Empathy and Social Justice: Immigration

Students in Courtney Putnam’s integrated learning course that links English 101 and College 101 participated in small group “empathy projects,” which involved both primary and secondary research at Cascadia. Here, students in the “Empathy & Social Justice Causes” group present and interpret their research findings.

by Nataly Ferman, Dugan Flanders, Carson Pierce, & Zoe Starck

Why is this issue important?

In our current political environment, the issue of immigration reform is a hot topic. It’s an issue that rises to the forefront in every presidential election with both ends of the political spectrum taking strong stances in regards to the solution for immigration reform. Our current administration has presented some controversial proposals and most people already fall on the spectrum of either agreeing or disagreeing. Whether or not you agree with the proposed plan to build a wall along the US-Mexican border, the negative views ascribed to immigrants deserve some study as to their effects on society as a whole.

What did we look at?

Our group was curious how students here at UW Bothell and Cascadia responded to the issue of immigration and assessed how empathetic they were towards the struggle of immigrants. Our hypothesis: The less empathy students display, the less likely they are to feel positively or show support towards immigration. We collected a total of 30 surveys from our fellow classmates asking them to self assess their level of empathy toward immigrants on a scale of 1 to 10. Following this self-assessment, we asked a series of questions relating to immigration that allowed us to assess their level of empathy on the issue. Each question prompted a yes or no answer to which we tallied as 1’s and 0’s. Breaking down our questionnaire, the yes and no answers didn’t necessarily translate into empathy yeses and lack of empathy no’s, so we needed to look at the answers individually in order to accurately score for empathy.

Question Yes response score No response score
Do you believe everyone, despite country of origin has a human born right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? 1 0
Do foreign nationals deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in life as someone born in the US or should it extend to all human beings regardless of ethnicity and country of origin? 1 0
Does the “American Dream” as you understand it, pertain to US citizens born in the US or should it extend to all human beings regardless of ethnicity and country of origin? 0 1
Should undocumented immigrants be granted the opportunity for permanent citizenship in the United States? 1 0
Should US born children of undocumented immigrants be forced back if their parents were to be deported? 0 1
You’re a college student applying for an entry-level position at a grocery store. The only other person that applied migrated illegally from Mexico. Do you think as a US citizen, that you should automatically be hired over the foreign citizen because of their immigration status? 0 1
The year is 1892 and your family is barely able to survive. There’s a famine and you’re unable to feed your spouse and three children. You know there’s a land of freedom and opportunity and all you need to do is survive the passage across the ocean and to the America’s. Would you relocate your family in search of opportunity and a better life? 1 0
Should America build a wall along the US-Mexican Border? 0 1
If you were a business owner in the United States, would you hire an undocumented immigrant if you could pay them $8 an hour over a US citizen that wanted $15 an hour for the same amount of work? 1 0

What did we find?

We found that overall everyone answered yes to our first question: “Do you believe everyone, despite country of origin has a human born right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” This shows that on some level they believe the inalienable rights established by the US Constitution does apply to all people regardless of their country of origin. The second question, however, asks the very same question with different wording when dissected: “Do foreign nationals deserve an equal opportunity to succeed in life as someone born in the US or should it extend to all human beings regardless of ethnicity and country of origin?” Not everyone answered this question unanimously as they did the first. The third question was similar to the first two only the answer was reversed. A “no” response denoted empathy rather than the “yes” for the first two. The wording was confusing on this one, but the answers to this gave us a further understanding of how people view immigration. On the surface people want to be empathetic towards immigrants, but as it becomes closer and closer to their reality of being an American, we see a divide between people wanting to empathize with immigrants and their struggle and people wanting to be seen as something special for simply being born here in the United States.

What limitations did we have?

One limitation we ran into was the lack of trial and error when posing a public opinion survey. It would have been beneficial to our study to see what worked in the initial survey and follow up with revisions to our questioning and then re-administer the revised survey. Many trials and errors go into a polling process and being limited to one single trial limited the quality of our results. Had we been able to see what worked well for our tangent groups and their surveys as well as what didn’t work in our own, we could have reviewed and redistributed our questionnaire to gather the data pertinent to our study.

The quantitative data retrieved from our survey limited the ability to apply statistical measurements to further analyze our findings. In data processing, we realized we needed to apply 1’s and 0’s to our yes or no questioning in order to get an accurate numerical picture of the data we collected. If research were to continue we would assign a 1 to 5 numerical value to better assess people’s opinions in place of the yes or no answers.

How does empathy impact the ultimate issue of immigration?

Empathy is the ultimate solution to immigration policies that face the United States. Understanding where others come from and taking the time to learn to view the struggles through another person’s point of view is what’s needed in order to bring about change in our society as a whole. People tend to get wrapped up in our own personal definition of the “American Dream” that we might forget or ignore what others are going through to become American citizens themselves. It’s easy to put these issues out of sight and out of mind if our grandparents came in search of freedom and opportunity many generations before us. Lack of understanding will only blind us to the struggles of others and without having any empathy towards our fellow brothers and sisters we shall remain caught up in this fiercely debated area of social justice.


Newman, Benjamin J, Todd K Hartman, Patrick L Lown, and Stanley Feldman. “Easing the Heavy Hand: Humanitarian Concern, Empathy, and Opinion on Immigration.” British Journal of Political Science. 45.3 (2015): 583-607.

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