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AU’s Immigration Lab: Researching “All Things Migration”

Lab established to conduct research, inform policymakers, and correct misperceptions about immigrants and immigration

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The United States is a nation of immigrants. According to the Brookings Institution, no other nation has as large an immigrant population. Except for those descended from Native peoples and enslaved Africans, most people in the US can trace at least part of their ancestry to an immigrant.

“People move in and out everywhere; migration is all around us,” says American University Associate Professor of Sociology Ernesto Castañeda. “Nonetheless, there are many misunderstandings about immigration among the general public, and unfortunately, politicians often create panic around international migration for political gain.”

To set the record straight on immigration and immigrants, Castañeda established AU’s Immigration Lab in 2020 with the mission of conducting rigorous empirical and theoretical research to inform academics, the public, and policymakers to make fact-based decisions.

“Immigrants make great contributions to the economy, the arts, sciences, and popular culture, yet many people wrongly believe that immigrants and refugees depend on welfare and are likely to commit crimes,” says Castañeda. “Many people have framed the situation at the US-Mexico border as a security crisis. They have committed large sums of money to criminalize migration, while ignoring real crises such as affordable housing, the minimum wage, and climate change.” 

The lab researches “all things migration,” including forced migration, immigration, emigration, transnationalism, integration, categorical inequality, health disparities, demographics, social mobility, racism and exclusion, social movement and contentious politics, ethnicity, and space. It also focuses on the well-being and opportunities offered to immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and minorities.

Demand and Importance

The lab’s base is in the College of Arts and Sciences, but it includes members from across American University and other institutions. It’s become a research hub that approaches the subject of immigration from many different angles and areas of expertise.

“We first established the lab to help coordinate collaborative research projects by students in the MA program in Sociology, Research, and Practice (SORP) and other programs,” says Castañeda. “We stuck with it because the lab model created a bit more structure in the chaotic and uncertain process of scientific research and allowed students to mentor and learn from each other outside of class.”

Little by little, project by project, the Immigration Lab has been a way for American University faculty and students to collaborate across disciplines, units, and ranks. 

SORP alumna Jessica Chaikof, who will start the PhD program in Social Policy at Brandeis University this fall, credits the lab with strengthening her research skills. “Prior to working with the Immigration Lab, I had limited knowledge and no interest in studying migration,” she says. “However, one of my major research interests is disability policy and accessibility. Through the Immigration Lab, I co-authored a paper on migration and trauma, and I am now working on a paper that explores disability among Mexican Americans in El Paso. My work with the Immigration Lab helped me become a better researcher and better understand the connections between disability and immigration, especially how one’s status as a disabled person can affect the migration process. I am incredibly grateful for the experiences I’ve gained in the lab and in the practicum.”

Publications and Impact

Castañeda, who serves as the founding director of the lab, is a prolific writer and expert on immigration. His analysis has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, El Paso Times, The Hill, US News & World Report, and NPR. Castañeda is a frequent guest on Telemundo, Univision, and NTN24. He is the author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford University Press 2018), winner of the 2019 LeoGrande Award, Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States (Lexington 2019), and with Charles Tilly and Lesley Wood Social Movements 1768-2018 (Routledge 2020); editor of Immigration and Categorical Inequality: Migration to the City and the Birth of Race and Ethnicity (Routledge 2018); and co-editor with Cathy L. Schneider of Collective Violence, Contentious Politics, and Social Change: A Charles Tilly Reader (Routledge 2017).

Right now, Castañeda is co-authoring several books with members of the lab who began working on the books as undergraduate or master's students. He is finishing one book with Daniel Jenks, deputy director of the Immigration Lab and recent SORP grad, on Central American families in the DC metropolitan region. Immigration Realities, co-authored with Carina Cione (program coordinator for the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies) is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. Castañeda also is midway on a book on health disparities co-authored by the entire SORP 2021 cohort.

“Along the way, we have also published peer-reviewed journal articles, op-eds and blog posts,” says Castañeda. “We value open-access journals and popular venues because they can reach a wider audience and correct some of the misinformation around migration.” One current example is a special issue on immigration and health for the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which he is editing with SIS Associate Professor Maria de Jesus.

Training, Teamwork, Scholarship, Advocacy

The lab is working on an ongoing project supported by AU — with SIS Senior Professorial Lecturer Tazreena Sajjad, Department of Anthropology Professorial Lecturer Mubbashir Rizvi, Afghan Exile Scholar Postdoctoral Fellow Bashir Mobasher, and several students — looking at the labor integration of Afghan refugees in the United States. In the fall, with SIS Associate Professor Lauren Carruth, it will start expanding to compare their experiences to those of refugees from Ethiopia and Ukraine now living in the DC region.

Mobasher emphasizes that the lab does more than scholarly studies and research on immigration. It also advocates for the rights of immigrants and provides support and assistance to migrant communities — something he experienced firsthand. “I received my postdoctoral fellowship with the help of Dr. Ernesto Casteñada and became a member of the lab. In response to the urgency of getting assistance to recent Afghan refugees to the DC area, the lab has launched timely research on the experiences of Afghan refugees in 2021, which is still ongoing,” he says. “Our researchers not only interview Afghan participants, but also advise them on how to prepare job applications and secure jobs, in addition to paying them reimbursement for participation in our research project."

Castañeda says that research with vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations requires much training, work, and patience. “Doing it as a part of a team is much better than doing it alone,” he adds. “We see all the work that students do in the lab as hands-on experience doing social science research and preparation for doctoral programs. Indeed, many former members have been accepted into top PhD programs with very competitive stipends and packages and are on the way to becoming professional researchers.”