Eve Edelheit/The New York Times

Ming Hsu Chen urged students to expand their view of immigration beyond the binary of “legal” and “illegal."

March 9, 2021

Author Ming Hsu Chen Explores Nuances of Immigrant Experience

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The construct of citizenship is oversimplified in today’s conversations, author Ming Hsu Chen argued to the Cornell community on Friday. According to Chen, citizenship should be viewed as a spectrum, rather than through the binary perspective of “legal” and “illegal.”

Chen presented her book, “Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era,” at the fourth installment of the Reimagining Citizenship Speaker Series, a multi-part lecture series which brings academics, authors and artists to Cornell to discuss the intersection of migration and citizenship. 

The talk was part of the University’s Migrations: Global Grand Challenge project, an initiative that studies how living beings migrate across Earth. Friday’s event drew over 200 viewers from across the globe, from Italy to Ithaca.

Moderated by Prof. Shannon Gleeson, industrial and labor relations, the talk opened with Vanessa Olguin ’22, a migration studies student, who acknowledged the history of the Cayuga Nation, on whose land Cornell University is built.

Chen, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder Law School, where she is the faculty director of the Immigration and Citizenship Law Program, a program that studies the intersection of immigration policy with other disciplines, asserted that immigration is often wrongly considered a binary issue.

“The choices are that you’re either a citizen or you’re an immigrant, and you’re legal or you’re illegal, and then that makes you an insider or an outsider,” Chen said. “Usually, the U.S.- Mexico border is considered the dividing line. That binary is overly simplistic, and it’s rather incomplete.”

Chen explored the meaning of citizenship and immigration beyond their legal definitions. Her book discusses different dimensions of citizenship, including social belonging, economic opportunity and political engagement.

Chen studied these issues by conducting 100 interviews with a diverse range of immigrants for her book. According to Chen, many immigrants feel the need to apply for citizenship because of the protection it offers, especially among the recent anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration. 

She went on to reference her colleague, a white Canadian residing in the United States for 20 years, who does not feel the urge to apply for U.S. citizenship because of his status as an “invisible immigrant” — someone not immediately recognizable as an immigrant due to skin color and socioeconomic status.

Chen further discussed the impacts of the over 400 immigrantion-related policies during the Trump presidency, asserting that policies like the “Muslim ban” served to make all greencard holders feel less secure about their status.

Relating the discussion of citizenship to college life, Chen referred to a Chinese international student she interviewed who was conflicted about applying for a green card because they felt a sense of otherness.

“She had this very thin sense of citizenship and belonging,” Chen said. “Despite the fact that many people think about international students and high skilled workers who come in similar visa categories as being in a position of privilege, their experience of being in the United States, substantively can be quite hollow.”

These immigration stories that break from the common narrative, according to Chen, have a common thread.

“The immigrants that I studied, all have either blocked paths to citizenship, like the dreamers, or broken paths, like international students, who wouldn’t be able to become citizens on their visa, but might have a possibility of adjusting to a more permanent status later on,” Chen said. 

Chen went on to describe the shared challenges of immigrants during the Trump presidency, including an increase in enforcement of restricting immigration policies.

“In all cases, whatever level of insecurity they felt was heightened during the years of the Trump administration,” Chen said, “where immigrant exclusion and immigrant enforcement were the dominant focus of federal immigration policy.”

Chen concluded by discussing steps to advance the conversation surrounding citizenship, including the Biden administration’s citizenship legislation, which aims to create clearer paths to citizenship for immigrants who are temporary workers. Chen called the bill bold and ambitious.

“The idea of the spectrum of citizenship  shows that there are a lot of different facets of immigration of the immigration system that need fixing,” Chen said. “I think people across the political spectrum would generally agree with that.” 

The Reimagining Citizenship Speaker Series will continue next month with a talk by the Ecuadorian-American writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of the The Undocumented Americans, slated to take place on April 1.