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Weise Studies U.S. Immigration

Published: February 1, 2013

International Studies’ Julie Weise returned to campus in June from a one-year post-doctoral leave of absence in North Carolina and New Mexico where her examination of U.S. immigration was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the School for Advanced Research.

“I feel grateful that these grants are there for us because there is not as much support for research as we’d like in these bad economic times,” said Weise, a member of the university since 2009. “I feel very lucky I had this opportunity. A cool fact is that of hundreds of NEH faculty research grants given last year, only two CSU faculty members received them for 2011-2012: me and Susan Carlile, both at CSULB.” English’s Susan Carlile spent a year in the United Kingdom as part of her one-year NEH research fellowship to write a critical biography titled Charlotte Lennox: A Powerful Mind.

Weise’s goal is the 2014 publication of her new book, Corazón de Dixie: Mexico and Mexicans in the U.S. South since 1910, from the University of North Carolina Press. Weise studied sources previously unused by historians from Mexican consular archives and U.S. state, municipal and church records to dozens of newspapers.

“To capture the experiences of those who left little trace in written records, I collected immigrants’ family photographs and papers and conducted oral history interviews, many in Spanish, with Southern whites, African-Americans, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, all from a variety of political and social class backgrounds,” she said.

Through five case studies, Weise took a close look at the middle-class Mexican immigration to New Orleans during and after the Mexican Revolution; the Mississippi Delta’s Mexican cotton laborers; and Mexican braceros (guest workers) in Arkansas. Her last two case studies explored Mexicans’ place within the “color-blind” but racially informed class politics that dominated the South during the final decades of the 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st. Her study of the migration of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans between Florida and rural Georgia showed that in agricultural areas, whites were eager to incorporate Mexicans socially as long as they kept silent about labor abuses, asked little of Great Society programs and distanced themselves from the civil rights movement.

Weise believes her research helps her to contribute to the national debate about immigration.

“Increased border enforcement increases settlement in the U.S.,” she said. “It used to be that men moved back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border sending money to their families. The men weren’t visible in the parks and the schools of North Carolina.

“But because of increased border enforcement, men began sending for their wives and children. Then there were the wives who said ‘See you next week in Charlotte,’” she added. “Because there is an increased presence of Latino women and children, there has been a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment that comes more from their perceived use of social services than from competition for jobs.”

Weise began her leave in 2011 by visiting Charlotte, N.C., to study the area’s Mexican immigration, paying special attention to the city’s suburban and exurban areas. “I felt these were the most important places to look at because that is where the anti-immigrant movement tends to be strongest and most prominent,” she said. “I even visited an immigrant Zumba class and spent time with an anti-immigrant state legislator.”

When the academic year began in September, Weise swapped North Carolina for the American Southwest to become the 2011-2012 Weatherhead Resident Scholar at New Mexico’s School for Advanced Research (SAR). SAR provides resident scholars with low-cost housing and office space on campus, a stipend, library assistance and other benefits during a nine-month tenure from September through May.

Julie Weise
Julie Weise

“It was an amazing opportunity,” said Weise. “It was a chance to associate with scholars on fellowships like mine. It was a beautiful setting in which to write my book.” She received her bachelor’s in anthropology, two master’s degrees in history and her doctorate from Yale, the latter in 2009.

One of the surprises in her research was that when it comes to immigration, the stereotype of the conservative country versus the liberal city was stood on its head. She visited rural Georgia, home of the Vidalia onion.

“Farmers are powerful in agricultural Georgia and they are interested in keeping a positive image for Mexican immigrants because they need them to keep coming,” she said. “There is also an evangelical presence in many rural towns that has been open to newcomers. As deeply conservative as the local residents were, they had no problem with undocumented immigrants, especially those open to being saved.”

Weise feels her research is timely and speaks to the future of the U.S. “The social dynamics of Southern California are years ahead of the rest of the nation,” she said. “The American South is the fastest-growing region for Latino population growth over the last 20 years. What I see is a repeat of what happened in California upon the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994 which was aimed at reducing public services for undocumented immigrants.”

Even though the proposition was ruled by a federal district judge in 1997 to be unconstitutional, Weise believes the initiative was a powerful symbol for anti-immigrant feeling. “California invented the contemporary anti-immigrant movement and then exported it throughout the country,” she said. “You can see it in the links among anti-immigrant activists. It has been exported to places that look a lot like Orange County’s majority white suburbs. They use the same rhetoric and support that Proposition 187 had in California in the 1990s. I think my research turns the national perception of racism on its head. There’s nothing Southern about on the anti-immigrant movement in Georgia and Alabama. It is a national issue that has as much to do with class politics as it does race.”

Weise thanked International Studies for its support with a special tip of the hat to Chair Richard Marcus. “He believes his faculty members must be researchers as well as teachers,” she said. “He was encouraging, supportive and happy that I had this opportunity. Being able to do research is a critical part of being a teacher. You go out into the field and bring back what you find to the classroom.”