An Interview with Anthropologist David Haines

Posted: July 21, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Anna Maurer

David Haines
David Haines

David Haines, associate professor of anthropology, has written or edited several books and numerous articles on immigration, anthropology, refugees, diversity and other related topics. He teaches courses on East Asia, immigration, refugees and information technology.

Haines is a two-time Fulbright recipient and has served in many professional roles within his field. We recently asked Haines for some insight on immigration issues on and off campus.

Describe the relationship between immigration and politics. What impact do you expect the upcoming election to have on immigration policies?

The relationship between immigration and politics is often not a very healthy one. Immigration itself involves long-term issues of what we wish to be as a society, but immigration politics are often extremely reactive and short term. Because of that, immigration tends only to gain political attention when something has gone wrong, usually that too many of some particular set of immigrants are arriving or competing with the native-born for jobs, housing or services.

Today, that “too many” involves undocumented, low-wage labor migrants but, in the past, the “too many” has involved other groups, including refugees. I will leave analysis of the election to political scientists, but I do not expect anything substantive from the political debates.

Mostly I expect efforts to appease – or inflame – concerned voters on both left and right, to make them believe that today’s problems can be resolved with some quick fix rather than by commitment to a long-term, responsible implementation of a balanced immigration policy – which we already largely have on the books.

How would you explain the importance of immigration issues to someone who has limited knowledge of the subject?

Immigration is a vital part of American society. It is crucial to our economy, to our social future, and to how we see ourselves as a people. Without immigration, we would likely be facing a faltering economy, a declining population and increasing isolation from the rest of the world.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems in immigration policy and, even more so, in immigration politics. But it does mean that without immigration we wouldn’t be doing as well in economic terms, and we really wouldn’t even be “America” in social and cultural terms.

Mason is known as one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the United States. As an anthropologist, have you witnessed anything worth noting in the intersection of all these cultures?

The interactions across this diversity are not always easy. Language and cultural barriers separate the children of immigrants from the foreign students who have the same origin countries.

Yet at Mason, I believe, we have one of the best test cases for whether an American university can be a truly international university, rather than simply an American university to which foreign students come. This potential is the greatest in the classroom, and especially in small classes where discussion is more relaxed and alternative views can be more easily explored. This is where we can and must excel.

The last time I taught my graduate course on East Asia, there was one student from India and another from Japan, and we had terrific East Asia versus South Asia discussions. For example, the South Asian student was stunned to find that some people might rely on a moral system that did not have religious underpinnings, while the East Asian student was surprised that some people might collectively rely on a moral system that did have religious underpinnings. Meanwhile, the Cambodian-American student was researching the Mongol invasion of China.

This wasn’t quite as global as my Fulbright experience the previous year teaching a graduate seminar on Southeast Asia to a mix of Korean and Chinese students in Korea, but it was getting pretty close. As a teacher you live for this kind of experience, and we can do this at Mason.

The word “refugee” is used frequently across the media but not always to describe people of the same situation. What is a refugee in the contemporary world? What is the one thing all refugees have in common?

There is a technical, legal definition of “refugee,” the crux of which is that refugees are people who are forced to flee. The United Nations’ and United States’ definition stipulates the reason for flight as fear of persecution. Other definitions, such as that of the Organization of African Unity, accept a broader set of reasons, including situations of generalized violence. Either way, the term implies forced rather than voluntary migration.

For the United States, refugees are a rather small segment of immigration. Yet the admission of refugees is a vital test of our international and humanitarian commitments — that we will admit those who need refuge as well as those who will directly benefit us.

Unfortunately, I think the term “refugee” has become a colder one for most Americans over the past 20 years, despite the enormous efforts of many individual Americans and many American religious and secular organizations. Refugees have come to be seen as problems rather than opportunities.

What do you hope your students will take away from your classes?

My hope is that students leave my classes thinking more autonomously and more often. Regarding immigration, I hope they will continue to think about the migrants but also about how America influences migration globally (for example, by encouraging labor migration and sometimes directly creating refugee flows) and also how we structure immigration to the United States both officially and more informally (for example, by tacitly selecting for low-wage disposable, undocumented labor).

I also hope students will have learned to navigate across disciplinary divides and to realize that “policy studies” must be as much critique of policy-making approaches as the actual construction of formal written policies.

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