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Immigration course provides VCU students with a better understanding of a national issue

The sociology course, taught by Gabriela León-Pérez, examines the history of immigration and how the current debate ties to the past.
people waving miniature American flags

Immigration has always been a controversial topic in the United States. In the late 19th century, over 2 million Irish immigrated to the U.S. Most were Catholic and that created conflict with the largely Protestant U.S. population. The first comprehensive immigration law, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1882, contained provisions specifically designed to discourage European immigrants.

“This is not the first time the country has had anti-immigration policies, but the scapegoat group has changed over time,” said Gabriela León-Pérez, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies immigration policy.

León-Pérez wanted to give her students an understanding of the current immigration debate so she developed a course called Immigration and American Society, which covers the history of immigration and immigration policy and examines where the current debate fits into the past.

“It presents students with a context on the state of immigration today,” León-Pérez said. “A lot of people have opinions about immigration but most of them are not based on facts.”

A class to cut through the noise

When designing the course, León-Pérez wanted to be able to address current events in the news. The course uses some textbooks, but it also incorporates podcasts and blogs. The goal is to have the discussion revolve around the current state of the immigration debate.

“It definitely evolves based on current events,” León-Pérez said. “The first time I taught it was 2018, and there have been a lot of changes since then.”

John Lees, a psychology major, believes the class has given him a better understanding of immigration history. The class specifically looks at the immigration policies of presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Lees believes he now has a well-rounded perspective on the subject.

Yessica Flores, who is majoring in psychology and sociology, signed up for the class because she hears a lot of information about the subject and knew a class would help her cut through the noise.

“We are living in a world where the media is everywhere; where false news is frequent news,” Flores said. “I enrolled in the course with hopes of becoming educated in this area to help educate, inform and encourage others to better understand the reality of immigration within American society.”

students in leon-perez's sociology class
As part of the class, León-Pérez teaches students how to find accurate information about immigration. The students learn to access official government data and other reliable sources. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

At the start of the class, León-Pérez teaches students how to find accurate information about immigration. The students learn to access official government data and other reliable sources.

“I try to present both sides of the debate,” León-Pérez said. “I want the students to have a well-rounded understanding of immigration and the debate. I don’t want them to shut down a side of the debate.”

Many students, she has observed, only understand the immigration debate from a particular vantage point. The class is a “light bulb” moment for them, and they realize that immigration is a complicated and nuanced topic. In general, immigration often comes down to economics, León-Pérez said. People against immigration are worried that new residents will take jobs, but people who support immigration say immigrants will do the type of work that many residents will not. Immigrants are looking for opportunity.

“Immigrants tend to complement American workers,” León-Pérez said. “Immigrants tend to work at lower-skilled jobs.”

Protecting due process

León-Pérez brings in guest speakers to enhance the curriculum. In February, she invited retired immigration judge Paul Schmidt. In previous semesters, León-Pérez has invited an immigration attorney as a guest speaker. This time, she wanted students to get the perspective of the person on the other side of the bench.

Schmidt served as an immigration judge from 2003 until he retired in 2016. Before that, he served on the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals. Since retiring, he has been talking about the state of the immigration courts and the lack of due process given to asylum seekers.

“The immigration courts are going through an existential crisis,” Schmidt told the class.

He understands that people have different opinions about immigration, but the courts must follow a process that protects the due process rights of asylum seekers, he said. The court functions as a division of the Department of Justice and Schmidt believes it is not given the resources to function properly. Everyone within the justice system should share a common interest in seeing the courts functioning in a fair and equitable way, Schmidt said.

Retired immigration judge Paul Schmidt speaks to León-Pérez's class
Retired immigration judge Paul Schmidt speaks to León-Pérez's class. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

“The immigration court now is structured in such a way that it is nothing more than a whistle stop on the road to deportation,” he said.

Schmidt offered several suggestions to the students on ways to help people who are going through the immigration courts. Immigrants, unlike citizens, are not required to have an attorney. Many do not understand the immigration process. Schmidt said students could volunteer and help them navigate the complex immigration system in the United States.

“You can join the new due process army,” Schmidt said.

Flores said she has found the class to be informative, and has enjoyed the guest lecturers. The class has not necessarily changed her views about the subject but has motivated her to become more involved.

“I have always disliked the way the immigration cases have been handled, especially the ones involving immigrant children,” Flores said. “I must say that my feelings toward being more involved in promoting change and awareness have changed in the sense that I have developed a much greater interest in getting more involved in the form of a future career.”

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