The border —for better or worse— defines the U.S.-Mexico relationship. Research on the border and immigration is complex, defined by ever-changing policy, charged politics, and opaque institutions. To represent the reality of the borderlands, research must take into account the realities lived on both sides of the dividing line. In today’s “Knowledge Transfers,” we explore the factors that complicate and enrich border and immigration research.
Case in point: Border research training grounded in community needs
The “Immigration and Border Community – Research Experience for Undergraduates” is an attempt to connect academic research to the real world. The program—a collaboration between the University of Texas – El Paso and New Mexico State University that started in 2018—provides on-the-ground training for undergraduate students in social science research methods, particularly applied to work with immigration and border communities.
Undergraduates from around the country apply to the National Science Foundation-funded program, which takes place over 10 weeks in the summer in the El Paso/Las Cruces/Ciudad Juárez region. Students simultaneously learn social science research methods and collaborate directly with local organizations, where they work on projects centered around the organizations’ needs.
“As academics, we can produce information that has a higher level of public impact, things that might not necessarily be feasible for a lot of organizations in the sense that they’re often responding to day-to-day needs, what’s going on right now, what do we have to respond to, what’s the latest crisis narrative, and that’s particularly true of the last few years,” said Jeremy Slack, a UTEP professor who runs the program. “And so what are kind of medium- or long-term goals and projects that organizations aren’t usually able to devote time and resources to that we could do?”
The research students produce for these organizations puts advocates in a place to set evidence-based agendas, rather than simply respond to political ones, said Slack, who works in UTEP’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
Key questions that frame the program’s research efforts include: What does an organization know that it can’t yet prove with research or statistics? What does an organization not know, but want to know, that could be illuminated by research?
One of the main projects for the program, said Slack, has been the Asylum Observatory. Students spend time in detention centers observing asylum hearings, documenting cases as they move through a system that is technically open to the public but in practice quite inaccessible. Students share the information they collect with organizations, which can use it in reports and priority setting.
In his own work, Slack has also made a concerted effort to “translate my academic research into the courtroom”—doing grounded, empirical research and writing up that research in clear, direct ways. Slack’s work on the impacts of kidnapping and cartel-related violence on immigration (which can be found in his book Deported to Death: How Drug Violence is Changing Migration on the U.S. Mexico Border), for example, has become directly relevant to asylum hearings.
The Research Experience for Undergraduates accepts 10 summer participants out of 200 to 500 applicants, Slack said. The program was initially funded through this year and is currently applying for additional funding. Throughout the academic year, Slack’s UTEP students work with the same local organizations that form part of the summer program, to ensure continuity and avoid leaving organizations high and dry.
“There’s a bit of an ethic in terms of what questions we ask, how we ask them, how we go about working with people that’s super important,” said Slack. He hopes the program teaches students to think critically about the why and for whom behind their work, so they can produce research that is connected to the urgent needs on the border, and doesn’t stay locked away in an academic tower.
Numbers to know:
•21 percent: the proportion of San Diego 9th and 10th graders with “experience living and studying in Mexico,” according to a 2017 policy brief published by the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. Eleven percent of Tijuana 9th and 10th graders have the same experience in the U.S., according to the Center.
•10: The number of states along the U.S.-Mexico border, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California.
•1980s: A decade of both “invigorated globalization” and when the United States began to “initiate greater efforts to develop systems for control of migration from Mexico,” write Anna Ochoa O’Leary, Colin M. Deeds and Scott Whiteford in their introduction to the book Uncharted Terrains: New Directions in Border Research Methodology, Ethics, and Practice. The book explores ethical issues and logistical challenges in border research while providing concrete recommendations for improving collaborations.
•31 million: An estimate for the number of people living in the border region, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition. The number includes around 20 million people on the U.S. side and 11 million people in Mexico.
Be sure to follow…
Estefania Castañeda Pérez: Estefanía is a PhD candidate at UCLA and a fellow at the Immigration Initiative at Harvard. She is currently researching the experiences of people who cross the border for work, shopping or education for her dissertation, which explores “how the lives of transborder commuters are impacted by their border crossing experiences and interactions with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.” She is conducting research in Tijuana-San Ysidro, Nogales (Sonora)-Nogales (Arizona), and Ciudad Juárez-El Paso.
* Spotlight by Mia Armstrong, coordinator of Convergence Lab at Arizona State University. Arizona State University, named the most innovative university in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report, is committed to collaborating with Mexico to address shared challenges and opportunities and to innovate toward a better future in our region. Twitter: @ASU_MX