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Society Seen through the Eyes of

Individuals & Families

Amy Zamara
SOC 315
Fall 2018
Gomberg-Munoz, R. (2017). ​Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed- Status Families.
Oxford University Press. (pp 1-178)

Desmond, M. (2017). ​Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city​. BDWY, Broadway
Books. (pp 1-422)

Sociologist Teresa Ciabattari explains that “by studying families from a sociological
perspective, you will begin to recognize the interconnections between individual and society”, as
she introduces the forces that have shaped modern day families and the opportunities available to
them (2017, p 12). Families today face ideological, political, and economic forces, which act as
barriers to success and a means out of their current circumstances. What defines success for
families may vary, for some it is the quest for legal status and the reunification of separated
families; for others it’s the struggle for adequate housing and the lasting impacts eviction has on
families. To enact change many sociologists conduct ethnographic research, which consists of
observations and interactions supported by indepth research and analysis. Sociologists such as
Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, and Matthew Desmond use ethnographies to help their readers
understand larger macro-scale social issues in an understandable and relatable approach. This
essay will critically examine two ethnographies, Becoming Legal (Gomberg-Munoz, 2017) and
Evicted (Desmond, 2017), to better understand the impacts the three forces have on the
individual, family, and community as a whole. The purpose of this essay is to convey to readers
my personal opinion, criticisms, and suggestions of both ethnographies. Concluding with a
theoretical analysis of the ethnographies using Tara Yosso’s Cultural Capital Wealth in order to
demonstrate the cultural capital these individuals attain during times of struggle (Yosso &
Garcia, 2007). An important piece of the discussion that I feel is absent from both books. The
first ethnography I examine is Becoming Legal written by Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, which follows
several individuals and their families during their application process to gain legal status.
In the beginning of ​Becoming Legal,​ author Ruth Gomberg-Munoz outlines two aims for
the casual reader or university student to understand. The first of which is to bring insight into
the U.S. immigration process and a firm grasp of the central questions in the immigration debate.
The second aim, is to highlight the familial ties and the impacts the process has on the individual
and their family. I believe the author demonstrates both of these aims throughout the entire book,
by providing case examples and immigration policy research. After reading this book, I
understand both of her aims clearly and this book has made a direct impact on my everyday life.
My family and I were among the privileged few who were able to immigrate legally, based on a
sponsorship from my stepfather’s job. Although we had to jump through minimal hoops, I had
no idea until now the real challenges that the majority of applicants must go through. I have even
had several debates with family members and friends that hold different viewpoints on
immigration, such as my stepfather.I have also had a strong internal dialogue, as I have realized
my own privilege and similarities with the stories shared. The sociology student in me has

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analyzed this book through two lens: the impact the immigration process has had on the
individual, marriage, and family; and the structural and institutional barriers and inequalities that
go hand in hand with the immigration system.
With this in mind, this book review will identify examples and arguments that resonated
with me the most and which support the author's main arguments and aims. Second, I will
discuss my minor criticisms, because overall, I agree with her throughout the entire book. Lastly,
I will share my recommendations and suggestions for future work.
Throughout the examples of couples and families interviewed, the author demonstrates
the mental, financial and physical toles the process takes on everyone involved. Gomberg-Munoz
states that “mixed status couples must negotiate all challenges of marriage and family, all in the
context of heightened financial insecurity and fear of separation” (pg 49). More than sixteen
million people are part of a mixed-status family, and for those that move forward with the
application process begin to face immediate hardships. Like Hector and Cynthia, who were
separated after they received bad legal advice which prompted Hectors deportation and bar from
reentry. The time they spent apart drained their savings, created instability in their relationship
and distance between the couple (p 193). The most significant impact can be seen through
Pamela, Victor and their children’s story. Pamela describes memories of her daughter crawling
into bed with her because she had heard her crying and knew she was lonely (p 93). The time
apart impacts each couple on an individual as well, many suffer from separation anxiety,
depression, and guilt. Those who are south of the border find themselves disconnected and
forever changed by their time away from their families, like Victor, Alberto, and Marco all felt.
Even after gaining status, legal discrepancies and fear of deportation still exist, as
Gomberg-Munoz describes on page 120, marco still felt like a criminal, since issues with his
driver's licence cost him his job, put his status in jeopardy, and gave a new form of constant fear
and anxiety while driving. The process also impact the extended family, when the application for
hardship is needed and applicants must prove their emotional, financial, or medical hardship to
get their loved ones bar removed. The reason these examples stood out to me was because of my
own personal experience with the process. My father was lucky enough to be sponsored for
immigration to the country. My brother, mother and I were all allowed to move down here with
him. Although he was the only one legally allowed to work for more than five years, it did not
create any hardships for our family. We did not have to leave the country at any point, our
extended family was not scrutinized and we were not treated as second class citizens. Much like
the experience of Gia and Rose on page 73, who were able to adjust his status without having to
leave the country, and with only three thousand dollars, a six month application process and
thirty minute interview. These differences demonstrate the author's second aim, to have the
reader understand the main questions in the immigration debate. Which in my mind, all surround
the structural and institutional barriers to legal immigration.
Gomberg-Munoz argues that the “link between U.S. Immigration and the Criminal
Justice System reproduce and mask racial and class inequalities, which make it more difficult for

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some undocumented people to legalize status” (p 5). She strongly supports this argument through
the explanation of the consular processing program in comparison to program one, adjustment
within the U.S. based on family or marriage ties to U.S. citizens. Beginning with the immediate
criminalization of illegal border crossing. Those who have done this, or came with family
members who made the decision to cross, are not eligible for program one and are deported and
barred for years and sometimes indefinitely (p 12). Then there is the increase of detention
centers, deportations and jim- crow like prison labor that has come in the last two decades (p 34).
Which have undocumented families living in constant fear of traffic stops, school applications
and leave many families struggling without social and welfare benefits. Besides the strong
support for her argument, the reason these examples resonated with me was because of the strong
contrast once again to my own immigration process. I gained legal permanent residency in
highschool and began joining the workforce by my senior year in highschool. I have also been
able to receive medical and welfare assistance to support my daughter and I. I have also had
minor infractions with the legal system, which may have given other immigrants in the process a
permanente denial to citizenship. This book has truly opened my eyes to how lucky my family
and I were and still are.
There is very little to disagree and criticize in this book, my only wish would have been
for a larger section on the reform and action of activists and women in the Juarez Wives Club.
Maybe it's the utopian believer in me, but I need to end on a good note. I need to know that
something can be done, and we aren’t stuck with a system that is meant to keep folks out. That is
not the America that I want to call home. I also wish the author would have stretched the pool of
interviewees to families that did not belong to a middle class or working family and whom
already possessed social and cultural capital. Although Gomberg-Munoz admits that this study is
not a direct representation of every undocumented person’s struggle, I would recommend at least
one chapter on those who continue to live their lives in the undocumented world of American life
due to the lack of capital, there is also no connection to sociological theory. This would have
been a great time to incorporate Yasso’s Cultural Capital which takes an alternative, non-deficit
based approach, which I will discuss in the conclusion of this essay (Yasso & Garcia, 2007). I
also suggest to readers, to continue to research different approaches to migrant studies, such as
the child centered approach used by Joanna Dreby and Tim Adkins in their article ​The strength
of family ties: How US migration shapes children’s ideas of family​. Their article examines
Mexican children’s symbolic meaning of family which finds, transnational separation actually
heightens family members place in children’s concept of family membership (Dreby & Adkins,
2011,p 184). The child centered approach provides a fresh perspective, demonstrating the
perseverance and resilience of young family members. I am curious how we might apply this
idea to other cases of family separation, such as homelessness.
Finally, I reflect on the harsh reality that Lourdes describes in the closing statements of
Becoming Legal, “I see how things are happening and I realize that we’re all just pawns in the
game” (Gomberg-Munoz pg 152). I refuse to believe that we can not play their game from

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within, against and alongside the immigration process. But it must first begin with the education
of the general population, perhaps if they understood the real struggle they would not ask, Why
don’t they just become legal. Another struggle worth noting is the struggle for stable and
consistent housing, such as the Milwaukee families in the next ethnography to be reviewed,
Evicted.​
In the prologue of the ethnography ​Evicted​, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond
argues “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of
poverty” (p 5). In support, he introduces his readers to eight families in the Milwaukee area, all
of whom dealt with the eviction process in one way or another. Desmond aims to connect micro
level case studies of the eight families and larger, macro level issues, such as, poverty and the
marginalization of people based on gender, race, and class. To begin, I examine two recurring
themes throughout ​Evicted,​ analyzing key examples which also support Desmond’s main
argument. First, impacts of the eviction process on individuals reach far beyond the tenant and
landlord, it affects everyone involved, including friends, family, and communities. Secondly, It is
impossible to ignore the role social institutions and norms play in the eviction process and the
continuation of the culture of poverty. I will also draw on personal experience, and the
similarities I found between their lives and my own. Followed by a brief critique of the
ethnography, since it is hard to ignore the extensive and thorough evidence highlighted in the
“About the project” and epilogue sections. In my opinion Desmond has done an impressive
amount of research and is successful in conveying his argument to his readers in an
understandable and relatable way.
The first theme became clear to me as I read the stories of several families and
individuals involved. Beginning with the introduction of Sherrena, one of the landlord and her
tenants: Lamar and his sons; Doreen, Patrice and their family; Arleen and her kids; Crystal; and
Kamala. Although Desmond gives a respectable amount of examples that humanize Sherrena
and landlords as a whole, I am still left with a strong disdain for the way they profit and take
advantage of their tenants. I could list dozens of examples that explain my feelings, the strongest,
is the story of Kamala and the reactions and fall out from the apartment fire. Kamala a mother of
three, was downstairs at a neighbours when her apartment caught fire. Heartbreakingly, only her
two eldest survived (p 202). Sherrena was more concerned with the legal and financial
ramifications of this disaster than the well being of her tenants. Sherrena delivers several
evictions to the families, with little regard for the impact it has on the individual and their family.
When Patrice is evicted, her and her children are forced to move back to her mother Doreen’s
apartment. Resulting in overcrowding, and a lack of sleep and quality of life for the entire
extended family that is living under one small roof (p 65). Arleen and her children face similar
struggles as they search for a new apartment after being evicted, which caused her boys to miss
weeks worth of school, and finally a CPS case based unsafe living conditions ending with the
removal of both her children. Eviction also impacts the individual and families mental and
physical health. Crystal’s story of a lifetime of violence and abuse, eviction and ineligibility for

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SSI forces her into the Sex Work industry as she struggles to support herself on the only granted
benefit, food stamps (p 268). Lamar’s physical health continues to deteriorate as he struggles to
work off unpaid rent, and almost all persons observed by Desmond go hungry on a regular basis.
Arleen is forced to the brink of a nervous breakdown after her children are removed, as are many
others as they suffer from depression, shame, and addiction. The hardest part in reading their
stories, is the obvious role social institutions and norms play in creating barriers to safe,
affordable and consistent housing.
One in eight Milwaukee renters experience a forced move, and are left without the
support of government programs and police assistance, protections against discrimination and
illegal evictions, and even support by those privileged enough to not be evicted. What’s worse,
many of the laws in place actually protect the landlords and not the tenants. Such as the law
explained on page 75, which bars renters from withholding rent for property repairs if they are
behind on rent. This is next to impossible when more than forty percent of the people in poor
neighborhoods are living below the poverty level (Desmond, 2017, p 74). Many landlords find it
more cost effective to pay the expenses of the eviction proceedings than to maintain their
properties. The Nuisance law described on page 188, inhibits renters from calling police out of
fear of retaliation from landlords, perpetuates violence, uninhabitable living conditions, and
unchecked discrimination. An absence of police presence and support allows landlords to use
discretion when deciding whether or not to evict someone, and to approve their application for
rent. Arleen dealt with over eighty rejections before finally being approved, many times being
denied based on the presence of her children. Some landlords even require a “child deposit” and
monthly increase from individuals with families (p 232). Government programs often lack
programs to help those that really need it, as the case for Larraine as a single able bodied woman.
Strict policies that ignore the realities of poverty such as: the stoppage of food stamps for missed
appointments, screening practices that deny applications based on criminal convictions and past
evictions. I could continue to list the other ways in which social norms and institutions continue
to drive the culture of poverty, but I believe the point has been made clear. Eviction impacts
everyone involved and creates generational poverty and a lifetime of housing insecurity.
It is hard to critique Desmond’s work because of the extensive research he has done for
this ethnography. The only criticism is an absence of the “road less traveled”, the success stories
created through the support of government programs to create stability and healthier living
environments. He touches briefly on this solution when he describes the story of Vanetta and her
involvement with the Justice system. Instead of finding a way to help Vanetta in order to remove
her from the cycle of poverty, homelessness and crime he sentences her to time in jail and a
lengthy probation. It is clear that prevention and a non punitive approach to those involved with
crime due to their impoverished state is necessary to begin to correct this huge epidemic. But
Desmond fails to analyze this in any length.
After hearing the experiences of these families, I really began to reflect on my own
experience. I am very lucky to be in a privileged position as an Resident Advisor for the

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university, and I receive free housing. Without it, I would not be able to be a full time student,
live on my own and have enough income to provide both housing and food. But I do not meet the
requirements for additional welfare beyond food stamps. I am not alone, many individuals living
in the U.S. face a similar fate, and could be one unfortunate accident away from homelessness
themselves. My only suggestion for readers is not not give up hope, continue to search for
solutions and organizations that are available for individuals in need. I believe the limited access
to transportation, technology and child care inhibit many families from receiving the legal and
social services they deserve. The New york Times Neediest Cases Fund, which provides
non-profit agencies in low income areas of New York, financial assistance to help individuals
and families who have been evicted. The fund was able to help the Covenant House assist Renee
Blas, which included paying for school books to attend college, gain employment to pay for
schooling and housing after her family was separated because of eviction (Kelly, 2008) . The
fund also helped The Children’s Aid Society house the Jenkinses family in their transitional
housing Pelham Fritz, which provided an apartment with furnishings and finally gave them a
sense of stability and security (Gershenson, 1998). These two examples illustrate the
effectiveness of grass root organizations and the significant differences they have in their
marginalized communities. I also find it important to highlight the skills and traits the individuals
possess, known as Cultural Capital.
As I reflected on my takeaways from the two ethnographies, I began to make connections
to Critical Race Theorist, Tara Yosso’s Cultural Capital Wealth and the families mentioned in
each book. Yosso examines six forms of cultural assets that marginalized groups possess and use
as a source of strength and resistance (Yosso & Garcia, 2007). The first form, Aspirational refers
to the “ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived
harm (p 158). Examples of aspirational capital are illustrated throughout ​Becoming Legal, ​their
hopes and dreams for legal status in spite of bureaucratic obstacles serves as motivation and
drives the transnational families to continue through the application process. The second,
Linguistic capital includes “ intellectual and social skills attained through communication in
multiple languages or or language styles” (p 160). Both the transnational families and evicted
families possess linguistic capital in the way they communicate, such as the bilingual abilities of
immigrants as well as communication styles of evicted tenants who learn how and what to say to
get housing applications approved. Third, Social capital can be understood as “networks of
people and community resources” (p 161), such as the Juarez wives Club that united and
supported families going through similar issues. Or the way neighbors ban together in slum like
conditions to assist one another with food, furniture and other basic needs that many homeless
families are missing. Fourth, navigational capital refers to “skills in maneuvering through social
institutions”, which I refer to as playing the game. Such as the tips and tricks applicants have
found to get their hardship waivers approved, or pass their medical and psychological
evaluations. Evicted families in search of new housing learn what to say and what not to say
during their application process, such as the omission of children in the home. Next, Familial

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capital refers to “those cultural knowledges nurtured among familia that carry a sense of
community” (p 164). The familial ties include not on immediate family members, but extended
and chosen members. This form of capital is reflected in the individuals in ​Evicted, ​who rely on
others because of necessity but end up forming familial bonds and an extended sense of
community. The final form of capital, Resistant, refers to those “knowledges and skills fostered
through oppositional behavior that challenge inequality”, such as selling food stamp money to
earn enough money for rent. Or learning ways to play the system when applying for citizenship,
like the individuals who ask friends and family to rewrite letters to get hardship waivers
approved. These examples demonstrate the vast amount of non-deficit based capital the
individuals possess in both ethnographies. Their struggles serve as an educational tool for readers
who may not understand how privileged their own lives are. Although I may have immigrated to
this country and am currently a recipient of food stamps, my struggle can not compare to theirs. I
have not had to deal with the ideological, political, or economic forces that impede my
opportunities. I hope this essay has had the same impact on those reading, and may be used as a
catalyst for open dialogue, primarily because as “inequality continues to increase, we will likely
see growing differentiation in family patterns as well” (Ciabattari, 2017,p 15), and in order to
fully address the social issues that arise, we must understand the how the issues intersect with
race, gender, and class using our sociological imagination.

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Bibliography

Ciabattari, Teresa. ​Sociology of Families: Change, Continuity, and Diversity.​ SAGE


Publications, Inc., 2017.

Dreby, Joanna, & Adkins, Tim. (2012). The Strength of Family Ties: How US Migration
Shapes Children's Ideas of Family. ​Childhood: A Global Journal of Child Research,
19​(2), 169-187.

Gershenson, Adam. (1998). The Neediest Cases; After Eviction, Family Struggles Back to
Stability.(Metropolitan Desk). ​The New York Times​, p. The New York Times

Kelley, T. (2008). On Her Way to College Despite Her Family's Eviction. ​New York Times
(1923-Current File),​ p. A20.

Yosso, Tara J., & Garcia, David G. (2007). "This Is No Slum!": A Critical Race Theory
Analysis of Community Cultural Wealth in Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine". ​Aztlan: A
Journal of Chicano Studies,​ ​32(​ 1), 145-179.