Pallavi Banerjee is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and a Council on Contemporary Families expert. Her research focus includes international immigration, immigration policies, transnationalism, minority families, and gender. Banerjee’s most current project is Constructing Dependence:Visa Regimes and Gendered Migration in Families of Indian Professional Workers. With the different perspectives on immigration, Pallavi Banerjee’s work is very important: The recent election made us even more eager to hear about her research.
Q: What influenced you to study migration and gender in Indian professional families? For that matter, what puts a family under the category of a “professional family”?
PB: I learned about the dependent visas back in 1997 when I was still living in India as a freshman in college and was quite horrified by the implications of the visa policy for the kind of constraint it put on families. The dependent visa disallows spouses of “high-skilled temporary workers to work for pay until the lead immigrant worker has gained permanent residency in the U.S., a process that can take anywhere from six to 15 years.
When I came to the U.S to do my Ph.D. in 2005, I was taken aback to realize that these policies were still well and alive. I kept meeting Indian families and highly-qualified women who were forced to stay home and assume the role of the homemaker and caregiver due to the visas. But no one knew these families existed and the challenges they are facing. So, as an Indian immigrant woman who lived in the United States on many different kinds visas and had close personal associations with people whose lives were constrained by what I call the visa regime, my project is inspired by the merging of my personal and academic investment in understanding how immigration and visa laws affect immigrant “professional families” and how gendered patterns of migration further complicates their experiences.
I use the term “professional families” for the families in my study primarily for two reasons. One, under legal language people who migrate on H1-B (high-skilled) visas are labeled “high-skilled” visa holders because these workers mainly populate the high-tech and other “specialty occupations” like health care, finance, medicine, engineering, which are considered professional occupations. I deliberately rejected the “high-skilled” label because, as a sociologist, I do not see some occupations to be more skilled or more valuable than others. I would argue that a person migrating as a caregiver for children or elderly is as skilled in the job as a high-tech worker, and so it is misleading to categorize this occupation under low-skilled work. My second reason for calling these families “professional families” is that in most families in my study the spouse on the dependent visa was also highly-qualified and held a professional degree and even though they were not allowed to work in the U.S., they worked in professional occupations prior to migration.
Q: What have you discovered about international immigration policies affecting families that could be improved?
PB: My research shows that visa regimes that are predicated on state imposed dependence creates multiple dependence structures. Dependent spousal visas create within immigrant families a lifestyle that looks like a 1950 nuclear family where dad goes off to work and mom stays home to take care of the family. The skilled migration of workers and their families, as it stands now, creates a structure where the paid labor of the main migrant hinges on the unpaid labor of the dependent spouse – work that is devalued and has consequences for family stability and personhood of the visa holders. The migration trajectory is set up in a way that ensures that this system of dependence reproduces itself by charting the course of skilled migration to the U.S. and how we formulate our immigration policies based on this visa regime. Beyond my research, I think what needs to stop immediately is senseless and arbitrary deportation of undocumented families and family members that are ripping families apart. I argue that we dismantle the archaic and illogical laws like the dependent visa policy or mass deportation of families that creates enduring inequalities both within immigrant families and in the American society at large.
Q: There are often claims in American media that link immigration into the United States to threats such as ISIS. What are some ways to change the conversation about terrorism and immigration?
PB: Linking immigration in the United States to threats such as ISIS is extremely problematic and prejudicial. This rhetoric is not only used by the media but was used recently by President-elect Trump to fuel racism through the lowest form of fear-mongering. It is therefore very important to challenge this egregious discourse. Linking ISIS with immigration is anti-immigration and anti-Muslim. It supports public display of racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic sentiments.
There are several ways to counter this rhetoric. You can explain the fact that immigrants boost the American economy is a well-researched finding. You can highlight the fact that getting into the U.S as an immigrant has become increasingly hard since 9/11 because the visa granting process in the United States involves detailed counter-terrorism screening by multiple law-enforcement and government security agencies for all kinds of visas granted. This shows that to assume that the U.S. is letting in ISIS when letting in immigrants is ignorant and foolhardy.
The fact is that, of all the terrorist attacks in America since 9/11, most were carried out by American-born lone wolves, most of whom had no links with ISIS at all. You can get across that the rhetoric that links immigrants to ISIS creates more divisions in our society in the ways that ISIS wants: They have made it quite clear that it’s their strategy to eliminate the “grayzone” where Muslims and non–Muslims live in peace so that all Muslims are forced to turn to them as they continue to feel unsafe.
Most importantly, I would say that the only way to change the conversation is every time such discourse is used we need to stand up and call it out for what it is – racist.
Eunice Owusu is a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs Intern and a sociology major at Framingham State University.