Graduation Profile: Student pioneers research on immigration in Midwest

Juan Urbano
Juan Urbano grew up in Brownsville, Texas. As a doctoral candidate, he far exceeds the statistics for his hometown. Only 22% of the population there has attained a high-school equivalent education.

Political science doctoral student Juan Urbano found passion for studying immigration policy through experiences in Texas, Kansas

Juan Urbano didn’t set out to break new ground in political science research when he came to the University of Kansas as a doctoral student. Yet, that’s just what ended up happening as he and colleagues started to look into Midwest attitudes about immigrants and found the data they needed didn’t exist.

Urbano’s drive to make an impact started in Brownsville, Texas, which was recently named as the poorest city in the United States. His parents, who had to work full-time and raise a family at the same time as they pursued college degrees, told Urbano often that he didn’t need to struggle as they had. He had no excuse not to pursue his education and not to pursue what he wanted to do. He took that lesson to heart, bucking the statistics of his hometown, where only 22% of the population has attained a high school-equivalent education.

After graduating from the University of Texas, Urbano left the state for a while to work at his cousin’s immigration law practice in Kansas. As a Texan, Urbano was used to living among a large Hispanic population. However, when he moved to Dodge City in 2006 to work with his cousin, he was surprised to find the Hispanic population accounted for more than half the city’s residents.

“My cousin had told me. But it was still a very big culture shock. Just to know that there were these huge populations of Hispanics in pockets of Southwestern Kansas,” Urbano said. “I still tell my friends now when I go back to Texas that you just wouldn’t believe that you can find food from Chihuahua, Mexico, in Southwestern Kansas.”

Working at his cousin’s law practice led Urbano to a couple of revelations. The daily work of an immigration lawyer didn’t connect with him, but the stories of the people in the community did. The experience sparked his interest in pursuing research on immigration law and policy.

A couple of years later, he went to get a master’s degree in political science at University of Texas-San Antonio. Although immigration was still of interest, the city’s diverse Latino population caught his attention. He studied Latino political behavior and group consciousness, essentially asking how Mexicans might feel about Cubans, or Cubans about Puerto Ricans, for example.

“I’m curious when I get to a town or a city about the dynamics that are going on there,” Urbano said.

Juan Urbano in Dodge City
Juan Urbano and his colleagues spent a week each in two Kansas and two Nebraska towns gathering research. He’s shown here in Dodge City. – photo courtesy Juan Urbano

When Urbano came to the University of Kansas in 2010 to pursue his doctorate, that same curiosity led him to want to learn more about attitudes toward immigrants in the Midwest. He remembered his culture shock in Dodge City and wanted to dig deeper into how well residents were really getting along as the population of the town changed.

He quickly discovered that the questions he had were new territory in the field. He also found that a classmate, Brian Hanson, was interested in the same subject.

“[Hanson] grew up in rural Nebraska, in another town that had a lot of Hispanic influx,” Urbano said. “One day we were having a barbecue, hanging out, and we said I’ve always wanted to look at these racial tensions that are going on in small towns but there is no dataset to do this. All the national public opinion polls … that measure rural areas, the numbers are too low and didn’t ask the correct questions.”

They could have chosen to drop the idea and move on to another project. Instead, they chose to collect the data themselves, a challenging task. With encouragement from their professors and the help of another classmate, Tom Ringenberg, they spent four weeks in the peak of summer hand-delivering surveys in Kansas and Nebraska. They visited Dodge City and Garden City, Kansas, and Fremont and Grand Island, Nebraska, to ask residents, college students, and community leaders a series of 52 questions about the growth of immigrant populations in those cities.

The survey results and interviews have provided the team with a well of data to produce numerous studies. Urbano analyzed the material to write his dissertation, “”Hispanic Growth in Rural America: Public Policy and Attitudes Towards Immigrants.” It’s also helped them stand out at conferences and on the job market.

Juan Urbano, Tom Ringenberg and ??? in Dodge City
Juan Urbano and two fellow graduate students conducted field research in Kansas and Nebraska in the peak of summer. With Urbano are Brian Hanson and Tom Ringenberg. – photo courtesy Juan Urbano

“We could say that we’ve actually gone out into the field, we’ve done research. I know that really helped me as far as the job market goes,” Urbano said.

After graduation, he has a tenure-track job waiting at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi. It will be a return to home. It will put him in the same city again as his girlfriend, Melinda Branin. They met at KU and she will move to Texas with him. It will also put him about two and a half hours from Brownsville and it will put him in the position to mentor students who come from backgrounds much like his.

“Many of them are first-generation college students or come from low-income families,” Urbano said. “I felt that with my experiences I could act not only as a professor to them, but also as a mentor, adviser, and role model to help continue to educate students from my home area.”