Lehigh Valley professor lectures on immigration policy, food policy in Croatia

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Jennifer Parker, associate professor of sociology at Penn State Lehigh Valley, was in Croatia for a three-week lectureship in which she talked about immigration policy and food policy in both the U.S. and Croatia. She was featured in a major Croatian newspaper while there.


Credit: Jennifer Parker

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — The relationship between immigration policy and food policy was the focus of a series of talks given by a Penn State Lehigh Valley faculty member during a recent lectureship at the University of Zagreb in Croatia, in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Strategic Communication.

Jennifer Parker, associate professor of sociology, has studied both immigration and food policy for most of her career. Croatia is experiencing the largest influx of immigrants from outside the European Union (EU) in its recent history while recruiting immigrants from outside its borders to work in various food industry jobs, so Parker said her research was of special interest to her audience. Besides the opportunity to travel to Croatia, Parker said she was particularly keen to dispel many of the myths that have been appearing in print and social media about these issues in the United States. Both countries are experiencing labor shortages in the food industry.

“Immigration directly relates to our food supply. We are now at a critical point in history where we are increasingly being fed disinformation about immigrants, such as they are a drain on the economy, they commit more crimes, and they are taking jobs away from Americans. These things aren’t true. It’s important that we have the facts,” Parker said. “Both Europe and the U.S. are dependent on immigration — Croatia as newly introduced to the EU. Croatia is looking outside the EU to recruit immigrants to work in various food sector jobs — delivery drivers for food apps, truck drivers, restaurant workers. In the United States, immigrants are overly represented in food-related jobs across the entire supply chain. We rely on them for our livelihood.”

Parker said she aimed to dispelled the myth of immigrants “taking” jobs away from other populations in the U.S.

“We hear a lot about immigrants ‘stealing’ Americans’ jobs, but these immigrants are willing to do the jobs most Americans don’t want to do. They don’t want to work in slaughterhouses. That work is awful. They don’t want to work in agriculture picking crops,” she said. “The U.S. as well as Europe has a labor shortage that we just don’t hear about very much. A large percentage of our native-born working age population has declined significantly in recent years; it’s only because of immigrants that we’ve been able to keep the economy going and food on our tables. We’re bringing in immigrants across the occupational hierarchy, but the place they’re filling in the biggest gaps are in the low-wage positions where native-born Americans just don’t want to work. Moreover, immigrants create jobs by opening businesses. One-in-three U.S. restaurants are owned by immigrants.”

It’s time to come together to recognize the facts, Parker said.

“Once we do that, we’re able to develop the kind of nuanced policies we need around immigration. If we’re not all together, we can’t develop effective policies, and we end up just dealing with disinformation,” she said.

Parker’s work was recognized on a national level. She was interviewed for a piece in "Večernji list," a major Croatian newspaper.  

“I was told my work and lectures in Zagreb were interesting to them because Croatia is at the beginning stages of work-based immigration flows from outside the EU,” Parker said.

Penn State Lehigh Valley has a relationship with the University of Zagreb, and a faculty member from each institution visits the other every year. Parker called the experience to visit and lecture in Croatia “extraordinary."

"Anytime [Penn State Lehigh Valley] can make a connection with another university somewhere in the world, it’s wonderful," Parker said. "Personally and professionally, it was very beneficial to go there and do this. I’m grateful to [Penn State Lehigh Valley] as well as the University of Zagreb for their willingness to have faculty take part in this. Faculty, staff and administrators on both sides go above and beyond to facilitate these exchanges.”

The Croatian students, which included students at nearby Edward Bernays School, were highly engaged in the lectures, Parker said.

“It was really great to get into some intense conversations around what’s happening in Croatia and hear students’ perspectives on what’s happening in the food industry and with immigration,” Parker said. “This is a relatively new phenomenon and the more we can have a dialogue across borders, the better equipped we are to think about local issues through a global lens.”