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Board Member Spotlight: Tomás Jiménez

Scholar Tomás Jiménez conducts research that spans the fields of sociology, immigration studies, and race and and ethnicity studies. His work advances our understanding of immigrant assimilation and integration processes as well as how intersections of immigration with race, ethnicity, and class shape the lived experiences and social mobility of individuals and communities. Jiménez earned a PhD in sociology at Harvard University in 2005 and joined the Stanford University faculty in 2008. He previously served a faculty appointment at University of California, San Diego (2005-08) as well as a fellowship appointment at the New American Foundation (2007-09). He now serves as Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and also as the director of the Qualitative Initiative at Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab. His most recent book (coauthored with Deborah Schildkraut, Yuen Huo, and John Dovido) is States of Belonging: Immigration Policies, Attitudes, and Inclusion (Russell Sage Foundation, 2021), winner of the 2022 Otis Dudley Duncan Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Social Demography from the American Sociological Association.

Perhaps without realizing it, in fall 2022 Jiménez marked an anniversary of sorts. Exactly ten years after beginning his 2012-13 CASBS fellowship, he joined the Center’s board of directors. His first three-year term as a CASBS board member began on September 1, 2022. 

We conducted a Q&A with Tomás to learn a bit more about him and his work.

CASBS: Where did you grow up, and how did that place and social context contribute to shaping you as a person and as a scholar?

Tomás Jiménez: I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in Santa Clara, California, just down the road from Stanford. It's a place that embodies some of the diversity that the Bay Area is known for. I grew up around working-class families, with immigrants, children of immigrants, and multi generation descendants of immigrants. Growing up in that context made me curious about social groups, how they form, how they change, and how they maintain themselves. During some of my politically formative years, California became the most anti-immigrant state in the country, passing a series of restrictive immigration measures that featured anti-immigrant campaigns. In my own household, we constantly talked about immigration. My father is an immigrant from Mexico who spent much of his childhood undocumented. My mother is the granddaughter of four Italian immigrants. So, growing up in the Bay Area and in a household that embody different parts of the immigrant experience made me curious about how my family’s story connects to the larger human experience of migration.

C: You were a CASBS fellow during the 2012-13 academic year, while still an assistant professor. A decade later, what are the top things that continue to stand out for you about that year?

TJ: What stands out for me from that year was the space to think deeply and widely, punctuated by opportunities to engage with some of the smartest people I've ever been around. Spending a year at the Center is academic Nirvana.

C: The big deliverable from your CASBS fellowship, published a few years later, was the book The Other Side of Assimilation: How Immigrants are Changing American Life (UC Press, 2017). A copy resides in the Center’s Ralph W. Tyler Collection. Presumably your CASBS fellowship was instrumental in giving you time and space to make real progress on the book. Beyond this, are there ways in which your CASBS experience helped advance your thinking? You were going to produce a book one way or another, but did the book turn out differently as a result of being on the CASBS hill for a year?

TJ: Had I not been on the hill for that year, I would not have written the book that quickly nor with the depth of insight that I'd like to think the book contains. Two things made a difference. The first was the space to think broadly about my work. I had the time to try out different ideas in writing, shift course when things didn't make sense, and settle on what I ultimately hope is an important corrective to prevailing notions about assimilation. Bu it wasn't just the space. Indeed, I don't think that the space I had would have been useful if I were, say, in the woods by myself for nine months. So the second aspect of the fellowship that made a huge difference was the interaction with other fellows. I got to discuss my work with European sociologists, gender scholars, environmental justice scholars, and political scientists studying authoritarianism, among others. The connections between their work and mine wasn't always immediately obvious. But the opportunity to engage with a group of people doing seemingly disparate work is a mind-expanding experience that is hard to describe but easy to cherish.

C: You started your CASBS fellowship two months before Barak Obama’s reelection. The Other Side of Assimilation was released early in Donald Trump’s term. Now, in 2023, how does the book hold up? If you were to update it or write a new chapter, how would the book account for the life of our country over the past six years?

TJ: I've thought about this quite a bit. It's easy to say that the change in administrations changed everything. In some ways, that's true. But I still think that the underlying processes that I document in the book are playing out across the United States. Immigration continues to have an influence on the United States. Long-established residents are still adjusting and readjusting to that influence. The larger political climate of polarization might be affecting those processes. It can hang over intergroup interactions in ways that potentially dampen the processes I described. I think the broad contours of what I wrote still apply.

C: If you had 30 minutes with President Biden tomorrow, what would you choose to tell him, whether about correctives for current (federal) immigration policies or anything else?

TJ: I'd emphasize to him the importance of mass legalization to long-term integration and the economic and social vitality of the United States. He already knows that. The current political configuration in Congress makes any serious federal action nearly impossible. Still, I'd want him to know that. I'd also tell him to do everything he can to rebuild the capacity of the United states to resettle refugees and asylees. Fortunately, his administration dramatically increased the cap for refugee admissions. He shouldn't shy away from meeting that cap. Overall, the refugee resettlement program has been good for the new Americans it has resettled, and good for the United States.

C: Your work focuses broadly on immigration, assimilation, belonging, ethnic and racial identity, and social mobility – areas of critical concern to many recent, current and, assuredly, future CASBS fellows. Which current research project are you most excited about and why?

TJ: I'm really excited about new research on refugee resettlement. I've been working on a project with Stanford's Immigration Policy Lab that examines the participation of private citizens in refugee resettlement. Historically, the responsibility of refugee resettlement has fallen on 10 resettlement agencies. But in recent years, the federal government has expanded and even piloted new programs that recruit citizen volunteers to carry out core resettlement responsibilities. I'm working with postdoc Pei Palmgren, research associate Isa Avila Breach, and program manager Elisa Cascardi to understand the experience of refugee clients, citizen volunteers, and the agencies that support both.

C: In addition to being a member of the sociology faculty, you are deeply involved with Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, the university’s Immigration Policy Lab and, in late 2022, you were announced as one of two founding faculty co-directors of the university’s new Institute on Race. How would you suggest that CASBS fellows engage with and contribute to Stanford’s vibrant intellectual programs while they’re in residence at CASBS (or vice-versa)?

TJ: Stanford is like an intellectual Disneyland. Anyone interested in immigration, race, ethnicity, and/or policy should connect with these amazing organizations on campus. They are all part of the intellectual richness that awaits down the hill.

C: You now get to think about CASBS from the perspective of one of its board members. Are there any specific challenges or opportunities you see facing the Center in 2023 (in general or compared to, say, 2013)? 

TJ: Since I was a fellow, we have become even more distracted by technology while demands for hot-take research have grown. These two things are not conducive to the development of innovative, transformative ideas. So the physical and intellectual space that CASBS provides is more critical than ever.

C: You and incoming director Sarah Soule separately joined the Stanford faculty at the same time, in 2008. Then, no one could have foreseen that you would become a CASBS fellow and later join its board, or that she would become the Center’s director. Have you interacted with Sarah much over the years? What would be your advice to her for a successful directorship?

TJ: CASBS is incredibly fortunate to have Sarah take the helm. I've known her since I came out of graduate school in 2005, and I'm thrilled that I've had the opportunity to be her colleague since 2008. My advice to Sarah is that she should be herself. She is thoughtful, considerate, a team player, and knows how to articulate and realize a vision. 

Q&A conducted by Mike Gaetani