With an eye toward informing and aiding immigration policymakers at all levels of government, Trinity College Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Law Abigail Fisher Williamson will conduct a study called “The U.S. Municipal Responses to Immigrants Survey.”


Trinity College Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Law Abigail Fisher Williamson. ​Photo by Antonio Rocha Portraits

Williamson’s work on the nationwide survey and analysis of findings, supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, is designed to gather information from 1,000 towns about their formal and informal interactions with immigrants.  The project aligns with the Trust’s goals of using knowledge to inform solutions to pressing public policy issues, educating the public, and invigorating civic life.  Williamson believes that a better understanding of local responses to immigrants and the factors that produce them will aid policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels in formulating data-driven solutions that take into account how federal immigration policies affect localities.

As trends in recent decades have shown immigrants dispersing in greater numbers to suburbs and rural areas, rather than settling in traditional gateway cities such as New York and San Francisco, Williamson said that this shift has forced town governments to respond. “In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level, a lot of the impetus for change has been pushed down to the local level,” she said. “At this point, when immigrants are arriving in new places, these localities themselves are sort of re-creating the wheel. There’s not really a channel for sharing information about best practices, or about what communities can do to effectively incorporate immigrants, so that’s part of what this survey is going to be about.”

Williamson’s survey is designed to be sent to officials in a stratified random sample of 1,000 towns with populations that are greater than 5,000 and at least 5 percent foreign-born. Williamson surveyed 500 towns in 2014 and will survey an additional 500 towns in 2016. “In each town I’m surveying four different town leaders: the mayor, a randomly selected city councilor, a city manager, and the police chief,” she said. “The idea behind that is that we want to get a sense of not only what the town as a whole is doing, but we suspect there is some variation across different types of leaders.”

The mail survey will be administered by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research. “The questions will be primarily ‘closed-ended,’ such as, ‘How frequently do you translate materials?’ and there will be a range of answers. There also will be some ‘open-ended’ questions, such as, ‘Have we missed any policies that you do that we haven’t asked about?’” she said. “The survey is focused on immigrants in general, but it also asks about distinctions in policies and in views toward unauthorized immigrants.”

The first wave received responses from 74 percent of towns surveyed, with 30 percent of officials responding overall. Williamson plans to launch the second wave of the survey in late January 2016. “I think it will be interesting to do it at the same time as the presidential primaries,” she said. “There’s an increasing body of research that shows that local responses to immigration are shaped by national immigration politics.”

Looking beyond the United States, Williamson said that a worldwide discussion about immigration policy is under way. “Right now we see hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees coming into Europe, and those societies are also asking themselves the question, how do we effectively incorporate immigrants?” she said. “A lot of times people focus a lot on short-term growing pains, but we know that in the long term immigrants tend to bring a lot of vitality and economic development to societies, so the question becomes, how do we minimize short-term growing pains in order to maximize long-term benefits? Looking at the variety of what local governments are doing can help us understand that.”

Williamson is on leave from teaching at Trinity during this academic year while working on the survey and her related book, Beyond the Passage of Time: Local Government Response and Immigrant Incorporation, which is being supported by the Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund, a program of The Reed Foundation.

Written by Andrew J. Concatelli