ASU New College assistant professor wins Russell Sage Foundation grant

Allan Colbern, assistant professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University has been awarded a Russell Sage Foundation Presidential Authority Grant for his upcoming book project on immigration and immigrant integration. 

The Russell Sage Foundation is the principal American foundation devoted exclusively to research in the social sciences. The foundation serves as a research center for academics and journalists, a funding source for studies by scholars at other academic and research institutions, and an active member of the nation’s social science community. The foundation also publishes books and a journal that derive from the work of its grantees and visiting scholars.

RSF funds research projects in four principal programs — Behavioral Economicsthe Future of WorkRace, Ethnicity, and Immigration; and Social Inequality — and in a number of special initiatives. Allan will work on a book project that examines the history of sanctuary policies in the United States. 

Question: What is your are of expertise? What got you into this field?

Answer: My expertise is in American political development and the intersections between federal and subnational (state and local) immigration policies, immigrant and civil rights, social movements, federalism and citizenship. I hold a PhD in political science and employ interdisciplinary research methods to examine how American institutions and policies develop over large spans of time, how different levels of government expand or contract the rights of varying classes of people, and the role social movements and political actors play in shaping these developments.

During my PhD program and living close to the San Diego border, I saw how cities took different approaches to engaging their immigrant residents and my neighbors. I was given the opportunity to assist Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan in conducting research on restrictive city policies and local police department policies towards undocumented immigrants in Southern California, prior to national headlines over Arizona’s SB 1070 being enacted in 2010. As I immersed myself in the immigration scholarship, I noticed that states and cities were doing much more around the country, some even passing welcoming laws like granting undocumented immigrants access to state driver’s licenses and city ID cards. This solidified my research agenda around connecting immigration policy to civil rights history.

Q: Tell us about the book you're currently working on. What is it about? What inspired you to write it? When can we expect to read it?

A: Over the past few years, and accelerating under President Trump’s administration, sanctuary laws that shield undocumented immigrants from federal law have been cast into national spotlight. President Trump’s administration has called sanctuary policies an “unlawful nullification of Federal law in an attempt to erase our borders.” While increased attention have emerged over sanctuary policies, they remain widely misunderstood, poorly defined, and under-theorized. My second book, "Today’s Runaway Slaves: Unauthorized Immigrants in a Federalist Framework," places sanctuary policies into broader historical perspective, draws connections between immigrant rights and civil rights, and reframes sanctuary policies as cornerstones of American civil rights policy.

When we talk about immigration and the rights of immigrants, we often forget that Constitutional rights protect everyone — not just citizens. Immigration law conflicts with this, and it is designed to deny rights from being extended to undocumented immigrants in contexts of immigration enforcement, court proceedings and detainment — all areas where having rights matter the most. I illustrate this historical tension and trace court rulings in slavery, alienage and immigration law to show how evolving Constitutional arrangements have made sanctuary policies an enduring feature of American federalism. The book then turns to tracing the passage of sanctuary laws protecting runaway slaves (1780–1860), Central American asylum seekers (1980–1997), and undocumented immigrants today (2000–2018), to advance and test a theory of how politics on the ground explain where and when sanctuary policies emerge and proliferate. I was awarded the Russell Sage Foundation’s Presidential Award for 2018–2010, co-funded with the Carnegie Corporation, to support my book project. Over the next year, I will be expanding archival research of the antebellum period and conducting extensive interviews of national, state and local officials in government agencies and advocacy organizations from the 1980s and post-2000 sanctuary movements. I plan to complete the book manuscript in early Spring 2020 to submit to the Russell Sage Foundation for publication.

Q: This is your second book. What is your first book? 

A: My forthcoming first book with Karthick Ramakrishnan is "Progressive State Citizenship" with Cambridge University Press. We argue that the United States is entering a new era of what we call progressive state citizenship, with California leading the way. Since 2005, we have seen a major increase in state and local laws that facilitate and restrict the lives of undocumented immigrants, beyond what is prescribed under federal law. California has gone the furthest in this regard, passing a range of laws expanding immigrant rights on five key dimensions: 1. the right to free movement; 2. right to due process and legal protection; 3. right to develop human capital; 4. right to participate and be represented; and 5. right to identify and belong. Packaged together, these five dimensions of rights form a robust form of progressive state citizenship that operates in parallel to national citizenship.

The understanding that citizenship is exclusive to national governments is unreflective of how federalism shapes citizenship and entirely misses how states hold significant power over a panoply of rights. In our book, we place recent immigrant policies into larger historical and theoretical context by exploring what it means for states to expand or contract the rights of immigrants, blacks, LGBTQ communities and people with disabilities. We develop a conceptual framework of federated citizenship as a parallel set of rights across levels of government — national, state and local — all with the same five key dimensions of rights. As we show, state citizenship operates in parallel to national citizenship, and in some important ways, exceeds the standards of national citizenship.

We also lay out important differences between progressive citizenship, where states expand rights beyond those provided at the national level, regressive citizenship, where states detract rights available at the national level, and restrictive citizenship, where states reinforce federal restrictions on rights at the state level. Our primary argument is that the spread and timing of state citizenship regimes is explained by conflicts between federal and state governments, combined with conditions of party strength and social movement infrastructure within states.

Q: What does it mean to you to be given the Russell Sage Foundation Presidential Award? 

A: The Russell Sage Foundation has a strong reputation for rigorous scholarship and has been actively engaged in producing and supporting research on race, ethnicity and immigration. "Today’s Runaway Slaves" has already benefitted tremendously from the review process for the award, with generous feedback and suggestions on how to improve the conceptual and theoretical advancements I aim to make. Being selected for their presidential award is a great honor. I am deeply humbled to be placed alongside scholars that admire and to have my work shared with a broad audience of people interested in these issues and working toward solutions.