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Immigrant Stories Project gives a face to immigration data

May 20, 2019   /   by Mary Lee Clark

Sapna’s mother was pregnant with her and her twin sister when she immigrated to the United States from India. Seeking a better life for their children, her parents moved to Arlington, Virginia, in 1994. Now a college student, Sapna struggles balancing parts of her Indian heritage with U.S. culture. She also recalls being made fun of in school as a child because of her race. ​

This is one of the many stories included in the Institute for Immigration Research’s new Immigrant Stories Project, a project that is collecting and sharing personal stories from the immigrant populations in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore metro areas. ​

These firsthand accounts were collected as part of George Mason University sociology professor’s Dae Young Kim’sundergraduate sociology classes. Students in these classes are conducting in-depth interviews with racial minorities or immigrants in the Washington-Baltimore area. ​

This assignment, said Kim, gives students experience in interview methodology and helps them develop an appreciation for the complexities of immigration. ​​

“Dr. Kim and his students had been working on this for years,” said Michele Waslin, program coordinator for the institute. “The number of interviews has been accumulating for a long time and now we have the perfect way to showcase them. ​

Kim has more than 200 interviews from his students, including one from Diana Aguirre, a junior in integrative studies who recently took Kim’s class. As a first-generation American, Aguirre decided to interview her father, an immigrant from Guatemala, for the project. ​

"It was really interesting to hear the different stories about when he was young and how much he had to work and provide for his family with the little bit that they had,” said Aguirre. Her father graduated from Mason in 2015 after receiving his citizenship. ​

Her father now owns a nonprofit called Primaveral, which helps people affected by poverty and natural disasters in Guatemala. Aguirre plans to follow her father’s footsteps and make a career in immigration nonprofit work and hopes these stories will help people better understand and advocate for immigrants’ rights.  ​

The institute already collects data on immigrant contributions to the United States, which is analyzed and organized into fact sheets for public use. This project currently focuses on three countries—Korea, India and Bolivia—but will soon add more, including an upcoming section on the Caribbean, each accompanied by fact sheets and analysis as well as the interviews.​

“We like data, but the stories really speak to people,” said James Witte, director of the institute. “But we don't want to give up on the data because it's a way to show that the story is not just an anecdote, but it ties to other people's experiences.”