Bringing a continental perspective to the Latin American Institute
UCLA sociologist Rubén Hernández-León. (Photo provided by Professor Hernández-León.)

Bringing a continental perspective to the Latin American Institute

Under the leadership of its new director, Rubén Hernández-León, the Latin American Institute will examine continent-wide dynamics and how they connect Latin America with the rest of the world.

“Immigration actually divides the local established population because immigration is controversial and does not produce a uniform response. People take different positions and sometimes those positions are contradictory.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, October 1, 2021 — Although sociologist Rubén Hernández-León became the director of the UCLA Latin American Institute (LAI) in July of this year, he is no stranger to LAI or the International Institute. He has been working closely with both for nearly 15 years.

The UCLA professor formerly served as director of the Center for Mexican Studies (2009–2021) and as a member of the International Institute’s faculty advisory committee. He was also one of three coordinators of a sociology department migration working group that eventually became the Center for the Study of International Migration, where he is presently a member of the faculty advisory committee.

“I think LAI has a distinguished track record in terms of bringing together people from different areas. It is a kind of achievement all its own to keep people from across the disciplines engaged,” says Hernández-León, whose research focuses on Mexico-U.S. migration.

“We have a committed group of people from South Campus, as well as faculty in the humanities and social sciences, who are not just supporters of LAI, but engage in the life of the institute.”

Looking ahead at the Latin American Institute

“As much as I work on Mexico and have roots there, I want to make sure that LAI programming has a continent-wide purpose and approach to Latin America,” remarks Hernández-León.

The LAI director is, for example, working on a new blog that will feature contributions from scholars, activists, journalists and others living in different parts of Latin America, as well as a series on Colombia that will cover issues of migration, culture, politics and race, as well as the country's connections and contributions to the world.

In a similar vein, LAI will host a conference on the major impact of COVID-19 on labor and migration across Latin America in spring 2022. The conference will be cosponsored with the Center for Mexican Studies (whose new director, Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, is a labor studies scholar), the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Center for the Study of International Migration. It will feature presenters from countries across the region, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and individual Central American countries.

Hernández-León is also working with Min Zhou and Stephen Acabado, the respective directors of the Asia Pacific Center and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, to sound out scholars in Latin America, the U.S. and Asia about participating in a scholarly network to foster scholarship on the economic connections, migration flows, cultural connections and scientific and educational links between Latin American and the Asia Pacific.

“People know a lot about Latin America’s connection with the Atlantic world, and its connections with the U.S., but there are very interesting things that link Latin America and Asia,” he says.

“Some are not new by any means — we have had migratory flows between these two world regions for a long time, such as with Japan and China. Some of these ties are being revitalized, while others are emerging.”  

Researching and teaching Mexico-U.S. migration

Hernández-León’s work focuses on the sociology of migration from Mexico to the U.S. and, increasingly, the reverse migration of workers back to Mexico from the U.S.

He is the author of three major works — “Skills of the ‘Unskilled’: Work and Mobility among Mexican Migrants” (UC Press, 2015; with Jacqueline Hagan and Jean-Luc Demonsant), “Metropolitan Migrants: the Migration of Urban Mexicans to the United States” (UC Press, 2008) and “New Destinations: Mexican Immigration in the United States” (Russell Sage, 2005; co-edited with Víctor Zúñiga) — as well as countless journal articles and book chapters published in English, Spanish and French.

The scholar has had the good fortune to establish enduring collaborative partnerships, most notably with sociologists Victor Zúñiga of Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León and Jacqueline Hagan of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and more recently, with anthropologist Efrén Sandoval of Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), Unidad Regional Noreste. “Working with co-authors allows for a built-in conversation,” he says.

Among the courses he teaches at UCLA, one seminar (“Mexico-U.S. Migration: Mexican Perspectives”) is offered in Spanish. The class examines the literature on Mexico-U.S. migration written in Mexico and draws students who are primarily heritage Spanish speakers. “The class has really piqued my interest in sociolinguistics, because my students come with Spanish that arises from all sorts of social situations,” he comments.

“When I teach it, it’s always an adjustment for me because as a native speaker of Spanish, I speak very fast and my students are always saying, ‘Wait, wait!’ So I have to learn to go into slow gear.

“I give them quizzes on Mexican geography so that we can connect to the geography of migration, which lets them go home and talk to their parents about their experiences.

“I consider the subject matter to be part of international studies, as migration connects the global with the local. The course affirms to students that their lived experience as children of immigrants is part of a global dynamic that connects them to the world,” he adds.

Changing trends in Mexican migration

The pattern of migration from Mexico to the U.S. has changed in both amplitude and destination over the last 30–40 years, with net migration from Mexico reaching zero during the 2000s.

Hernández-León attributes the near halt in migration from Mexico to several reasons: a major demographic change in Mexico (i.e., families who once had six to eight children now mostly have two), a manufacturing boom in Mexico that has resulted from the NAFTA trade agreement, greater enforcement of undocumented migration from Mexico in the U.S. and the growing use of temporary labor visas by the U.S.

In the past decade, the U.S. has increasingly granted H2-A and H2-B visas for Mexican agricultural workers and non-agricultural labor-intensive workers, respectively. These visas establish a legal path for temporary work, but not permanent immigration, to the U.S.

“In some ways, this is a return to the Bracero Program,*” explains the LAI director. “It has the characteristics of a classic guest worker program that seeks to maximize the use of labor that the U.S. wants to bring in and use without allowing for integration of the workers into U.S. society.


Mexican agricultural workers in Oregon during the Bracero Program. (Photo: Oregon State University Archive
via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

“And although the pandemic disrupted the flow of legal temporary workers under the new visas, it also showed that these workers were very much needed. The U.S. federal government declared farm workers to be essential workers early in the coronavirus pandemic.”

Today two regimes are operating simultaneously in the U.S.: authorized and unauthorized. “These two regimes not only coexist, but also interact,” he says. “Workers with and without papers (often from the same communities of origin in Mexico) end up working alongside one another on the same farm, on same golf course or in the same hotel.”

As a result, the limited employment rights of undocumented workers in the U.S. have come under greater pressure. For example, explains Hernández-León, “We know of employers who are using H2 visas as way of discouraging their undocumented workers from organizing to demand more rights or form unions — pitting the two labor forces against each other.”

Reflects the scholar, “As a liberal democratic society, it is a salient social problem for the U.S. to have a perpetually disenfranchised population of undocumented migrants. It is a violation of human rights.”

Migrant worker on a farm in Gilroy, CA. Photo: USDA via Flickr (https://bit.ly/3iotg2B); 2013; cropped. CC BY 2.0 (https://bit.ly/3ASWy0p). Another major development has been the de facto shift of the southern border of the U.S. further southward into Mexico over approximately the last 20 years. As more and more migrants from Central America and, increasingly, other countries around the world, attempt to enter the U.S. from Mexico, the Mexican government has begun to function as a migration barrier for the U.S.

Under the Trump administration, which explicitly threatened Mexico with import tariffs if it did not contain migrant flows, the practice came to include keeping people seeking asylum in the U.S. on the Mexican side of the border until they are granted an appointment with U.S. authorities.

“Mexico went from being a sort of filter for migration to a barrier and now a wall — and not a wall that runs east to west, but north to south,” comments the UCLA professor. “The main idea is to stop as much migration as possible.”

The enduring paradox of Mexican migration to the U.S.

Hernández-León is currently finishing a book with Victor Zúñiga on a 25-year study of the mass migration of Mexican workers to the rural Southern town of Dalton, Georgia. Migrants from both Mexico and other cities in the U.S. began to stream into the town, known for its rug and floor covering factories, in the late 1990s. In just a few years, its schools became majority Latino.

“The heart of the book is about the integration experience of immigrants in Dalton and how contradictory the process is, because it involves powerful forces that contribute to both the inclusion and exclusion of immigrants,” says the sociologist.

 
Plaza Fiesta, DeKalb County, Georgia, 2013. (Photo: Keizers via Wikimedia Commons; altered. CC BY-SA 3.0.)

“Immigration actually divides the local established population because immigration is controversial and does not produce a uniform response. People take different positions and sometimes those positions are contradictory,” he explains. “Because we have been there for 25 years, we have seen over and over again how local actors end up at odds with each other.”

On one hand, for example, public schools and many — but not all — teachers actively seek to help immigrant students, teach them English and assimilate them into U.S. culture and society. On the other hand, although the community may recognize the need for immigrant workers and employers may use Spanish in the workplace, “that doesn’t necessarily translate into the same people being eager to grant those immigrants political, social and political rights,” notes Hernández-León.

The book also explores the “return” to Mexico of adults and children who were living and being educated in Dalton. “Many of these children are not returning to Mexico, but are migrating there for the first time,” says the professor. In fact, there is a growing population of children and young adults in Mexico who have been educated in two school systems (estimated at roughly 500,000–600,000), and thus, inculcated in the values and citizenship rituals of both the U.S. and Mexico.

“Many of these children will be truly bilingual and bicultural. They will be very familiar with the institutions and business practices of both countries,” he observes.

In fact, his research has shown that some Mexican migrants in Dalton purposefully send their children to Mexico for middle school in order to deepen their knowledge of Spanish, then bring them back to the U.S. for high school.

“These are working-class people, often with rural backgrounds. They are very aware of the advantages of bilingualism and biculturalism, they see them as advantages that their children can use,” says Hernández-León.

In part, this strategy reflects the uncertainty in which undocumented migrant workers live in the U.S. “These people have been residing in the U.S. for decades, they have raised their families here and have had children here. They make contributions to American society, yet have no guarantee that they will be here tomorrow,” he reflects.

*The Bracero Program (actually a series of agreements between the U.S. and Mexico) operated between 1942 and 1964 and extended temporary contracts to Mexican agricultural workers in the U.S. The program and the circular migration that it supported was in line with historical migration patterns between the two countries.