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Professor examines 'path to citizenship' from unique perspective

Luis Plascencia
October 01, 2013

One of the more controversial aspects of the often acrimonious debate over immigration reform is whether undocumented migrants should be offered a path to citizenship. Arizona State University faculty member Luis F.B. Plascencia has authored a book that offers a perspective from the not-too-distant past, based on the experiences of people who pursued citizenship through a 1986 law signed by Ronald Reagan.

“Disenchanting Citizenship: Mexican Migrants and the Boundaries of Belonging” explores an idea that many of us might not have considered – that Mexican immigrants to the United States who reach their goal of citizenship may not experience the full equality and incorporation that is thought to be inherent to U.S. citizenship. Plascencia’s book was published by Rutgers University Press.

“This is the first scholarly book to discuss an issue that has been largely overlooked by policymakers, immigration officials, policy analysts and academics: the possibility that migrants may be disenchanted with U.S. citizenship, which they worked so hard for many years to obtain,” said Plascencia, assistant professor of anthropology in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, the core college on the West campus. “This, however, should not be interpreted to mean that they have a reduced appreciation or ‘love’ for the United States, the nation they feel privileged to be part of and that has opened up opportunities for themselves and their children.”

In the book, Plascencia notes two types of disenchantment. One is based on incomplete information new citizens were given by local organizations that aided them in the process of acquiring citizenship. The second is a more troubling form, he said.

“It has to do with the fact that citizenship is not only a legal category, it is also a social category, and one that operates alongside processes related to race and class. Some Mexican migrants assumed that after acquiring U.S. citizenship they would be ‘equal’ to Mexican Americans and European American citizens, but this did not materialize,” Plascencia said. “They continued to be thought of as ‘Mexicans,’ a label indicating that they were not thought of as belonging in the United States.”

The basis for “Disenchanting Citizenship” is Plascencia’s volunteer work teaching citizenship classes for two years in Austin, Texas, follow-up interviews with students who had taken the classes and with government officials, community-based organizations and others. In addition, Plascencia attended multiple naturalization ceremonies in El Paso, San Antonio and Phoenix, and volunteered to assist Permanent Residents in completing the N-400 naturalization form in Austin and Phoenix.

The participants in the study are unique among Mexican-descent Permanent Residents. Most participants are individuals who were formerly undocumented migrants, applied for and were granted legalization/amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) signed by President Reagan, were then granted Temporary Resident status, and later applied for Permanent Resident status and granted a green card. After five years, Permanent Residents can petition of U.S. citizenship. Participants therefore have traversed multiple legal categories.

“The experiences of these individuals are extremely relevant today because current proposals for ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ base their support or opposition to a ‘path to citizenship’ – in other words, a legalization program – on the aftermath of IRCA,” Plascencia explained.

That current relevance became apparent when a study Plascencia coauthored, “The Making of Americans: Results of the Texas Naturalization Survey,” was cited in the document “Fixing Our Broken Immigration System,” released in August by the Obama administration.

“Disenchanting Citizenship” and Plascencia’s overall body of work also have caught the attention of scholars around the country who focus on immigration and citizenship issues.

“His work is very timely and important in bringing clarity to otherwise cluttered emotional debates that have little to do with the judicial, economic, institutional and structural realities of the region,” said Carlos G. Vélez-Ibáñez, Regents’ Professor and director of the School of Transborder Studies on ASU’s Tempe campus. “Luis is among the new cohort of scholars who embrace the actualities of the transborder region as they have historically developed.”

Plascencia says he hopes the book helps cultivate a deeper appreciation of the complex history of citizenship in the United States. “There are undoubtedly great tensions associated with this issue and its history, but also a great generosity in the granting of citizenship to Permanent Residents,” he said. “Between 1907 and 2012, more than 26 million migrants were granted citizenship.”

Plascencia brings a variety of experiences to his scholarly work on issues of migration, citizenship and the Mexico-United States borderlands. He co-directed a national research project that estimated the size and distribution of the U.S. migrant agricultural workforce for the 50 states and Puerto Rico. Congress directed the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to use the estimates generated from this project as the core component, with adjustments based on Bureau of the Census data, to fund migrant legal services. LSC allocates hundreds of millions of dollars annually to address the nation’s “justice gap” and ensure a modicum of legal assistance to low-income U.S. citizens and Permanent Residents.

Among Plascencia’s other research interests are popular culture issues, such as low-riding in the Southwest and the death of the singer Selena, as well as the experiences of Latinos in the U.S. military.

“I am particularly interested in how non-citizens in the military readily adopt the responsibilities of U.S. citizens; defending the nation is presumably the responsibility of loyal, patriotic citizens,” he says. “Undocumented migrants who serve in the military can be granted citizenship. So while these individuals are often demonized by state and local officials for their negative impact on society, the U.S. simultaneously grants citizenship to the ‘American soldier’ who willingly kills and dies for the nation, those brave men and women who protect the nation and the freedoms and liberties we civilians enjoy.”

Plascencia teaches New College courses including Principles of Social Anthropology; Mexico-U.S. Borderlands; Citizenship, Nationalism, & Identity; and Introduction to Social/Cultural Anthropology. He says the college’s interdisciplinary focus is an ideal match for his interests.

“Although trained as a social anthropologist, almost all of my research has been interdisciplinary,” he says. “My research draws on legal scholarship, political science, public policy, medical research and sociology.”

Plascencia’s scholarly activity earns high marks from Jeffrey Kassing, director of New College’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “His work provides an excellent example of research that proves meaningful for academics and policymakers while remaining relevant to the local communities ASU serves and supports,” Kassing says.

In addition to his New College faculty appointment, Plascencia is Southwest Borderlands Initiative Scholar and an affiliated faculty member in the School of Transborder Studies in Tempe and the School of Public Affairs at the Downtown Phoenix campus. He is serving in a two-year term as president of the Association of Latina & Latino Anthropologists (ALLA), a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Plascencia also is a member of the Committee on Minorities in Anthropology (CMIA), a standing committee of the AAA. The CMIA grants a $10,000 dissertation fellowship to a minority graduate student in anthropology.