Communities for a Better Environment leads environmental justice tours, such as this one in East Oakland, CA. Flickr CC photo by Brooke Anderson.
Communities for a Better Environment leads environmental justice tours, such as this one in East Oakland, CA. Flickr CC photo by Brooke Anderson.

Environmental problems create especially heavy burdens for poor and minority communities. As three decades of research have shown, these communities host a disproportionate number of landfills, contaminated properties, incinerators, and other polluting facilities, many of which can cause serious health problems. Epidemiological research on health risks reveals that low-income and minority groups have higher rates of asthma, impaired lung function and other respiratory ailments as well as cardiovascular disease. All of these adverse health conditions are caused or exacerbated by exposure to pollution. Underprivileged communities can also be at greater risk from severe weather developments, which are expected to increase with climate change.

The Pursuit of Environmental Justice

Environmental justice has been on the federal government’s agenda now for twenty years, in no small measure due to effective advocacy by grassroots organizations and scholar-activists who have pushed since the 1980s for fairness in environmental protection. The federal government responded with new policy mandates, administrative reorganization, research and data collection programs, enhanced outreach and efforts to build community capacity – and, most notably, with a presidential executive order on environmental justice. Signed by President Bill Clinton on February 11, 1994, Executive Order 12898 called on each federal agency to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” more...

A newly naturalized citizen displays her certificate. U.S. Navy photo.
A newly naturalized citizen displays her certificate. U.S. Navy photo.

Current debates about immigration reform focus on whether or not there will be a “path to citizenship” for the eleven million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States – and, if so, how long the road will be. Citizenship brings new rights and opportunities for individuals and families, and the country as a whole also has a stake in drawing into full citizenship both legal and undocumented newcomers. Otherwise America may face growing gaps in life chances among groups with different immigration and citizenship statuses. Across many decades of U.S. history, grants of citizenship, or refusals, have been used to incorporate masses of newcomers from Europe and exclude others, such as those from many Asian countries. Today, citizenship status has again become an axis of inequality that exacerbates other disparities grounded in class and race. Denying undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, opportunities to get on a path to citizenship is one obvious source of continuing inequality. In addition, my research shows that barriers to citizenship status also exist for many newcomers with legal permanent resident status – so-called “green card” holders. The difficulties these immigrants face magnify inequalities in American society as a whole.

Access to Citizenship for Legal Residents

Citizenship can, in principle, be obtained by immigrants who already have “green cards,” or documents that demonstrate their legal permanent status in the United States and meet a range of criteria. Access to permanent legal residency itself is restricted. Most commonly, immigrants obtain green cards through close relatives who are already citizens or permanent residents. Many others do so through employment or by claiming refugee status. Residents of countries that are relatively underrepresented in the United States may be able to win green cards in a lottery. Once they gain permanent legal resident status, most immigrants must wait five years to apply for citizenship – and they then must pay hefty fees, fill out detailed applications, and undergo interviews and testing by immigration officials, all before, finally, attending a swearing-in ceremony that makes their newly gained citizenship official. Some legal residents have a slightly easier path. Those married to U.S. citizens wait three years instead of five, and members of the military may currently apply when they enlist. In response to anti-immigrant measures at national, state, and local levels, applications for citizen status have increased in recent years. Nevertheless, fewer than half of immigrants in the U.S. have become citizens, and the U.S. take-up rate is much lower than rates in sister immigration destinations such as Canada and Australia.

Who Gains Citizenship?

Commentators noting the low uptake of U.S. citizenship have raised concerns about the loyalty of new immigrants and difficulties in the naturalization process. In addition, uneven citizenship intersects with and exacerbates other dimensions of inequality in American society. In a study of data from the U.S. Census, I found that immigrants with less than high school education are increasingly less likely to be citizens compared to more educated immigrants. In 1970, the level of education did not make much difference for whether immigrants had become citizens, but by 2000 a large education gap had appeared. Immigrants with higher levels of income are also more likely to gain citizenship. In short, during an era when inequality has grown overall in the United States, citizenship status is being attained much more unequally by more and less privileged legal residents.

Racial disparities are also growing. Hispanic immigrants, whether black or white, have the lowest levels of citizenship, while non-Hispanic blacks and whites, as well as Asians, all gain citizenship at about average rates. This finding cannot be explained away by the higher representation of Hispanic immigrants among the undocumented, who are not eligible for citizenship; even among legal Hispanic permanent residents, the uptake of citizenship for the largest group, Mexicans, is low. By countries of origin, the lowest proportions gaining citizenship are found among Guatemalan, Mexican, and Salvadoran immigrants, and the highest proportions occur among immigrants from Vietnam and the Philippines.

Why Uneven Access to Citizenship Matters

It is unfortunate that access to citizenship is increasingly paralleling other disparities in U.S. society, because citizenship status promises access to the full civil liberties and rights, making immigrants almost equal to native-born Americans. The right to vote and to run for most political offices is reserved for citizens. For individual immigrants, citizenship expands job opportunities across the economic spectrum – opening posts ranging from state-licensed cosmetician to police officer and making it possible to compete for government fellowships, grants, and contracts. Citizenship also allows newcomers to bring other family members through reunification rules, and eases connections between the United States and immigrant countries of origin. For the immigrants who may fall on hard times, citizenship status improves access to welfare benefits. Perhaps most important, citizenship provides a sense of security and permanency by fully protecting immigrants from threats of deportation.

Citizenship benefits not only newcomers and their families, but also communities and the nation as a whole. For example, because Hispanics are often not citizens, this minority group, now the largest in the United States, has much less political clout than its sheer numbers might suggest. Although legal resident noncitizens can and do engage in political activity, their inability to vote and run for office reduces their political efficacy; and along with undocumented immigrants, they are at risk for deportation. The estimated twenty-two million noncitizen immigrants add up to a troubling indicator for the health of American democracy, because these people live, work, raise families, and contribute to their communities, but are excluded from the innermost circle of membership in the nation. Hundreds of thousands of legal resident immigrants become eligible to apply for citizenship every year. And comprehensive immigration reform, if Congress acts, it could put many currently undocumented on the path to citizenship in the future. Everyone who cares about reducing socioeconomic and racial inequalities in the United States should want to address inequalities in citizenship acquisition by legal residents and support full access to citizenship for the undocumented.

Sofya Aptekar is in the sociology department at UMass–Boston. She is the author of The Road to Citizenship: What Naturalization Means for Immigrants and the United States.

President Obama has called upon the country to double the number of Americans with college credentials by 2020, but reaching that goal will be impossible without raising the educational attainment of Hispanics, the youngest and fastest growing U.S. ethnic group. People of Hispanic background are pursing college degrees at higher rates and now surpass African Americans as the largest share of non-white students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education. But Hispanics still lag behind other groups in actually completing college work to attain their degrees. The reforms America must undertake to boost Hispanic graduation rates include enhancing resources for what the U.S. federal government labels “Hispanic-Serving Institutions” – that is, non-profit, degree-granting colleges and universities whose undergraduate enrollments include at least 25% full-time students of Hispanic descent. My work looks at the special challenges these institutions face and suggests useful steps forward. more...

In January 2015, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin sported a new beard as he announced he would not seek the GOP presidential nomination for 2016. Commentators rightly connected the announcement to the new beard, because it has been more than a century since the presidency of William Howard Taft, the last White House incumbent with facial hair. In fact, ever since the mustachioed Taft completed his term in 1913, just a few years before American women won the right to vote, few U.S. politicians with facial hair have run for or served in national elected offices. Currently, fewer than five percent of the members of the U.S. Congress have beards or mustaches, according to recent estimates.

Although there has been little research about politicians’ facial hair, analysts have learned that voters make inferences about candidates based on appearance. Skin color, facial structure, and smiles all matter, because voters are ever on the lookout for short cuts, for easy clues to candidates’ issue positions and personal traits. Assessments of appearance are one way voters make guesses about candidates, so it is reasonable to assume that beards and mustaches could influence voter perceptions. Along with two colleagues, Jeanette Morehouse Mendez and Ben Pryor, I have done experiments showing that facial hair does indeed matter for politicians. more...

Location, location, location is the mantra we often hear about the value of real estate – and the same principle applies to the rights and protections enjoyed by gays, lesbians, and bisexuals across the United States. Those who live in New England, along the West coast and in the Great Lakes states can marry whom they wish and are legally protected against hate crimes and discrimination in public accommodations and employment. In the rest of the country, however, such legal rights and protections are rarely found. Drawing on my own research and that of other scholars, this brief explores why this variation exists. Regional imitation, the presence of gay and lesbian legislators, public opinion, and institutional rules all turn out to matter.

Neighboring States Acting Together

Regional differences in public policies supporting gays and lesbians suggest that the importance of what scholars call “policy diffusion,” where policies adopted in one state spread to its neighbors as their citizens and officials see positive effects and move to imitate. In New England, for example, the process started when Massachusetts legislated against employment discrimination in 1988 and recognized same-sex marriages in 2004, and Vermont became the first state to formally recognize same-sex relationships by instituting civil unions in 2000. Similarly, California and Minnesota were early adopters, setting the stage for diffusion along the West coast and among Great Lakes states. California legislated against employment discrimination in 1992 and against hate crimes in 1999, and Minnesota took action in 1993. more...

Half a century after the start of the modern feminist movement, American women make up only 19% of the U.S. Congress and just 24% of all state legislators. Many factors help to explain such severe underrepresentation – and one of the key issues is that political careers are particularly lacking in job flexibility. Elected officials work long hours, travel extensively, and cannot easily interrupt work obligations to care for children. Because women still do most of the housework and child care, challenges in balancing their obligations dissuade many from running for public offices, in the same way that women often avoid other inflexible careers like business leadership.

When women forego legislative careers, it matters not only for the individuals involved, but for states and the nation, because female politicians are more likely to raise issues and vote for policies that matter to women. With women underrepresented in the halls of government, our democracy not only misses out on vital talent; it cannot fully address everyone’s concerns. more...

Media stories about measles outbreaks in California and Arizona have featured prominent politicians weighing in with conflicting messages. Should vaccination be required for all children with few exceptions? Are vaccines safe? Should parents have a choice – when refusing vaccines can put their own and other people’s children at grave risk? The stories are dramatic, but scholars and public officials warn that it is dangerous to turn vaccination into a political football. Other widely publicized controversies reveal that the insertion of politics into media coverage can be hard to reverse, as it may undermine public trust in doctors and public health officials.

Political Controversy Sticks

Our research examines two recent politically charged health controversies – the 2009 dust-up over mammography screening guidelines and the 2006-2007 debate over whether middle schools should require girls to get vaccinated against infections by the human papillomavirus (“HPV” for short). Specifically, we found that local and national media coverage did not start with a focus on political controversy. But once news stories started to highlight partisan arguments among political leaders, political controversies became the focus of subsequent coverage. more...

At all levels from kindergarten to twelfth grade, American schools are making huge investments in digital education – with proponents often touting digital tools as a way to close achievement gaps and improve learning opportunities for economically and academically disadvantaged students. Digital instruction – using computers, netbooks, or handheld devices – is rapidly spreading in classrooms and supplemental areas of instruction. Big money is in play: One estimate values the U.S. school market for education software and digital content at nearly $8 billion. Advances in technology allow digital tools to offer the promise of broad access at low cost, competing with face-to-face methods of instruction for shrinking funds. But with schools inundated with new digital tools, little attention has been paid to whether teachers, parents, and students are putting them to effective use. more...

Years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the daily lives of American Muslims continue to be affected by the anxieties and policies those attacks unleashed. Because so many of their fellow citizens see them as both physically threatening and culturally inferior, Muslim-Americans endure regular expressions of hostility at their jobs and in public spaces. They are also the target of government policies aimed at securing the country from another terrorist attack.

Every single day in U.S. airports, for example, Muslim Americans are treated as dangerous. Quite a few men have been told they are on a No-Fly List when they attempt to check in for flights; and women who wear the hijab or other religious clothing are often stopped and searched by Transportation and Security Administration agents. Such government actions are not only a problem for the people affected; they also convey the broader message that Muslims are a threat to national security and require careful monitoring and surveillance. more...

For most Americans, protecting free expression means countering threats from government. Private corporations are not usually seen as threatening free speech. But as private technology companies increasingly mediate access to information and services, the distinction between governmental and private censorship becomes less clear. Concepts of free speech and freedom of expression may need to be revised and enlarged to take account of new threats in the age of digital communications—and policies to protect freedom of expression may need to counter threats, often subtle, from the private sector as well as government. more...