Immigration Research Part of UTEP Summer Program

When Jeremy Slack, Ph.D., planned his initial Immigration and Border Community – Research Experience for Undergraduates (IBCREU) program, the assistant professor of geography at The University of Texas at El Paso thought his 2018 summer interns would study efforts to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The goal of the IBCREU program is to teach social science research methods to students interested in border studies. Participants would team up with agencies that promote human rights and civil rights. The three-year, $487,000 program is funded by the National Science Foundation.

As the IBCREU prepared to launch, an unexpected development enhanced its scope. In June, the U.S. government opened its shelter for unaccompanied or separated migrant children in Tornillo, Texas, and the focus of the IBCREU quickly changed to asylum hearings, migrant family separations and research into “zero tolerance” policies made in Washington, D.C. The 10 students selected from 350 applications from around the country dealt with the court systems and visiting elected officials from the local to national levels.

“It was an atypical summer,” said Slack, the project’s principal investigator (PI). “It was great, but chaotic. (The students) were thrust into the limelight so they made it part of their research experience.”

Slack and his co-PI, Neil Harvey, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Government at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, have opened the application process for the 2019 IBCREU, which is scheduled from May 20 to July 27, 2019, at UTEP. It will include a $5,000 stipend and a research trip to the U.S.-Mexico border around Nogales, Arizona. Applications will be accepted through Feb. 15, 2019. Interested students can learn more about the program at

The UTEP professor said he wants to build on the collaborations with last year’s partners – the American Civil Liberties Union, Hope Border Institute, and the Border Network for Human Rights – as well as new partner NM CAFé, a faith-based group headquartered in Las Cruces.

Slack said his 2018 partners, who helped set the research parameters, called the reports written by last year’s students “valuable tools” that enhanced their day-to-day efforts. For example, Hope Border Institute focused on assistance at asylum hearings, the ACLU team studied President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy and developed a manual for borderwide documentation, and the Border Network for Human Rights group developed a 20-year history of the network and border organizations with similar missions.

While some participants were from UTEP and NMSU, the majority were from other institutions such as Vassar College (New York), Brown University (Rhode Island), the University of Arizona and the University of California, Berkeley.

Joseph Nevins, Ph.D., professor of geography and director of the Independent Program at Vassar, said he believes the IBCREU is an invaluable experience because it allows students to learn from and work closely with some top scholars along the U.S.-Mexico border. The students also benefit from being able to conduct research alongside community partners familiar with the border.

Nevins said Carlos Espina, the student from Vassar, told him the program was “intellectually rigorous” and “eye-opening” in terms of the numerous field visits. Nevins said Espina looked forward to promoting the program at the professor’s next U.S.-Mexico border course.

Among the other 2018 student participants were UTEP seniors Estrella Loredo and Sandra Dominguez. Loredo is a political science major with a minor in intelligence and national security studies. Dominguez is a communication studies major with a minor in secondary education. Both were born elsewhere but grew up in or near El Paso, speak English and Spanish, and are familiar with the border.

Loredo said she applied for the program because of her interests in border studies, immigration and the plight of children who are subject to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. She had taken numerous courses about Latin America and had studied human trafficking. She called this program “an incredible opportunity” because it tied reality to classroom theory.

Among her duties were to help prepare a report on the closing of the border and to observe asylum cases at the El Paso Processing Center. She said the program broadened her knowledge of border policies and sharpened her critical thinking skills.

“It was an education to see how the legal system worked and didn’t work,” said Loredo, who assisted the Hope Border Institute. She called the court sessions informative, but emotionally draining. “Seeing people who requested asylum gave me a different perspective. It humanized the studies.”

Dominguez was part of the Border Network for Human Rights team. She attended weekly meetings that dealt with family separation issues and the Tornillo detention center.

As part of the network, she studied the effect of extreme militarization of the border, helped present to El Paso County Commissioners a resolution to close the Tornillo center, and observed numerous protests to include two that temporarily closed an international port of entry and the El Paso Processing Center. She said it was impressive to see how quickly the network could organize a protest, but heartbreaking to witness the human suffering.

Dominguez strongly suggested that other students – especially those who are passionate about the border – apply for this program because it will expand one’s perspective of border issues, knowledge of border policies, and network of academic and professional contacts.

“Although the program is only 10 weeks long, it will change your life,” Dominguez said.

Slack laughed and shook his head when asked about his plan for 2019 program. He said the evolving nature of politics on the border makes it uncertain. That said, he still hopes to launch additional investigations that could lead to groundbreaking border studies research.

Slack said he plans to expand on the 2018 program model. Among his ideas is to develop creative ways to involve more UTEP faculty and graduate students. Having said that, he admitted that everything depends on the policies coming out of Washington, D.C.

“What I learned from last summer is that we don’t know what’s coming next,” he said.

Author:  Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications