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  March 26, 2001

Political Scientist Studying Immigration
Policy, Law, Public Opinion

"No other modern country has absorbed more immigrants than the United States, nor done more to incorporate immigrants into the civic culture," says Kathleen Moore, associate professor of political science.

But she is quick to assert that this process has not always been a smooth one. "Public concern about immigration and naturalization has led to restrictions during some periods, especially the time from the 1920s through the 1950s. And it has led to liberalization of immigration policy during other periods, such as the 1960s and 1970s."

And where are we now? "Every indication shows that we are now in a period of heightened alarm over current immigration patterns," she says. Validating this assertion, she points to popular elections in California in 1994 that put "supposed roadblocks in the path of illegal immigrants receiving public services such as education and non-emergency health care," and provisions in both federal welfare reform law and immigration reform law in 1996 that prohibited legal immigrants from obtaining certain kinds of public assistance.

"Many politicians also talk about lowering the number of immigrant visas granted annually, and changing the rules for naturalization," she adds.

Moore is acutely aware of these policies. She is currently at work on a multi-component project concerning immigration and naturalized citizenship. Her project aims to synthesize several different perspectives - public opinion, the position of policymakers, and legal opinion - to clarify the nation's real attitudes toward immigration. "Each of these perspectives purports to represent the 'will of the people'," she notes, "yet they often hold very different institutional perspectives on important issues."

The Unfamiliar Abode
To demonstrate this disparity, she references findings from a nationwide telephone survey she completed, with the assistance of the UConn Center for Survey Research and Analysis, in 1998. The survey sought information about respondents' general attitudes toward immigration; attitudes toward the conventional 'melting pot' image of America as a home for people from many cultures; and the kinds of immigrants that would be most favored.

"My research suggests that Emma Lazarus' famous poem, inscribed at the Statue of Liberty, is the ideal," Moore says. "But the survey findings demonstrate a different point of view. Polls conducted since 1966 demonstrate that more than 66 percent of the public wants to reduce the levels of immigration allowed in the United States. Practically speaking, we set legal boundaries."

In a forthcoming book, The Unfamiliar Abode: The Construction of an Islamic Diasporic Jurisprudence, Moore examines some examples of legal boundaries in effect. Islamic law, for instance, allows men of the faith to have multiple wives. Yet that right comes into conflict with civil law in many countries, including the United States, to which Muslims may migrate for many different reasons.

"We take a decidedly different view of polygamy here," says Moore, "and it's one of a multitude of issues addressed in immigration laws that define 'good moral character' as one of the prerequisites for being allowed to immigrate."

Indeed, since 1996, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has revoked the U.S. citizenship of some 6,000 immigrants based on a 1996 immigration ruling making

people with any kind of criminal record deportable. Ironically, the predecessor of the INS, the Federal Bureau of Immigration, was set up, in part, to adjudicate disputes in which immigrants' philosophical or theological beliefs come into conflict with U.S. law.

The Unfamiliar Abode explores how Muslims are dealing with those conflicts in the United States and Great Britain and how the host countries are, in turn, grappling with the legal problems attendant upon increasing immigration from Islamic nations.

But, Moore's research doesn't aim solely to explore the significance of immigration patterns and shifting regulations for the sake of looking at immigration. In an equally significant sense, it is about our own identity. To demonstrate what she means, she points to the fact that there is a body of literature arguing that when we have high levels of immigration and recession, there's an increasing public negativism toward recent immigrants.

"As a people, we seem to hold an idealized belief that we lift our lamp beside a golden door for immigrants. But few legal issues better define us than immigration," she says. "I'm interested in how the American national identity is constructed through law and more often than not it's in the issues of exclusion that we define the virtues we look for in a citizen."

Jim Smith