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Enrique Pumar: Sociology, Immigration and Latin America

Enrique Pumar is a sociology professor and the department chair. He has written over 50 publications on immigration, class, various social conflicts in Latin American countries, economic development and public policy.

In this conversation, we begin with Dr. Pumar’s upbringing in Cuba, then turn to the relevance of conflicts in Latin America. We also discuss myths around immigration, public policy toward refugees, the importance of studying sociology, and how sociology prepares students for the world.


Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What was your childhood like?

Enrique Pumar: Growing up was not easy because we were living in communist Cuba and my family disagreed with the government. We were stigmatized by the government and many organizations there. It was difficult for us to survive and difficult for me to do well in school.

When the situation is highly politicized, if you disagree, you’re on the outside. We had a lot of fun, but I didn’t have a normal upbringing.

GC: Do the protests in Latin America right now share any similarities with the situation in Cuba you witnessed?


EP: Lots of people are protesting in Latin America today, but it’s different than Cuba. In Cuba, there’s no dissent allowed and the government controls even the dissent. In Latin America, the people by their own will are protesting an issue or situation.


GC: Why should people in the U.S. care about the conflicts in Latin America?


EP: If the U.S. wants to be considered the leader of the free world, they have to get involved. If you’re a leader, you have to be concerned with others’ welfare. If people don’t want the U.S. to be a leader, they can sit back and say, “it’s not really my problem.” But if you’re a leader and you don’t lead, you lose your authority. If we don’t lead, other countries will try to take advantage of the situation.

In academia, we say that international relations are anarchical. If you don’t defend your own interests, someone else will take advantage of the vacuum and promote their own interests. So it’s better to defend your own interests than to be complacent.

Chile right now is in the middle of an uproar. There is a wide inequality and low social mobility even though the economy is doing relatively well. The U.S. imports lots of fruit and many other things from Chile. The country is an important partner of the U.S. and its geography makes it an important Central American country.

GC: Are there any big misconceptions you see around immigration?

EP: Immigration is a worldwide problem. I was just looking at the UN High Commission of Refugees report, and 71 million people in the world are displaced. This is a major humanitarian problem. In our interconnected, globalized world, we have to be sensitive to that situation.

In the U.S., we have a large immigrant population, and is very diverse. One of the misperceptions is that immigrants are criminals. If you look at general homicides since 1993, the rate of homicides has been decreasing, and immigration has been increasing. The idea that immigrants bring crime is not substantiated by the data.

Another is that immigrants take jobs away from Americans. It is true that immigrants compete with Americans for low-skill service jobs. But once you look at more sophisticated employments, the impact of immigration is beneficial, not adversarial. Immigrants create jobs in many employment categories. In Silicon Valley, many startups have been founded by immigrants. There are many areas in which we need immigrant labor. Many small towns in the Midwest are suffering from decreasing population. The only way to keep those towns is to allow immigrants to settle there.


If you look at the U.S. demographically, our population is becoming older, and people are having fewer children. It’s rare to see a family with 5 or 6 kids like we saw even 20 years ago. Population growth is very slow, and the main contributors to growth are immigrants. If we want our population to grow so that we can support those who are retiring, we need to welcome immigrants so that they contribute to the United States.


GC: Why should students study sociology?  

EP: There are several reasons why sociology isn’t popular. One is that it isn’t taught in high schools. The second problem is that people think of sociology as just relating to the 1960’s, associated with social protest movements. The third problem is that people confuse sociology and social work.


Why study sociology? We provide students with a good methodological foundation that is applicable to many professions. For example, in business, you will normally do market research, for which sociology is very useful. We have the tools to look at the market and assess risks.


One other thing we do is study social problems that regrettably will not go away anytime soon. For example, homelessness. How do we find a solution? Sociologists can apply our skills to make viable recommendations about how to deal with the problem. Sociology should be very popular, we have over 100 students in our program.

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