My work with the UW Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) is part of the project “Shut it down!: A quantitative study of immigrant detention/enforcement dynamics”, which aims to understand the relationship between immigrant detention capacity, operationalized both as available space within detention facilities and detention facility closures, and local immigration enforcement practices, which includes encounters, arrests and removals. This project builds upon previous academic and advocate work that argues that the financial and political incentives built into the immigration detention system drive a need for enforcement, rather than the other way around. This relationship constitutes more than an important theoretical and empirical question, as it directly impacts grassroot and community-based efforts and aims in regards to local detention centers.
My work on this project has spanned different areas. A first dimension, which took place in the earlier stages of the project, had to do with helping with the articulation of research questions and hypotheses, which included the review of literature on empirical work on immigrant detention. The exploration of previous studies and methodological approaches aided in both the motivation of our questions and the development of our hypotheses.
A second dimension of my work on the project had to do with getting to know the data and making sense of its structure and characteristics in order to getting it ready for its use. Researchers at the UW Center for Human Rights have successfully pursued FOIA litigation against federal government agencies four times, and as a result of a suit against the Department of Homeland Security filed in 2019, they are currently engaged in negotiations to resolve 17 distinct FOIA requests about immigration enforcement, including several concerning bulk enforcement data that ICE has not previously released. This data, however, is not easy to work with, and cleaning it has taken considerable time, effort and creativity from CHR researchers. While I have not directly engaged with data-cleaning work, I have worked with members of the project on the development of strategies to operationalize variables and generate indicators that would allow us to answer our research questions. This work included meetings with experts from organizations and advocate groups on immigration detention and enforcement data from outside the University, which was very formative and exciting for me, as I got to meet researchers that work towards similar goals outside academic spaces.
A third and final dimension of my work involved working with other immigration-related data, particularly as it related to demographic indicators, which would be included in the statistical models that test the hypotheses of the research project.
Working with the UWCHR has been an amazing privilege and opportunity for me. Not only have I had the chance to learn and work on a field in which I am –both professionally and politically– particularly interested in, but I have had the chance of doing so with an amazing and inspiring group of people that are deeply committed to do meaningful work that seeks to aid immigrants, local communities and advocates in the fight against expansion of immigrant detention and enforcement. I have learned many valuable lessons; some are very specific and related to the data and topic at hand, while others are more profound and touch on the importance of teamwork and thinking about social science research in ways that respond to the needs of the actors and communities around us.