Students involved in New Mexico State University’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program in 2020 were unable to do the kind of face-to-face research possible in previous years.
“We had to cancel the fieldwork part because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Neil Harvey, government professor and principal investigator of the three-year National Science Foundation-funded program. “So, I talked to my students about another way we could do fieldwork.”
Harvey discussed his problem with two adjunct professors in NMSU’s Department of Anthropology at a meeting of the Southern New Mexico Immigration Roundtable. Margaret Brown Vega and Nathan Craig volunteer for Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention, an organization that provides assistance for immigrants held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
“This kind of research makes students aware of what goes on in these facilities,” said Brown Vega. “We had five students whose eyes were opened to the abusive conditions of ICE detention. The experiences of people in detention should be highlighted. We were happy to collaboration with the students to make that happen.”
Brown Vega, who is the lead coordinator for AVID, and Craig, an assistant coordinator, have taken hundreds of calls from migrants describing conditions inside local ICE facilities.
“Nathan and Margaret had received reports from migrants detained by the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral,” Harvey said. “The reports they collected would have taken longer to analyze without assistance. Students could help in transcribing the handwritten notes from phone calls and analyzing those transcripts to determine patterns of troubling conditions in these detention centers that should be known about, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“There are major public health risks,” Craig said. “There have been two recent deaths due to non-COVID-19 related medical negligence at one local facility. More recently, in the context of the pandemic, migrants who tested positive are being put in solitary confinement. This report constitutes an additional body of evidence for legislators in making the case that these facilities should be closed, that they constitute a public health danger.”
The report, which analyzes transcribed phone calls to AVID from 33 migrants between mid-March and mid-June 2020, was developed by Harvey and his students who ultimately identified five types of violations of ICE’s own performance-based national detention standards.
The first area of the report documents the day-to-day humiliation that people in detention face that was coded as “daily grind.” This type of treatment refers to humiliation, shouting and language used to demean and belittle immigrants. A second area was the poor quality of food provided by the facility, issues of hunger, and illness related to the lack of access to food. The third area in the report details the lack of sanitary conditions, and inability to keep the area clean. The fourth section outlined the lack of access to phone services to allow migrants to contact outside sources of support, including legal services. The fifth section describes the impacts of COVID-19 and the lack of information shared with individuals in detention about the virus.
Five undergraduate students participated in the project over the summer and fall of 2020, which resulted in a report published in December. The group includes Avigail Turima Romo, from Columbia University; Daniela Navarro Verdugo , from Cal Poly Pomona; Fernanda Reyes from University of Kansas and two students from NMSU, Emily Durkin and Brennan Ramsey.
Ramsey, a junior government major with a minor in anthropology, was involved from start to finish, transcribing and coding abuses in the facilities and working on the report. Students would meet with Harvey, Brown Vega and Craig to discuss their notes and findings.
“I had never been involved in research,” Ramsey said. “I think as an undergraduate researcher, you learn the basics. I was doing that and loving learning new things. Now I know how to use what I’ve learned to bring some light and make situations better.”
Ramsey, who will graduate in May 2022, is considering taking the foreign officer exam and possibly working for the U.S. State Department or working for a non-profit organization for sustainable development.
“Margaret and I are anthropologists,” Craig said. “We believe what is happening in these facilities is an inhuman experience. By tabulating and quantifying these experiences, we can show how migrants are impacted by their treatment in these facilities.”
“I want to emphasize the importance of students being involved in research about local issues,” said Brown Vega. “This is a perfect example of how this can be developed. The research is done in the community and it stays in the community.”
Harvey is organizing an online event in February 2021 to allow the students to give an oral presentation of the report’s findings. Each will discuss a different piece of the research. Read the report at: https://deptofgov.nmsu.edu/immigration-policy-and-border-communities/.