TIPSHEET: Immigration overhaul debate: Vanderbilt University experts available for comment

America’s past immigrant experience should be studied by those wanting to overhaul current immigration laws, says historian Gary Gerstle.”The successful integration of millions of immigrants and their descendants has become a defining feature of American society,” according to Gerstle, the James Stahlman Professor of History. “Learning how previous generations of immigrants integrated themselves into America—often proving wrong those who asserted that immigrants lacked the desire and ability to assimilate themselves into American society—helps us to understand the prospects and the process for successful immigration integration today,” he says. Gerstle is an expert on the politics of past and present immigrant legislation and the deep split over the issue within both the Republican and Democratic parties. More generally, he has a strong interest in issues surrounding race, ethnicity, labor and the American experience. Gerstle’s books include American Crucible: Race and Nation in the 20th Century (Princeton University Press), which received the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award for outstanding book on U.S. immigration and ethnic history in 2001, and The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980. One of his current book projects is Race and Nation in the United States, Cuba and Mexico, 1880-1940. Gerstle, who recently testified on Capitol Hill on matters pertaining to immigration integration and comprehensive immigration reform, can be reached at

Illegal immigration is hurting African-Americans and the Congressional Black Caucus is not doing enough about it, says Professor of Law and Political Science Carol Swain. In a new book of essays called Debating Immigration, which Swain edited and contributed to, Swain said that African Americans are losing more jobs to illegal immigrants than other racial or ethic groups, yet low income black workers don’t have political input in the debate. “African Americans have been left devoid of a strong black voice in Congress on a topic that affects them deeply, given their high unemployment rates and historic struggle to get quality housing, health care, education and other goods and services,” says Swain. “Lax or non-existent immigration rules help businesses get away with hiring illegal immigrants instead of legal workers.” She points out that the greatest competition occurs among people at the margins of society; a multi-racial group that includes poorly educated blacks, whites and Hispanics who compete against each other and against new immigrants for low-wage, low-skill jobs. Swain also contends that any parallel between immigrant issues and the black civil rights movement is weak. She says that the Congressional Black Caucus, by not taking a stand on immigration, is ignoring the interests of its constituency. Swain can be reached at

Stricter border controls result in more undocumented migrants in the United States, says sociologist Katharine Donato. She studies how United States and Mexican immigration policies affect both countries – particularly in the areas of employment, education, health and social services. About two-thirds of the United States’ immigrant population comes from Mexico, and it is facing tougher U.S. immigration polices than about 20 years ago when federal legislation designed to reduce undocumented workers was first passed. When illegal immigration numbers did not drop following the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, there was a call for more border controls. Donato, a professor of sociology, says there is “very little research that shows walls work.” Rather, they may only serve to encourage permanent immigration. “Illegal immigration used to be a largely circular activity where immigrants would travel back and forth across the borders to work in the United States to better their lives at home in Mexico. Immigrants worked here for six to eight years and then returned home. Now, however, stricter U.S. immigration policies have forced many to stay here in order to achieve greater economic stability,” Donato says. One consequence is a growing undocumented migrant population with more permanent ties living in the United States than in the past. Donato can be reached at

Professor of Sociology Dan Cornfield can discuss immigration’s impact on new destination cities in the interior United States. Cornfield, who is also director of the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies, has a strong interest in how “new destination cities” in the interior states are integrating immigrants into their communities. While border cities have been at the forefront of immigration issues, he says the “formerly secluded” interior states are now dealing with implications for social services, health care, employment and the prospects for unionization. Cornfield led a study looking at Nashville, Tenn., a new destination city, and others of comparable size including Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Memphis. Cornfield can be reached at