An Interview with Josiah Heyman

25-1_heyman.jpgKatie Birkey
Northern Illinois University

Elizabeth Balvaneda
Northern Illinois University

The following is an interview with Josiah Heyman, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Texas in El Paso, conducted on November 26, 2013 as part of a course in Anthropology and Contemporary World Problems. This interview was inspired by his two articles, “An Academic in an Activist Coalition: Recognizing and Bridging Role Conflicts,” (2011) and “Engaging With the Immigration Human Rights Movement in a Besieged Border Region: What Do Applied Social Scientists Bring to the Policy Process?” (Heyman, Morales, and Núñez 2009). Josiah Heyman has done extensive research over the years on border and immigration issues between the U.S. and Mexico. He brings to the table his insights of the work that coalitions are doing to address border issues, providing a social science and anthropological lens. He offers ideas and suggestions for effective policy change that starts from the ground-up.

You talk in one of your articles about how policy is made and how important it is to incorporate social science and anthropological approaches. Can you go into more detail about how these can be incorporated more to create policy?

Heyman: Immigration policy is made in one domain or one area and social science scholarship is made in another one. So the challenge is figuring out how to make a bridge between the two. They are not just automatically linked. Just because we know things and learn things over time does not mean that it really enters into the policy process. So an additional challenge is figuring out how to get information into the process, how do you connect to effective political movements, what kinds of information might be useful at what moment in formulating the policy, and so forth; so that they are not just automatically linked. Just because you do good scientific work does not mean that it has any effect on policy; so there is a specific challenge: how do you make that linkage?

You also discuss how immigration and terrorism have been linked into the same concept post 9/11. Have you seen any kind of shift in this mentality through your work?

Heyman: Yes, I think that 9/11 was really irrelevant to almost all immigration. The only connections have to do with visitors passing through international airports and with Muslim immigrants. It’s also important to remember that some acts of terrorism are domestic. So the vast majority of people, whether they are unauthorized migrants or completely legal migrants, and especially people coming through legally and without documents through the U.S.-Mexico border, have nothing to do with terrorism at the empirical level. I believe they got merged because terrorism is a powerful symbolic thing that becomes an easy way to convey fear and anxiety about change in the country. There is this notion that strange people are coming into the country and they must be the source of all dangerous things; so we are going to take something, which really has to do with airports in Miami, and we are going to put it onto the U.S.–Mexico border.

I think that a lot of the awareness of immigration issues in the last couple of years has shifted the debate back to immigration. I do not think we hear the kind of discussion of this in terms of terrorism quite as much as we did after 9/11. I actually take seriously issues of political terrorism and security. I think that people in civilian life should be as free as possible from the threat of political harm. I think that is a good principle to have across a lot of situations. But I do think that the real issues having to do with immigration policy and border policy are not really connected to that so we’re still sort of stuck. What we’re really stuck with this time is more of a concern about whether or not people are breaking the law, legality. I think the big debate in border policy and immigration policy right now is the sanctity of the land border. It’s legality; and I would say that behind that, it’s prejudice against people from Mexico. I think there is a misapprehension in the general public that most immigrants are from Mexico, which is not actually all that accurate. It’s the single largest group, but it’s not most of the total. Also, there are actually more legal immigrants most of the time than unauthorized immigrants.

But I think lurking behind this concern about a perfect border and lurking behind this concern about legality is fear of demographic change, fear of social or cultural change with respect to all sorts of sources of immigration; but the strongest single concern is Mexico. This means that there is an important need to use good social science to inform the policy process having to do with: is it possible to make a difference by legalizing migration? What is the reality of the border, what are the harms created by illegalization of people crossing the border, and so forth. The challenge is getting a political movement. It’s not just enough for me to know a lot about migration at the border. It’s about being plugged into a political movement where that sort of information can be useful.

Another political struggle is focused on the national interior and has to do with legalization of unauthorized immigrants. At the same time, there is also a struggle to get a new more fair-minded, more human rights-respected border enforcement policy and not to have an even more massive build-up of police and military force at the border. So, getting down into the details of what’s proposed and coming up with new proposals is work that academic social scientists or practicing social scientists need to be better trained to do.

Many years ago I did ethnography with officers of what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service (border patrol, port of entry inspectors, investigators, and so forth). Now, they’ve been included into different areas of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). What I’ve been working on recently is thinking about what I know about the perspectives of those officers, the work routines, the training, the organizational structure and culture; thinking about all of that stuff to try to figure out how to improve the way they conduct themselves, to reduce incidence of physical and verbal abuse, to limit use of force to those situations where it is really justified. In my original, academic work I was not trying to get down into the weeds of supervision. I was trained to make, very interesting I think, abstract theoretical generalizations; and I still love doing that stuff. I haven’t abandoned trying to be an imaginative, creative scholar. But something that I have learned that I need to do is figure out how to connect my knowledge to the details of how you actually do something. So what I then have to do is write up a document that has very specific bullet points that says “supervisors will be responsible for the following things,” and “training will address the following things” and so forth; and then somebody who’s on a congressional staff can turn that into actual legislation. But to be able to give them very specific, very concrete things that might lead to effective results in the real world is part of building that bridge between the scholarship and the policy world.

What is the level of engagement the borderland communities have in local and national immigration policy?

Heyman: I would say that there has long been organizations, activities, documentations, struggles, and so forth on the border. But I would say in the middle of the last decade, it really was not large or very consolidated. Starting around the beginning of the last decade, a new model of community organizing within border communities emerged. There are 8 million people on the U.S. side of the border, so it’s not just a place where people go through at night; there’s an enormous border population. People started organizing using community organizing methods and by the middle of the last decade, so say around 2006, we began to try to pull together a broad range of border sectors (business, faith-based communities, local law enforcement, local elected officials, academics, and community organizations of various kinds).

We have had large conferences that have tried to do two things: they tried to pull people together geographically from all along the U.S. side of the border. The other thing is to pull together a lot of different sectors. One sector that got pulled in was the academic sector. That’s how I got drawn in. People started to ask me, “what do you have, what is your knowledge and your skills?” One of the things I had was not only my academic knowledge, but also that I’m a good reader and a good writer. So I’ve taken two roles. I’ve used my knowledge to contribute to this and I’ve also used my writing skills to pull together a lot of scattered information. What that did was begin to create the possibility of having a strong voice that can be demonstrated to represent a lot of different people, a lot of different groups in the borderlands. And that in turn has given us a good deal of legitimacy dealing with people in Congress. People in Congress vary. They have their own attitudes, they have funders, they have constituents, and so forth. But they are definitely affected when they hear large groups of organized voices; they pay attention to that. Sometimes they’re responsive, sometimes they’re not.

In general, in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands the vast majority of people in Congress are liberal Democrats. It’s a heavily Mexican-origin constituency all along the border. El Paso is 83% Latino/a and so that means that our voice tends to be heard. So, having organization in the community, bringing together a lot of voices, coming up with new and creative ideas, and working with political allies has been a positive process of building an effective voice.

The limitation is that the border is still very marginalized nationally. Our problem is that we have this regional voice and we have this regional expertise but we’re facing a lot of people nationally who are not so connected yet have strong cultural frameworks, symbolic concerns, fears, emotions, and so forth. We’re starting to try now to identify some kinds of economic connections from the border to those sorts of interior districts and use that as leverage to make further progress in the political process.

That’s not my work though; I’m only part of the division of labor. So people who are working for organizations part-time or full-time politically have a role in the division of labor. What I do is use their ideas, use their vision, but formulate it in ways we can put it into people’s hands and say, look, here’s a bunch of information, here’s a bunch of ideas. So, as an anthropologist or as a social scientist, I always have to see myself as only part of the division of labor. I am not accomplishing this thing all by myself. I don’t have time, I don’t have the energy, I don’t have the skills, I don’t have the connections. I’m effective when I’m humble and I’m part of the division of labor.

In your Mexican border report, you mention effective border policies. How do you go about establishing trust between law enforcement officials and the community when they’ve had a history?

Heyman: There are many different kinds of law enforcement and the biggest gap is between the federal law enforcement and the community because frankly, a lot of people in the community are involved in things like unauthorized migration that the federal law enforcement people are going after. Then there’s state law enforcement and unfortunately in Texas, state police are run from the outside. Then there are local police of various kinds. There is the city of El Paso police department, El Paso county sheriff, and small municipal police departments. In those cases we’ve had a fair amount of success at working with key decision makers and working with police departments. By working with police departments, they realize that what they want to do is to have trust and openness in the community. The community may be full of mixed status families and what we told the local police was, “Look, if you scare the community, they’re not going to cooperate with you and they’re not going to report violent situations or give you information.” So if they want to be effective, they need to stay out of federal immigration law enforcement. They need to make it clear to the community that they are not an arm of the DHS. They are there for community safety and community law enforcement, and the majority of law enforcement in this area has been responsive to that. But it’s a process of dialogue.


Heyman, Josiah McC. 2011. An Academic in an Activist Coalition: Recognizing and Bridging Role Conflicts. Annals of Anthropological Practice 35(2): 136-153.

Heyman, Josiah McC, Maria Cristina Morales, and Guillermina Gina Núñez. 2009. Engaging with the Immigrant Human Rights Movement in a Besieged Border Region: What Do Applied Social Scientists Bring to the Policy Process? NAPA Bulletin 31: 13-29.

Katie Birkey is a senior Community Leadership and Civic Engagement (CLCE) major and minor in Women’s Studies at Northern Illinois University, and involved in the issue of human trafficking. Elizabeth Balvaneda is a senior in Psychology and CLCE Minor at Northern Illinois University and active within immigrant rights organizations.

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