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International Migration Scholar Waldinger Joins Institute Leadership
Photo by Oliver Chien

International Migration Scholar Waldinger Joins Institute Leadership

As interim associate vice provost, Sociology Professor Roger Waldinger will oversee changes in the International Institute's degree programs, lead a faculty search, and work with center directors on Institute-wide projects. Professor Waldinger also coordinates the interdisciplinary UCLA Migration Study Group.

The UCLA Migration Study Group begins its fifth year of programming this Friday, Sept. 24, with a presentation by Trinity University (San Antonio) Professor David Spener on how migrants and their guides, known as "coyotes," evade law enforcement at the Texas-Mexico border. The UCLA sociology professor who started and co-organizes the group, Roger Waldinger, intends such "author-meets-critics" sessions to be lively debates. In this case, Spener will face a RAND Corporation sociologist and a UCLA historian who has published a new book on the border patrol. Graduate students who participate make valuable contacts in their fields, explains Waldinger, and find out that academic life is also about clashes of ideas.

"The guiding philosophy is that migration is a phenomenon that cuts across the disciplines," he says. "The goal is to try to build conversations across the disciplines that look at the phenomenon as it really is."

Over the summer, Waldinger, who previously has chaired the Sociology Department and directed the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, agreed to join the Institute on an interim basis as associate vice provost. In that role, he'll work with the directors of international area studies centers and interim Vice Provost Randal Johnson on interdisciplinary initiatives across the Institute. In particular, he is leading a faculty search for a social scientist specializing on Iran and will make recommendations on how to maintain the quality of UCLA's internationally oriented, interdepartmental degree programs.

Waldinger is part of the first generation of social scientists to focus exclusively on international migration, having gotten his start in graduate school at Harvard University in the late 1970s.

"At the time, it really was not clear that this was a phenomenon that was going to last," he says.

In his books and many articles, all on migration and the labor of migrants, Waldinger considers long-term changes in U.S. cities and relations among ethnic groups. Rather than focus on any single population, however, he examines broad questions that vex discussions in the field, often making use of surveys and other public data about new arrivals to rich countries and always keeping historical precedent in view. A noted skeptic of claims that global migration has entered a new, "transnational" phase in which borders have a diminished presence, he inquires into the nature and the durability of migrants' connections to their home countries, as well as the ways in which home governments react to their leaving.

He also finds it instructive to consider the views of those who never cross borders on the subject of those who do.

"For the people who stay behind [in Mexico and Central America], what they perceive is how much the migrants have changed," Waldinger says. "They see the Americanization. Much of it is consumption habits, behavior, disposition; it's not that they come home waving the American flag. The American flag is on the $100 Nike sneakers that they're wearing."

At bottom, says Waldinger, immigration is a political question. In a way, it's strange that anyone would need to be reminded of that, but politics is not merely whatever passes for debate. Waldinger contends that government-imposed controls on migration – which he says were practically nonexistent for waves of Europeans coming to America – are at the heart of how today's economically unequal societies interact and manage their labor forces, skilled and unskilled.

"There really are two borders to cross," he says. "One is to get into a country like the United States. The other thing is to become an American citizen."