Commentary on “The New Latino Immigration: Opportunities and Challenges”

Chalene Helmuth


Over the first weekend of April, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville hosted a timely conference entitled, “The New Latino Immigration: Opportunities and Challenges.” The conference came on the heels of massive peaceful demonstrations around the country on behalf of immigrant rights, amidst the cacophony of anti-immigrant sentiment that receives such airtime and is hotly debated by pundits in this pre-election season. The conference gathered an extraordinary range of people whose work with or study of immigrant communities has long preceded the U.S. public’s current interest in the topic, and allowed for an intelligent and passionate exchange on the real effects on those individuals, documented and undocumented, who now reside in this country. Our exchange in Knoxville proved to be a valuable resource as participants, along with the rest of the nation, found ourselves asking, “How did we get here? What is the history behind these policies? Why the anti-immigrant sentiment? Where and why is nativist reasoning finding such fertile ground? Where do we go from here?”

The “New Latino” conference provided a dual focus on immigration in the U.S., providing a changing lens of close-up portraits of human suffering and indignities suffered at the hand of an often haphazard policy, unevenly applied to workers and employers, among other grave problems. Critical analyses of immigration issues also pointed to a wide-angle view of the scenario before us. This quickly evolved into a rare convergence of insight into a phenomenon we are currently living, a valuable opportunity to listen, learn, and reflect on our current political moment in the company of a devoted cadre of individuals from around the country.

Perhaps most astonishing was in fact the diversity brought about by the inclusion of people in vocations often left on the periphery of academic discussions: practicing attorneys from Tennessee as well as from Chicago and Las Vegas; nurses and other health-care providers; librarians and information professionals; professors of law, women’s studies, anthropology, literature, agriculture; activists with local and national advocacy groups like the Highlander Center in Tennessee and the SEIU in San Antonio, advocating for organize custodial workers in Texas; as well Anne Lewis, a documentarist who screened her new film, “Morristown,” that traces the effect of a NAFTA-induced plant closing in East Tennessee on its residents, as well as those in the Mexican town where its”replacement” maquila opened.

Immigration is not, as Professor Bob Barsky aptly described it, “a present-day phenomenon.” Rather it is a result of, at the very least, decades-long policy-making, economic realities, and shifting social movements. Two eminently qualified scholars—one a U.S. sociologist from Princeton, one a Mexican economist from the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, Mexico--gave keynote addresses that expertly framed our discussion, and together they provided clear and convincing explanations for how we got to this point on the timeline on immigration realities and policies in the U.S.

Alejandro Portes, Chair of Sociology and Director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton University, addressed the challenges created by nativist perspectives present in U.S. society, assessing on many levels current patterns of migration as well as attitudes towards immigrants. Raúl Delgado Wise, Professor of Development Studies and Director of the Program on Migration Studies at the UNAM in Zacatecas, made use of telling statistics in an incisive presentation on NAFTA’s role in creating the critical state of both U.S. and Mexican economies. Delgado Wise illustrated how NAFTA manages to diminish U.S. economic growth and inhibit Mexican economic growth simultaneously through the dependence of U.S. transnational corporations on outsourced Mexican labor.

This conference, if anything, reminded us that we need each other: health-care providers, social workers, union organizers, and fair housing advocates, who amass individual stories of what it truly means to live the immigrant experience in the U.S.; and scholars who pull back from the gripping realities encountered by immigrants, and analyze the variety of societal, linguistic, political, legal, and other factors at play as we strive to understand the myriad issues surrounding immigration. The dual focus of this gathering provided some an overarching context to their daily interactions with immigrants, and also brought others into that world much more intimately as we heard from those who bear witness daily to the realities of the immigrant experience. Many of us left with a better grasp of information as well as resources available to help us help others achieve a fairer shake at, and a greater quality of, life.