizenship.
For the Anthropology program at UNT, master’s students must have a client to work with for their thesis research. Students must research a topic based on the client’s needs, and create some sort of deliverables the client can use. This is the applied part of Applied Anthropology.
The client for my project was the Dallas Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs, a division of the City of Dallas. It was formed in March of 2017 in order to address growing public concerns about immigration, tolerance and diversity on a local governmental level (part of the greater Welcoming America movement).
The purpose of my project was to take a closer look at the experiences of immigrants in the Dallas area who are applying for U.S. Citizenship, especially the reasons they apply for citizenship and the barriers they may face during the process.
I created these deliverables for my client: A research report, an executive summary and two info-graphics.
I won’t go too deep into the theory of the project in this blog post (if you want to see the details, you’ll have to read my thesis!), but these are the three main theoretical concepts I used to guide my research:
- Globalization and transnational theory: how immigrants and applicants lives are shaped by transnational forces
- Theory of social and cultural capital from Pierre Bourdieu: how one’s perceived capital affects their experience with the U.S. citizenship process
- “Narratives of deservingness” from Coutin and Yngvesson (2015): how immigrants are labeled by society based on their perceived potential to contribute to the U.S. (especially the economy)
The two main research methods for my project were observation and semi-structured interviews. I recruited participants for interviews based on the condition that they were eligible for U.S. citizenship and were in the process of applying or planning to apply. I recruited these interviewees through my personal network, as well as through my client and other related organizations, such as Literacy Achieves, a center in Dallas that hosts adult ESL and U.S. citizenship classes. I conducted interviews at locations that were deemed most convenient for the interviewees.
I conducted observation at various citizenship related events around the Dallas area– mainly citizenship workshops and classes. Citizenship workshops are held with the goal of assisting potential applicants with the paperwork required for their citizenship applications, while classes are intended to help prepare applicants for the civics exam that they must pass in order to be granted citizenship status. Attending these events helped me gain insight into the citizenship process and the local resources available to assist immigrants in that process.
The first step in analyzing my data was to transcribe my interview recordings word for word. I also reviewed the notes I took while observing at each event I attended. I took note of the most commonly recurring themes in the data and then turned these themes into codes, a process which anthropologists call “coding.” In order to keep track of my codes and store important quotes, I used a free data analysis software called QDA Miner Lite.
Outcomes and Themes
The following are just a few examples of themes from my project:
Overview of the U.S. Citizenship Process
Through my research I developed a more detailed understanding of the U.S. citizenship application process and the setbacks that applicants face. This is a slide from my presentation the represents the process and some potential setbacks at each step:
Symbolic Meanings of Citizenship
These are the traits and representations that citizenship applicants attach to citizenship status that go beyond the obvious and legal implications. For many applicants, applying for citizenship represents a choice to assimilate into U.S. society, or to become an active contributor to the American community in which they live. No matter how American a person may feel, their legal immigration status can serve to set them apart. Becoming a citizen is a concrete way to assert one’s decision to assimilate. However, becoming a U.S. citizen does not necessarily mean abandoning all connections to one’s birth country. In fact, it rarely means that. Applicants often look forward to the ability to travel to their home country more freely after becoming a U.S. citizen.
The Role of Language in the Citizenship Process
For one of my observation events I attended a presentation by journalist Jorge Ramos, hosted by the World Affairs Council of DFW. Ramos is a Mexican immigrant and a U.S. citizen. During his presentation he used both English and Spanish to communicate and connect with the audience. This served to reinforce his message that becoming a U.S. citizen was not a rejection of his Mexican heritage, and that participating in Mexican culture was not a rejection of his U.S. citizenship status. Ramos jokingly referred to himself as an “amphibian” who could adapt to both cultures successfully, and he demonstrated this through bilingualism.
At the citizenship workshops I attended, I realized that having bilingual volunteers and interpreters at these events was very important and helped make these events more efficient. Even applicants with a strong grasp of the English language sometimes needed help with the highly litigated language of the citizenship application. In addition, it became clear to me through observation and interviews that fluency in the English language does not always come before citizenship status. For many applicants, becoming a U.S. citizen is a more urgent matter than mastering English completely.
Some Personal Reflections
My personal background is different than that of the participants I spoke to for my project. I am a U.S. citizen by birth, as are my parents and grandparents and the rest of my family, going back many generations. I was born a U.S. citizen, but many others have to work hard to achieve citizenship status, even if they have spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. Through this project I gained some insight on the way that American culture affects the lives of immigrants, especially through the labels that are placed on them.
I hope that those who read my thesis can take away a better understand of the experiences of immigrants and citizenship applicants in their community. I also hope that they can realize there are many rights that communities can choose to honor and promote for everyone, regardless of their immigration status. To me, a welcoming community is one that respects the rights and recognizes the diverse contributions of every member, no matter where they are from.
This is just a small piece of my research. It is missing literature, data, quotes from participants and of course, the super long bibliography. But I hope you enjoyed reading about it.
What are your thoughts on the U.S. citizenship process?
P.S. Please keep those applying for citizenship and others affected by the current government shutdown in your thoughts…