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Karthick Ramakrishnan

Professor of Public Policy & Political Science
Karthick Ramakrishnan
Empowering Asian Immigration Reforms
Karthick Ramakrishnan's research pertains to civic engagement and immigration – the ways in which immigrants of different racial groups and generations are involved in American democracy, their opinions, and their policy priorities. As Director of the Immigration Research Group at UC Riverside, Ramakrishnan also looks at developments in immigration policy, nationally as well in various states and localities. He is also the Director of the National Asian American Survey, which provides an ongoing window into the policy attitudes and civic participation of Asian Americans.

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Q&A

Q: Why is your research so important?
Immigration is a much contested topic, and the extents to which we can provide social science evidence on immigration policy and immigrant integration, we help advance the conversation. Having data on Asian Americans is particularly important; the Asian American population is the fastest-growing racial group in the country and in states like California, they make up 15 percent of the population. This group has grown by leaps and bounds from the 1960s, yet we still don’t know much about their civic participation and political attitudes. Given this knowledge gap, I’m working to identify the different kinds of diversity within the group and especially when it comes to public policy: what issues do they care about?

Q: What are the implications of your research?
One of the most underappreciated stories of the past two decades is how dramatically the Asian American vote has shifted. In 1992, just about one-third of Asian Americans voted for Bill Clinton for President and in 2012, over two-thirds (approximately 73 percent, according to one survey) of Asian Americans voted for Barack Obama. That is a dramatic shift — about 40 percentage points in the course of two decades! We haven’t seen that kind of pattern with any other group — not just by race, but even by gender or religion — no other group has had such a dramatic shift. Which begs the question: why has this shift occurred?

Q: What have been the main political impacts on the Asian American vote and how will they affect future elections?
Through quantitative survey work and qualitative research, we’ve found that there are two critical moments in the Asian American vote. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, he repositioned the Democratic Party to be seen as more business-friendly while simultaneously, many Asian Americans were becoming naturalized citizens and beginning to get involved in the political process in a meaningful way, establishing a fond connection. The other major dynamic has been within the Republican Party during the last decade with leaders like President George W. Bush trying to advance comprehensive immigration reform and trying to project a more friendly face of the Republican Party towards immigrants. At the same time, there have been strong voices within the party that publicly resisted those efforts, negatively impacting the Asian American perception of the Republican Party. This is something the Republican Party is now trying to counteract, especially as it looks to the 2016 election. In essence, the outreach messages of both political parties are similar with respect to Latino voters and Asian American voters, especially when it comes to issues like immigration and education.

Q: Why is your research important to American policymakers?
Our economic growth and the vitality of programs like Social Security depend critically on immigration. Immigration is also changing what the U.S. electorate looks like. We’re already seeing that in California, where Latinos and Asian Americans are important voting groups, and this will increasingly be true in other parts of the country.

Q: How is your research impacting politics?
I’ve written op-eds, given briefings on Capitol Hill, and made presentations to foundations and community-based organizations throughout the country on the future of the American electorate. Think tanks have also found the kind of research I do very helpful, especially with respect to the analysis of immigration policy.

Q: What’s next for your research?
One of the biggest questions is going to be what will happen in 2013 with comprehensive immigration reform. The president has made a major announcement in regards to his blueprint for immigration reform and what he expects Congress to do, and we’ve seen encouraging signs from both the Senate and the House, so it’s going to be a big topic moving forward. If immigration reform does indeed happen, the work I do in studying immigration policy at the state and local level will certainly be affected by that. Secondly, I’m getting ready with other scholars to try and understand the long-term effects of immigration reform, particularly as it affects Asian Americans and Latinos.

Q: Why is UCR a great place to do research?
The great thing about the University of California, Riverside is its diversity in its various forms. If you look just at the student population, we’re one of the most diverse campuses in the country; it’s a tremendous resource to be able to talk to undergraduate and graduate students who come from various backgrounds and have experienced things we study in our research. Faculty diversity is another great strength of our campus, because we get to hear from people of various backgrounds and also different disciplines.

One of the great things about our faculty is that they’re very open to reaching across boundaries. I head up the Immigration Research Group here and we have economists, sociologists, and people from political science and the Graduate School of Education. We all come together, critique each other’s work, collaborate and go beyond the narrow confines of our disciplines. The spirit of collaboration is alive here and it’s very helpful.

Q: What does Living the Promise mean to you?
To me, it’s trying to make sure the kind of work we do here is well-known outside the confines of the university, especially when it comes to matters of public policy. We can’t be successful in the research we do unless people know about it. Conversely, the kinds of research we do here must be informed by real-world problems. It’s both — letting the world know what UCR does and also being informed by the outside world.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
We have two little children, so we spend much of our spare time giving them the attention they need to be happy, self-confident, and self-aware.

Q: What movies, television shows, or websites do you find interesting or inspiring?
We don’t have much time for movies or TV, but I am very interested in keeping up with technology news, especially the kinds of advancements we’re having in tablets, smartphones, and information technology. By the time our kids go to college, it will be a very different place, I’d imagine.

Q: What advice do you have for students graduating in the next five years?
Try to soak up as much as you can when you’re in college, because your work will inevitably force you to become narrower. Your parents and friends may wonder if the courses you’re taking are practical enough, but you will be amazed at the ways in which something you learned many years ago can help you think creatively about a new problem or challenge that you’re facing in your career.

Karthick Ramakrishnan “Our economic growth and the vitality of programs like Social Security depend critically on immigration. Immigration is also changing what the U.S. electorate looks like. We’re already seeing that in California, where Latinos and Asian Americans are important voting groups, and this will increasingly be true in other parts of the country.”

—Karthick Ramakrishnan
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