Anna Ochoa O’Leary, assistant professor of Mexican-American Studies at the University of Arizona, teaches her students about how migration is changing American communities. Her syllabi always include a disclaimer that the class will discuss hot-button topics like race and undocumented immigrants. “I’m not blind to the fact that immigration is a controversial issue,” she says, but “everybody needs to know this. White kids need to know this.” She says some of these students tell her, “‘Oh, my mom would flip if she knew I was taking this class.’” Still, she says, most of her students are happy to learn more about the facts behind the rhetoric.
As the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, O’Leary grew up in a small mining town very close to the border between New Mexico and Arizona. She knows very well that the national conversation around immigration policy has no relation to the reality she grew up with. Drawing on her own childhood experiences, O’Leary wrote her dissertation on how much Mexican- American households invest in girls’ education, both financially and emotionally. Later, she received a Fulbright to interview immigrant women about being apprehended by border control officers. She has also worked with a colleague in Mexico to research birth control strategies among Mexican immigrants.
Research consistently shows that immigrants have a net economic benefit to society.
Academia was not the expected path for a young Mexican-American woman from the border region. According to O’Leary, many Mexican and Mexican-American women grow up with the expectation that they will put family before education. After marrying and having kids, O’Leary went to community college and eventually transferred to the University of Arizona. There, a professor encouraged her to apply for a doctoral program, something she never believed “would even be an attainable goal,” O’Leary says.
O’Leary believes that immigration policy should be grounded in fact. For example, research consistently shows that immigrants have a net economic benefit to society. O’Leary thinks the United States should create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that is practical, recognizes that many of these people live in mixed-status families, and does not place undue burdens on immigrants who have already built a life here. It is unreasonable, O’Leary says, to ask people who have lived here for years already to wait decades for legal status or to pay back taxes, when many of them work minimum-wage jobs. Looking toward the future of immigration policy, O’Leary is hopeful. Her students’ open-mindedness gives her hope that real progress is possible. “Time is on our side,” she says. “We will achieve a better world.”