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Whom Do U.S. Consular Officers Perceive as “Non-Immigrants”? How Cultural Habitus Stratifies Legal Mobility from China

Whom Do U.S. Consular Officers Perceive as “Non-Immigrants”? How Cultural Habitus Stratifies Legal Mobility from China

Lecture by Jacob Thomas, UCLA

Thursday, October 17, 2019
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Bunche 11372

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U.S. immigration law gives discretionary power to U.S. consular officers in 157 countries around the world to grant or deny short-term non-immigrant visas (NIVs) to foreign nationals each year. The visa applicants’ lack strong socioeconomic and social ties in the country of origin is of primary concern because consular officers would likely perceive that these applicants may immigrate illegally by overstaying their nonimmigrant visas. Based on logistic regression analysis of the survey data I collected from 2,397 NIV applicants exiting U.S. consulates in Beijing and Chengdu, China, I find that consular officers are as likely to grant visas to applicants who are of lower socioeconomic status (e.g. measured in wealth and salary) and weaker social ties to their country of residence (e.g. measured in age of parents and number of siblings) as those of higher status and stronger social ties. This is contrary to what U.S. immigration law mandates them to do and what many visa applicants and agents believe. I also find that consular officers are more likely to grant visas to those who have reported to my survey questions they would immigrate if they had an opportunity and those who possess indicators of cultural capital that collectively index a Westernized cultural habitus, such as substantial formal education, extensive travel experience, attendance at a selective school, many years of work experience in their current jobs, and family in the U.S. Since consular officers are similar to applicants with respect to such indicators of cultural capital, I argue that, due to homophily, successful applicants possess a cultural habitus that leads officers to identify them as “non-immigrant.” That is, officers evaluate more favorably those applicants who present the self and develop rapport in a way that officers encounter as familiar. As a result, officers may grant nonimmigrant visas to some applicants who have intention to immigrate and deny visas to many who do not. This study contributes to our understanding about how the domain of non-immigrant visa processing contributes to migrant/travel selectivity, government’s limited capacity to control migration, and the social mobility and inequality both between- and within migrant-sending and migrant-receiving societies.

Jacob Thomas grew up in the Bay Area of California. He received his Bachelor of Arts from UC Berkeley and Master of Arts in social science from University of Chicago. After one year teaching about Western societies at Beijing Foreign Studies University he began his Ph.D. in sociology at UCLA. His doctoral dissertation research focuses on examining how US consular officers make decisions on whom to issue what type of visas and how different types of migration control and subjective perceptions of potential migrants’ characteristics interact to affect human mobility across national borders. He is now in the process of publishing numerous articles, applying for academic positions, and preparing a book manuscript based on his dissertation research.

Aaron Miller
(310) 825-0007

Sponsor(s): Asia Pacific Center