Journal Publishes UTEP ‘Citizenship Profiling’ Study
Last Updated on August 31, 2018 at 12:00 AM
Originally published August 31, 2018
By Daniel Perez
El Paso County law enforcement officials are more likely to ask first-generation Mexican immigrants and their U.S-born children about their citizenship status, according to research conducted by two faculty members and a graduate student from The University of Texas at El Paso.
The research paper, “Variations in Citizenship Profiling by Generational Status: Individuals and Neighborhood Characteristics of Latina/os Questioned by Law Enforcement about Their Legal Status,” was published earlier this summer in “Race and Social Problems,” a highly respected interdisciplinary academic journal.
Maria Cristina Morales, Ph.D, associate professor of sociology, and Ted Curry, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice, led the research team made up of approximately 50 UTEP students to include a handful of sociology graduate students. The student teams spoke to 563 residents in 46 neighborhoods throughout El Paso County in 2014. The 261-question survey also included queries about policing, family income, immigration status and domestic violence.
Morales, the paper’s lead author, found that officers often base their decision to ask about citizenship on a person’s “foreignness” – clothing, accent, English-language fluency, and how they follow social norms. She called her findings “citizenship profiling,” the perception of who may be a legal resident or undocumented.
“People think of profiling as a white-black issue, but it is a lot more complicated than that,” Morales said. “It’s not just ethnicity. It is profiling people based on who they are perceived to be, whether an immigrant or a non-citizen. I call that citizenship profiling. We think we can see immigration status, but we can’t, but the perception is that you can. Unfortunately, this means that some people are being profiled more.”
The results showed that law enforcement officials – mainly El Paso police officers and the El Paso County Sheriff’s deputies – questioned second-generation Latinos about their citizenship slightly more than they questioned their first-generation parents. The reason was that the second-generation residents may be more likely to venture into parts of the community where they would make contact with law enforcement.
The National Science Foundation funded the study, which found that the profiling has little to do with the person’s sex, age or the socio-economic status of their neighborhood. Most of those asked about their citizenship lived in communities with a medium population density of immigrant Latinos.
Diane Vega, now a master’s student in sociology, was one of the undergraduates who served as one of the project’s research assistants. The El Paso native wondered aloud if the 20 or so people that she spoke with in Canutillo, Horizon City and Northeast El Paso would have been as open with their answers in 2018 as they were in 2014.
“When I asked the citizenship question, the people responded matter-of-factly,” said Vega, who expects to graduate in December 2018. She received her bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology from UTEP in 2016. “I think now it would be different. Now it’s an issue. I don’t know how open they would be to that question now.”
Vega worked alongside students from other majors, with most being from the Department of Criminal Justice. The course, which spanned two semesters, was team-taught by Morales and Curry.
Morales said the findings are important because of the growing requirements the U.S. government has for local law enforcement officers to make distinctions of citizenship along the U.S.-Mexico border. The researchers suggested that law enforcement officials should review their procedures because something as simple as a minor traffic stop could lead to someone’s deportation.
Rogelio Saenz, Ph.D., dean of the College of Public Policy and the Mark G. Yudof Endowed Chair at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), called the study “highly innovative” because it draws on racial profiling research to understand the profiling of Latinos based on the way that law enforcement perceives their citizenship status.
“This is a new concept that has not been covered and is extremely relevant to the massive deportation and detentions that we have seen over the last decade, and especially in the last year,” said Saenz, whose research interests are immigration, and race and ethnic relations.
The UTSA official said the study will have an important impact on research methodology and society’s understanding of how some law enforcement officers treat and target Latinos.
“It will serve to stimulate further research through its theoretical concepts and methodological insights,” said Saenz, who recruited Morales to Texas A&M University and served as her mentor during her master’s and doctoral work in sociology. “This is excellent research that has strong practical and policy implications.”
Morales said she would like to schedule presentations about the results of the team’s research with law enforcement agencies and some of the communities where the students conducted their surveys.
“People are very interested in the topic,” she said. “This is just the beginning of these discussions.”
Morales said she and Curry plan to use their data and information from the U.S. Census Bureau to build neighborhood profiles based on the concentration of immigrants and the amount of crime and policing in those communities. Morales said she expects to complete the first draft by December 2018, and be done with the final paper in about two years.