By Andy Urban and Elliott Young
The United States is on track to incarcerate more immigrants this year for longer than ever before. Women, men, children, infants, and entire families have been caught in the jaws of the immigrant detention juggernaut. The Trump administration is also doing everything in its power to make it harder for people applying for asylum to do so, even illegally requiring them to remain in Mexico while they await their hearings.
Historians of immigration, U.S. foreign relations, and of Central America and Mexico and other area studies are uniquely positioned to provide expert witness testimony to help inform immigration judges about the country conditions of asylum seekers. Most asylum seekers are from four countries, including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but people from all over the world come to the US for refuge. Most cases involve people fleeing drug cartels and gang violence, political persecution, and gender and sexual orientation-based violence. If you are a scholar who has expertise in these countries, or in the other relevant fields described above, you can play a vital role in helping migrants gain asylum.
The need for expert witnesses is growing as immigration judges are requiring more and more evidence to back claims made by asylum seekers. Fortunately, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, has recently launched a new expert witness database where scholars can enter information about their research and scholarship, thereby making themselves available should an immigration lawyer require their expertise. (A full announcement of this database and project, provided by the CGRS, can be found at the bottom of this post.) In addition, if you would like to sign-on to Elliott Young’s DIY list of academic expert immigration witnesses, just click on the link.
If you feel hesitant because you’re concerned that your expertise on nineteenth-century land struggles in Mexico or student activism in Guatemala in the 1960s doesn’t quite fit the needs of lawyers, think again. You probably know much more about current country conditions in the country you study through your teaching and field research than most immigration lawyers and judges. In other words, you are the expert on country conditions. You do not need legal expertise in immigration law. Expert witness testimony involves a written declaration, typically a 6-10 page document that lays out the relevant conditions of the country in question, and sometimes attorneys also request telephone or in-person court testimony. Academic experts can do this work pro-bono or charge a fee.
At a 2018 AHA roundtable – subsequently published as a Forum in the Journal of American Ethnic History – participants called for additional avenues of potential collaboration between immigration and area studies scholars and legal aid providers. At that Forum and other events, many historians expressed a desire to be more proactive and engaged in responding to the dire circumstances that asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants, and refugees now face. Among the possibilities that came up was the creation of a type of speakers’ bureau of immigration attorneys, arranged by region, who might be willing to take time out of their busy schedules to visit classes as guest lecturers. Luis Mancheno and Rebecca Press, immigration lawyers with the Bronx Defenders and Central American Legal Assistance respectively, also encouraged college and university classes to observe asylum hearings, with certain precautions taken, in order to gain a firsthand perspective on how the immigration legal system functions (or dysfunctions) in practice. Finally, since many history undergraduates map out careers in law, advocates and historians discussed creating pre-professional opportunities for students, such as internships and outreach to student organizations who might be interested in hosting legal aid providers on campus.
Stay tuned! If you are interested in assisting in developing any of these partnerships or have any questions or suggestions, please contact Andy Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org or @AndyTUrban. Also, if you have questions about what is involved in doing expert witness testimony, contact Elliott Young at email@example.com.
The Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) (UCHastings) is pleased to announce the launch of our new expert witness database. This database offers advocates a searchable repository of qualified and pre-vetted country specialists and health professionals who serve as expert witnesses to support asylum seekers in the United States. The database also provides a mechanism for advocates to contact experts directly. It is available free of charge to all advocates dedicated to promoting the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. The database was developed with the generous support of NextGen America. CGRS also received invaluable pro bono assistance from Latham and Watkins LLP partner J.D. Marple and associate Gil Ofir.
You may find expert profiles online at https://cgrs.uchastings.edu/expert/search. Please note that in order to access the database you must first create an account on CGRS’s website and log in. If you have requested technical assistance from CGRS in the past, you may use the same login credentials to access the database. Please contact the CGRS team at CGRS-ExpertDB@uchastings.edu if you have any questions.
Another excellent resource for expert witnesses and advocates is the new Expert Witness Asylum Handbook, prepared by Professor Deborah Weissman and students of UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Law.
We hope that advocates and experts alike find the new database useful and encourage all to submit any initial feedback to CGRS using our online feedback form. We appreciate all that you do to support asylum seekers in the United States and are honored to have you as a partner.
Andrew Urban is an Associate Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is currently the Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria, where he is working with students on a public humanities project exploring how histories of World War II-era Displaced Persons’ camps might inform debates about European and American refugee and asylum policies in the present. His first book, Brokering Servitude (NYU Press, 2018), examines how federal immigration policies and private intermediaries shaped labor markets for domestic service in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century United States, and dictated the contractual conditions under which migration occurred. With Chantel Rodríguez, he guest edited the Winter 2019 issue of the Journal of American Ethnic History, “Historicizing the Present Immigration Moment.”
Elliott Young is Professor in the History Department at Lewis and Clark College. Professor Young is the author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through WWII, Catarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border, and co-editor of Continental Crossroads: Remapping US-Mexico Borderlands History. He is currently finishing a book on the history of immigrant incarceration in the United States. He has also provided expert witness testimony for over 200 asylum cases.