In Your Neighborhood

The first documented research on mixed immigration families in RI

An in-depth interview with the researcher, Kalina Brabeck

Photo by Richard Asinof

Kalina Brabeck, associate professor and chair of the Counseling, Education Leadership and School Psychology Department at Rhode Island College, recently talked about her ground-breaking research on the experiences of U.S.-born children in Latino immigrant families in Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/27/15
The first research conducted on mixed immigrant families with U.S.-born children in Rhode Island creates documented evidence that contradicts many of the stereotypes surrounding immigrant families. It also shows the value of creating an evidence base before creating and implementing policy. As researcher Kalina Brabeck said: “Policies are made before we can figure out if they can work.”
What is the status of the research consortium on early childhood outcomes being organized by Steven Buka at Brown? What other kinds of research about diversity in Rhode Island can be undertaken, sponsored by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University? Is there an avenue of public discourse in Rhode Island that could bring Kalina Brabeck and Stephen Kinzer together for discussion of immigration policies?
There are two lines in a poem by Seamus Heaney, written in 1975, about the troubles in Ireland, in his book, North, and his own reticence to speak out: “Where to be saved you only must save face/And whatever you say, you say nothing.”
In Rhode Island, where diversity is one of the great strengths of the community, an asset that is often left out of the conversations about tourism and economic development, it can become one of the shining stars within a quality of life index. To do that, we need to move beyond reticence that Heaney expressed so well, born of tradition and fear, and embrace Rhode Island’s changing demographics.

PROVIDENCE – Recently, ConvergenceRI sat down to talk with Kalina Brabeck, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the Counseling, Educational Leadership and School Psychology Department at Rhode Island College, to discuss the research findings in her recent study of 179 mixed-immigrant families living in Rhode Island.

The two-year study focused on the experiences of immigrant families with U.S.-born children between the ages of 7 and 10. The principal countries of origin of the immigrants were the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the countries of Central America. Out of the 179 families, about half – 49 percent – were mixed-status families, according to Brabeck.

The study, “An Exploratory Study of the Experiences of U.S.-Born Children in Latino Immigrant Families,” was the first such comprehensive research of its kind, looking at the experience of mixed-immigration-status children and families in Rhode Island.

The research, funded by the Foundation for Child Development in New York City, offered empirical data that has been so often missing from the conversation around immigration in Rhode Island.

Brabeck’s findings challenged many of the myths about immigrant families and undocumented immigrants. As Brabeck told ConvergenceRI, “I think there were some findings that would surprise many people.”

They included:
• 75 percent of the households studied were two-parent households, and 83 percent of children from mixed-status families were growing up in a two-parent household.

• 50 percent of mixed-status families score above average in parent-child communication, and 33 percent of children from these families are fully bilingual in English and Spanish.

• There was a very low participation rate by parents in service utilization for themselves.

“People think, wrongly, that immigrants come here to [take advantage] of the public assistance programs,” Brabeck said. Immigrants, she continued, qualify for almost nothing. “They are not getting welfare, they are not getting benefits, they are not getting job training subsidies, they are not getting Medicaid, and they are not included in the Affordable Care Act.”

Hijacking the conversation
When Brabeck presented her findings on June 22 as part of a panel discussion hosted by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University and by Rhode Island Kids Count at the Rhode Island Foundation, the conversation stayed on point until the very end.

Then, during a question-and-answer period, Kevin Gallagher, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s deputy chief of staff, said that Raimondo would be developing a new school funding formula to address imbalances.

“Whatever your position is on the funding formula, it’s preposterous that affluent communities are complaining that poor black and brown students are stealing their money,” Gallagher said, according to a Providence Journal story.

In the resulting brouhaha that followed, much of the import of Brabeck’s study seemed to get lost in the tangential noise.

Telling the whole story
After talking with Brabeck, later that afternoon, ConvergenceRI met with Stephen Kinzer, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, and author of numerous books about American policy in Central America.

His most recent book, The Brothers, John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War, offers the details behind the façade of American policy that ripped apart countries and overthrew governments to blatantly further the corporate interests of America.

As Kinzer told ConvergenceRI, many people, after reading his books, are astounded by the fact that despite all their education in high school and college, they have never learned the true histories of what happened. “Why didn’t I know that?” readers of his books often ask him.

The research findings by Brabeck and the histories written by Kinzer are linked, incontrovertibly, bridging a divide of purposeful misinformation.

In telling the story of immigration, the reasons behind the waves of people leaving their country of origin and coming to the U.S. often get lost in translation. For instance, the Irish fled because of the potato famine and the repressive land policies of the English; similarly, the Jews fled Russia and what was known as The Pale because of the ongoing pogroms organized by the Czar.

In Latin and Central America, Latinos have fled their countries in waves as the result of the murderous, repressive policies of their governments, often supported and financed by the U.S. government.

Of course, those facts often get “trumped” in the bombastic discussion of immigration policies, particularly since Donald Trump has begun his campaign for the Republican nomination for President in 2016.

Here then, is an interview with Brabeck, talking about what led her to the research, and the importance of fact-based research in bridging the current ideological divide.

ConvergenceRI: How did you become interested in the topic of immigration and Latino families?
When I was 11 years old, I lived with my family in Guatemala. That started my trajectory in life, with falling in love with Central America, with learning Spanish, and knowing, somehow, that my career was going to be involved with that.

In graduate school, in Austin, Texas, getting my masters in counseling and psychology, I worked with Central American families, and Mexican families as well, with survivors of intense, violent sexual abuse.

One of the things I realized was the large role that legal status played in determining whether many of the women pursued opportunities for help – whether or not to leave the relationship, as well as whether or not to seek help, even if what was available to them was very limited.

The lack of legal status often rendered women really powerless, and often, many of their [abusive] partners manipulated the situation; the women feared separation from their children.

When I finished grad school in 2006, I moved back to Rhode Island – it’s what Rhode Islanders do [laughing]. The job at RIC opened up at the right time; now I am the chair of the entire department.

In 2007, following the federal raid on the Michael Bianco factory in New Bedford, [where some 300 workers were arrested and detained, unable to prove that they were in the U.S. legally], I was involved in studies to look at the effects of deportation and detentions on immigrant families. The workers were mostly Guatemalan and many were Mayan indigenous Guatemalans as well. That work has been published in a few places.

More recently, in 2013, I was fortunate to get a research grant from the Foundation for Child Development in New York, to focus on the children of immigrant families up to 10 years old.

ConvergenceRI: Has there been any other documentation or research like yours in Rhode Island?
Not that I’m aware of in our state. As Anna Cano Morales, the director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University said, “This is not the end; it’s the beginning.”

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about the value of your research, in that context?
People tend to engage in a lot of emotion-based reasoning in their arguments [when they talk about immigration]; they have a lot of misinformation and a lot of stereotypes.

[My research] provides a kind of systematic empirical documentation to counter that.

I think there were some findings [in my research] that would surprise many people – that 75 percent of the households were two-parent households. [That contradicts] a lot of the stereotypes that these are single-parent, low-income households.

Another research finding was that there was a very low participation rate by parents in service utilization for themselves. [That contradicts the myth] that people come here to feed off the public assistance programs.

ConvergenceRI: How much of a stressor is health care for a family where some members are not here legally?
The health care piece of this is huge, especially when you look at families that don’t have access to health care. While there are some resources available to them for short-term solutions, such as the Rhode Island Free Clinic, a lot of them don’t know that these things exist. And, there is a lot of fear and misinformation as well, worries about [questions, such as:] “What are they going to ask me for?” and, “What if I get a bill that I can’t pay?”

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about the specifics of the study? How many people participated? How long did it take?
This study was designed to look at the personal experiences specific to immigrant families here in Rhode Island from Central American countries. There were 179 immigrant families overall. The study took more than a year to complete; it takes a long time to actually analyze the data and draw conclusions form it.

The focus was on a specific development age for children – 7 to 10 years of age, what’s known as middle children, second- through fourth-graders.

Many of the children were engaged in school setting without their parents for the first time in their lives. Many had not been in out-of-home day care or pre-school programs.

Out of the 179 families in the study, 49 percent were mixed status families, meaning that the one of the parents was here without authorization, and the children were born in the U.S.

ConvergenceRI: What happened at the event on Monday, where the discussion appeared to get hijacked, at least in the coverage by the news media?
There was a two-hour discussion, and for the first hour and a half, the focus was about the study. We had only 25 minutes at the end for discussion, there were four or five people who asked questions, and all the panelists wanted to respond.

A lot of people were very excited that Kevin Gallagher was there, and [someone] asked him some very specific questions about the pending budget. There were also a number of people attending who represented charter schools as well. It’s a hot button issue.

ConvergenceRI: What kind of assistance did you receive in pursuing your research?
Susan Lusi, [the former school superintendent in Providence], helped me with this project. She was the one to give approval to let me send information flyers home to fourth-graders in Providence.

The whole issue of documentation status is difficult; are you putting people at risk?

You don’t have a lot of research about these people, because they don’t want to participate in the research, and researchers are wary of doing it, because there is a potential of risk. So, it’s hard to do.

It’s hard to get people to say yes, you can talk to my family; it’s still a touchy subject.

ConvergenceRI: Why do you believe such research is important to conduct?
Because there’s often no evidentiary basis for policies; policies are made before we can figure out if they can work.

ConvergenceRI: Later today, I will be talking with Stephen Kinzer, an author who has written extensively about the history of Central America, and how U.S. policies have often resulted in violent, oppressive regimes, creating the stream of refugees. How do you answer the strongly anti-immigrant voices that believe that immigrants are coming here to steal our jobs?
When people say that they shouldn’t be here, they’re here illegally, end of story, one of the things I like to respond with is this: it depends on when you begin to write the story.

Say I have two kids, Michael and Lizzy, and Michael hurts Lizzy, and it puts Michael in trouble. But, if I dig a little deeper, then I find out that Michael had hit Lizzy, because Lizzy took away his favorite blanket. And, Lizzy took away his favorite blanket because Michael pushed her down the stairs – there’s a much deeper history.

It matters a lot when I punctuate the beginning and end of the story, in terms of who is the person to blame here.

To my perspective, it’s like people owning their own racism, it’s a very uncomfortable position, because you have to admit to your own [problems].

[The relationship between the U.S. and Latin America,] it’s a complicated history; it’s a complicated story, it’s an uncomfortable story, and many parts of the history get left out.

For one of the research papers I wrote about the undocumented as part of previous project, I was working specifically with Salvadoran and Guatemalan families. One of the things that I found was the experiences that they had now, of a family member being detained and sent to another state for detention, and not knowing where that person was, was very reminiscent to them of experiences they had had in the 1970s and 1980s, when in their country of origin, people were disappearing, you couldn’t trust your neighbor, don’t say anything or you’ll get into trouble.

The whole climate that they were living in here in the U.S. was burning the scar again, it was like reopening the wound.

Racism is another part of the discussion that often gets left out when people in Rhode Island talk about the [differences] between the new immigrants and the old immigrants. The old immigrants knew how to come to work and make contributions and the new immigrants don’t; there’s so much racism underneath that statement.

ConvergenceRI: Are there any questions that I haven’t asked that you would like to address? Any statements you would like to add? I leave you with the last word.
Research is hard work; it’s hard to get people to participate in research who are afraid [of the consequences] if they do answer. It’s hard because it takes a really long time. And, when you complete the research, there is a lean diet of reward.


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