Migration Encounters Team Brings Truth and Compassion to a Contentious Discourse
Led by professors Anne Preston and Anita Isaacs, a team of Haverford students is working to combat misinformation about immigration and immigrants by collecting and sharing personal stories from migrants in Mexico about their immigration and deportation experiences.
In Central and North America, there is an immigration crisis—a crisis of misunderstanding. By spinning false narratives about who is trying to enter the United States and why, politicians and pundits have cultivated a national discourse about immigration that stereotypes and demonizes immigrants. Professors Anita Isaacs and Anne Preston are setting out to dismantle this discourse.
By telling these immigrants’ stories as a part of their Migration Encounters project, the professors—along with a cohort of students—are deconstructing stereotypes and advocating for more nuanced, sympathetic immigration policies. The project is only in its second year, but has already sponsored a series of trips to Mexico during which the team surveyed and interviewed nearly 450 people.
“The project was first imagined in the early spring of 2018 by [Benjamin R. Collins Professor of Social Sciences] Anita Isaacs,” said Preston, who is a professor of economics. “I joined in pretty quickly, and we started writing proposals for work which started in June 2018 in Mexico City. We have been to Mexico to continue working on the project in October 2018, January 2019, and June 2019.”
On the project’s two summer trips, the professors have been accompanied by Claudia Ojeda Rexach ’21 and Isabel Canning ’21. During these visits to Mexico, the two students have worked with the professors to interview people who entered the U.S. and then returned to Mexico, either by choice or via deportation.
“Our day-to-day work in Mexico consisted of going to a shared workspace called Homework, where we meet with people from the non-governmental organization New Comienzos, which helps deportees and returnees reintegrate into Mexican society by providing them with the tools they need to find and build supportive networks in Mexico,” said Ojeda Rexach.
Naturally, conducting these interviews is delicate and difficult work: by interviewing these people about their migration experiences, the Migration Encounters team is asking individuals to walk them step-by-step through their memories of experiences that may have been terrifying, depressing, or otherwise traumatic.
“Telling stories of migration and deportation is extremely difficult, as it makes people re-live what are some of the worst moments in their lives, which is very emotionally taxing,” said Ojeda Rexach. For this reason, the team has developed a handful of tactics to help their interviewees feel comfortable and safe.
“I find it important to try to connect with the interviewee in a fairly casual conversation before turning on the recorder,” said Canning. “Sharing one’s personal experiences requires a fair amount of vulnerability and trust, so sharing a joke or a smile can be a good way to make the experience seem less intimidating.”
Once the person being interviewed seems comfortable, the team launches into the interview.
“We start off by acknowledging and apologizing for the difficulties that come with telling their stories, but also saying how important it is for people to hear it,” said Ojeda Rexach. “The types of questions we ask revolve around their time spent in the U.S., how they got back to Mexico, how reintegrating into Mexico has been, and then we ask some reflective questions about migrants in the States and life as a returning migrant in Mexico.”
“For those who migrated at a young age, we also ask them to reflect on teachers and friends as well as what they did for fun,” added Canning.
“At the end of the interviews, [we] always give the person the chance to add anything they feel like saying, and that usually lets the person say what they want to say and get everything out,” remarked Ojeda Rexach.
At this point, the team has conducted hundreds of interviews, so their methodology has been practiced and honed. Preston and Isaacs are particularly pleased with how thoughtful Canning and Ojeda Rexach have been during the entire process.
“They were incredibly productive,” said Preston. “They are also great to work with; funny, empathetic, and passionate. We interviewed a fair number of young adults, and having Isabel and Claudia on the team was important both to relate to these folks and to pick up on themes and connections that we might not see.”
In addition to Ojeda Rexach and Canning, Preston and Isaacs are aided by Ananya Prakash ’21 and Karan Makkar ’22, who help analyze the quantitative data that the team receives from surveying their interviewees, and Sergio Diaz ’17, who has helped interview deportees in Mexico City. Patrick Montero, the College’s photo editor and digital assets manager, also accompanied the professors on their trip to Mexico, photographing the team at work and capturing portraits of the interviewees. The entire Migration Encounters team is now preparing for the project’s public unveiling in the fall.
“We are hoping to have a photo exhibit in October, followed by the inauguration of an online multimedia exhibit, which will grow to include all the interviews,” said Preston.
Between this photo exhibit and the online platform, the team hopes to reach a wide public and change how migrants are imagined in the American consciousness. Because of a political discourse that has amounted to a large-scale misinformation campaign, immigrants from Mexico and Central America have been misrepresented and demonized—but by telling these immigrants’ true stories, the Migration Encounters team is combating false narratives and hoping to impact immigration policies.
“This project can help combat current misleading information by showing the realities of the people who are being deported or are returning from the United States to Mexico,” said Ojeda Rexach.
“It’s critical that policymakers recognize that when they deport someone, they are ripping up the home and relationships that that person has cultivated,” continued Canning.
“Hopefully,” Ojeda Rexach concluded, “this project will allow people to see who the U.S. is really deporting and realize that these are just people trying to make a living and chase the dream of having a better life.”
Read more about Isaacs and Preston’s work on the immigration crisis in an opinion piece they wrote for The New York Times, “Deporting the American Dream.”