Columbia | SIPA
From the Big Apple to Alabama: SIPA Student Joins the Immigration Debate

An unauthorized immigrant mother showing Paola Medina the empty mobile homes of former neighbors who have fled Alabama since the enactment of HB 56.

The spring semester at SIPA nearly always means Capstone Workshops for second-year students. But for Paola Medina (MPA, MSSW ‘12), her workshop came a little earlier because of her dual degree work with the School of Social Work. What came next for Medina was a front-row seat for one of the most contentious debates in the United States today: immigration and states’ rights.

"A recent team of students worked with Human Rights Watch (HRW), a Washington, DC-based organization, that supports efforts to preserve and to protect basic human rights of people around the world,” said Professor Paul Thurman, faculty adviser to the team. “The group studied whether certain federal provisions reduced crime reporting by illegal aliens in specific Virginia and Arizona counties.”

Their assignment was to conduct quantitative analysis examining the effects of Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The goal was to see if there was an effect on calls for emergency services (namely the police and fire departments) in counties that had anti-immigrant policies. The team examined undocumented populations.

“It’s a population that is in the shadows,” explained Medina. “So it’s difficult to document. What you can do are statistical inferences.

In the end, our recommendation to Human Rights Watch was to have a survey team assess what is happening.”

Medina and her teammates were doing their research from New York based on existing data sets.

“Human Rights Watch usually does qualitative research,” added Medina. “They wanted to have us do some quantitative work. I think when talking to policymakers you need the quantitative data to support the stories behind an issue.”

Through the relationships she built while working on the Capstone Workshop, Medina landed an internship in the U.S. Division at Human Rights Watch. She began last September and remains there until the end of this academic year.

In October, she traveled to Alabama as a consultant, along with U.S. Program researcher Grace Meng, to assist with research for a report on the state’s controversial new immigration law: the Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, commonly known as HB 56.

Medina and Meng were there to get a better understanding of what was happening after the law was enacted and to see how people were being affected.

“When we landed in Birmingham, we went right to work,” said Medina. “We met with local community organizers. We spoke to people doing work on the issue.

We went to a rural area outside of Birmingham and spoke to a pastor. He mentioned people leaving the church because they were leaving the state… We also spoke to two members of his church that day, one of them undocumented. So we got a good feel of what was going on in the community.”

Prior to the HB 56, these two U.S. citizen girls partook in several activities, such as soccer practice and games. Now, their undocumented parents are too afraid to drive them to these activities in fear of getting detained.

A Mexican restaurant owned by an unauthorized immigrant single mother who has resided in Alabama for seven years and in the U.S. for 12 years. 

An unauthorized immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years sits with her US citizen grandson in her Mexican restaurant. Alabama’s new immigrant law could prevent her from renewing her business permit when it expires this year.

An Alabama immigrant family that has been affected by the recent law and that has been living in fear since its passage.

Read the full report here: No Way to Live: Alabama’s Immigrant Law

Currently, Medina is working on her own project at HRW, focusing on undocumented longtime resident immigrant youth in the U.S., conducting policy research and analysis for what will hopefully become an upcoming report that she will co-author.

- Michelle Chahine

photo credit: © 2011 Grace Meng/Human Rights Watch

Female Immigrant Entrepreneurs: A Global Phenomenon

Entrepreneurs will always face challenges as they start and develop their own businesses. Immigrant entrepreneurs, navigating their new countries, surely face a whole new set of challenges. What about female and immigrant entrepreneurs?

This is the subject of Professor Paul Thurman's new book, Female Immigrant Entrepreneurs: The Economic and Social Impact of a Global Phenomenon, which he co-edited and co-authored with an international team of professors and scholars. 

"We wanted to look where no one else had looked, a micro piece," said Professor Thurman. "In addition, unlike general entrepreneurship literature, we wanted to look at the cause instead of the effect."

According to Professor Thurman, the idea for the book began when Daphne Halkias, a Greek businesswoman herself, started to notice certain trends in Greece. He was, at the time, collaborating with researchers there, and joined the project.

At first I was largely the data analyst looking on her data. As we started to do more of this, I started to look into this in the New York area… I would go to Greece and teach 2-3 times a year. I told her what’s interesting is I’m seeing some things that are in parallel and some that are not between New York and Greece. We should compare. 

The project grew from Greece and New York to a truly global network of research associates (including a few SIPA students) who conducted field surveys, gathered data and built a database. Scholars and authors from all around the world then wrote various pieces about different countries. This global research team has a new book coming out soon on father-daughter secession. In addition, the team has a third book coming out in spring 2011 about entrepreneurship, sustainability and the link between entrepreneurship and the alleviation of poverty.

Is the books’ international approach, both in their coverage and in their execution, a new trend moving forward?

"We certainly hope so," said Professor Thurman. "We’ve got almost as many universities represented in this as countries."

"A lot of research on entrepreneurship has been done on the structure of these businesses. What has been missing, we think, is that a lot of these business questions now have international answers."

-Michelle Chahine

Post-Earthquake Response Efforts in Haiti: Studying the Role of the Haitian Diaspora in Education Reform

As international attention focused on Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010, at least two teams of SIPA students focused their 2011 Capstone workshops on Haiti.

One team of six students did their Workshop in Development Practice on the Haitian Diaspora and education reform in Haiti. The project was commissioned by the Bureau of Haiti’s Special Envoy to the United Nations and the Social Science Research Council. Read the full report here.

- Photo Wendy L. Carlson (MIA ‘11)

According to Juontel White (MIA ‘12), a students on the team, this project was  inspired by the mass response efforts to the earthquake. She explained that many observers were interested in the role and involvement of the Haitian Diaspora - Haitians displaced from their homeland. Therefore, after consultations with their clients, the students decided to focus their research on the Haitian Diaspora in the United States, specifically with regards to education reform in Haiti.

The team conducted dozens of interviews via Skype with members of the Haitian Diaspora in the U.S. A few students also traveled to Boston and Miami, where there are large communities, to conduct interviews in person.

In Boston, White interviewed a Haitian Diaspora teacher in the Boston Public School system who taught bilingual students that had moved to the U.S.

"[This project] opened my mind to the world of diaspora," said White. "I think in the media, in development work, they get over-shadowed a lot. It’s international organizations who get the attention. In our interviews, we saw a lot of Haitians do a lot for their country. And that’s amazing to me."

"It was also very inspiring," added White (right), describing teachers that she and her teammates met. Many ready to take part in exchange programs, as well as vocational education and training programs, which the team recommended in their final report

"While some of our recommendations are vague, about strengthening the Haitian Diaspora in general," explained White, "Some are very practical, and it’s just a matter of getting funding for them to be implemented. Those would make a big impact."

-Michelle Chahine

Why Do We Vote?

Analyzing, predicting, and influencing voter behavior will be in the news for much of the next year as local and national campaigns - including those in the race for the White House - try to gain an edge.

Professor Michael Ting lays the groundwork for research into why voters behave the way they do, as co-author of A Behavioral Theory of Elections.

In a recent interview, Ting explained the root of the academic problem:

"There’s a ton of research out there on elections, and one thing that people don’t have - and I don’t blame the researchers, it’s something the field lacks in general - is a very good handle on what motivates voting behavior. We can look at the data set and try to interpret patterns. But I think it’s better to start with theory and move from there."

That is what this book, published in 2011, aims to do - establish an appropriate theory for this field of research and analysis.

Ting explained that economic models are usually used for analyzing elections, treating voter behavior similar to consumer behavior. 

"When you think about elementary economics, the basic agent is the consumer. Basic economics is about adding up [the decisions they make, why they act in certain ways, why they choose to buy things] into analyzing markets," he said.

This framework is applied to voter behavior and elections. However, according to Ting, this is problematic because consumer behavior is different from voter behavior in two important ways.

First, when you vote, you are presumably most interested in the group outcome. This is different than the consumer who is making individual decisions for himself or herself.

Second, with voting, there are lot of people engaging in activity that doesn’t actually affect the outcome - when predictable results are expected. Ting cites a blue state like New York, where individual voters casting ballots for a Democrat or Republican will not affect the national outcome.

So why is there a large turnout to vote?

"In the voting context, this is one sphere of human activity, where maybe one reason we vote is kind of because it’s like a habit and reactions to the environment," explained Ting. "I’m not thinking about my chances of being pivotal. I’m thinking of the outcome."

"What we have now is an economic model for politics," he added. "How comfortable are we as analysts? It turns out, we might have to move to models rooted in psychology to find out why people turn out to vote in the first place."

"I do hope that this book maybe will help people to think of voters in a different way," Ting said. 

Ting says he became involved in the project as a student at Stanford University, working with faculty members and co-authors Jonathan Bendor and Daniel Diermeier. David A. Siegel is the fourth co-author.

-Michelle Chahine

Insurance and Hospital Stays: Q&A with Professor Douglas Almond

Professor Douglas Almond recently published a new article in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, titled “After Midnight: A Regression Discontinuity Design in Length of Postpartum Hospital Stays.

In his paper, Professor Almond, with Professor Joseph Doyle from MIT, looked at how insurance can cause overuse of health care, due to economic concepts like moral hazard and adverse selection. They found that health insurance allowing longer stays in the hospital after childbirth does not lead to additional health benefits. 

What led you to the topic, and why did you choose to cover it via the lens of economics, in an economics journal, rather than health or medical policy?

Visiting a hospital in Boston when a friend’s first son was born was the impetus for the paper. For some reason, I read the discharge policies, which drew a sharp distinction between births before versus after 8 p.m.  

My co-author Joe Doyle and I originally tried to get requisite natality and discharge data from the State of Massachusetts, but they repeatedly denied our request. I think the reason our request was denied was because the particular econometric approach proposed (regression discontinuity design) was unfamiliar in the biomedicine and public health community, and more popular in economics.

This remains the case, and that leads to the second part of your question. In general it can be an uphill fight for an economist to publish in medical journals, and in our case I think this was exacerbated by the novelty of the methodology.  

Why is your study important?

I think our study is important because it assesses the impact of relatively clean and exogenous variation in length of stay in a context where stay lengths are already quite short on average (when compared to other countries, or in the U.S. prior to significant managed care penetration). This “short stay” context suggests exogenous changes to stay length might have important health impacts, so we were surprised to find they didn’t have detectable ones.

Further, our study lingers on the question of what the affected population (“compliers”) look like, which I think helps speak to the generalizability of natural experiments like ours.

How did you conduct your research, using data from hospital admissions and releases? Physicians’ reports?

My co-author at MIT Sloan, Joe Doyle, obtained the restricted access data from the State of California that reported exact time of birth. These California data merged together information from the birth certificate with that from the hospital discharge record.

Do you have a conclusion, based on your specific study of additional significant costs for no health benefits in the case of hospital care for childbirth, that could apply to the health care system at large? 

We found that hospitals seem to do a good job of providing requisite medical care within a surprisingly short time period following routine births.  Thus, laws requiring a minimum stay length for routine childbirths appear to generate unnecessary costs.

In your opinion, how can these unnecessary costs be removed from the system? Do you have an estimate of how much these costs are, in the case of your study for example?

I think that by including the vast majority of deliveries that are routine, mandates for minimum hospital stay length were unnecessarily broad.  We estimated that the mandates have a price tag of about $1.1 billion per year (over $10 billion since 1997).

That said, there may be some important benefits of increased stay length, such as parental peace of mind, that go unobserved in our data and therefore uncounted by our analysis.

- Michelle Chahine