Columbia | SIPA
From the Big Apple to Alabama: SIPA Student Joins the Immigration Debate

An unauthorized immigrant mother showing Paola Medina the empty mobile homes of former neighbors who have fled Alabama since the enactment of HB 56.

The spring semester at SIPA nearly always means Capstone Workshops for second-year students. But for Paola Medina (MPA, MSSW ‘12), her workshop came a little earlier because of her dual degree work with the School of Social Work. What came next for Medina was a front-row seat for one of the most contentious debates in the United States today: immigration and states’ rights.

"A recent team of students worked with Human Rights Watch (HRW), a Washington, DC-based organization, that supports efforts to preserve and to protect basic human rights of people around the world,” said Professor Paul Thurman, faculty adviser to the team. “The group studied whether certain federal provisions reduced crime reporting by illegal aliens in specific Virginia and Arizona counties.”

Their assignment was to conduct quantitative analysis examining the effects of Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The goal was to see if there was an effect on calls for emergency services (namely the police and fire departments) in counties that had anti-immigrant policies. The team examined undocumented populations.

“It’s a population that is in the shadows,” explained Medina. “So it’s difficult to document. What you can do are statistical inferences.

In the end, our recommendation to Human Rights Watch was to have a survey team assess what is happening.”

Medina and her teammates were doing their research from New York based on existing data sets.

“Human Rights Watch usually does qualitative research,” added Medina. “They wanted to have us do some quantitative work. I think when talking to policymakers you need the quantitative data to support the stories behind an issue.”

Through the relationships she built while working on the Capstone Workshop, Medina landed an internship in the U.S. Division at Human Rights Watch. She began last September and remains there until the end of this academic year.

In October, she traveled to Alabama as a consultant, along with U.S. Program researcher Grace Meng, to assist with research for a report on the state’s controversial new immigration law: the Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, commonly known as HB 56.

Medina and Meng were there to get a better understanding of what was happening after the law was enacted and to see how people were being affected.

“When we landed in Birmingham, we went right to work,” said Medina. “We met with local community organizers. We spoke to people doing work on the issue.

We went to a rural area outside of Birmingham and spoke to a pastor. He mentioned people leaving the church because they were leaving the state… We also spoke to two members of his church that day, one of them undocumented. So we got a good feel of what was going on in the community.”

Prior to the HB 56, these two U.S. citizen girls partook in several activities, such as soccer practice and games. Now, their undocumented parents are too afraid to drive them to these activities in fear of getting detained.

A Mexican restaurant owned by an unauthorized immigrant single mother who has resided in Alabama for seven years and in the U.S. for 12 years. 

An unauthorized immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years sits with her US citizen grandson in her Mexican restaurant. Alabama’s new immigrant law could prevent her from renewing her business permit when it expires this year.

An Alabama immigrant family that has been affected by the recent law and that has been living in fear since its passage.

Read the full report here: No Way to Live: Alabama’s Immigrant Law

Currently, Medina is working on her own project at HRW, focusing on undocumented longtime resident immigrant youth in the U.S., conducting policy research and analysis for what will hopefully become an upcoming report that she will co-author.

- Michelle Chahine

photo credit: © 2011 Grace Meng/Human Rights Watch