A conversation with Caitlin Fouratt, anthropologist of immigration
APLA contributing editor Luzilda Carrillo Arciniega interviewed anthropologist Caitlin Fouratt, assistant professor of international studies at the California State University Long Beach about her experiences advocating for DREAMers on campus.
Below is a short version of the interview, edited for length.
How did you become interested in this work, and how has your role developed over time?
I’m a scholar of migration. My own work is within Central America, working with undocumented asylum seeking communities, which makes an obvious connection to DACA and to undocumented students and mixed-status families here in the US. I wasn’t all that involved until coming to Cal State Long Beach in Fall 2014. I teach an upper division undergraduate class on global migration. The first week I walked into that classroom, three of the 25 students identified themselves as “DACA-mented” or undocumented. And that just blew me away!
Over the course of that semester, I developed a working relationship with two of the students, and it turned out they were actually some of the ones on campus who were pushing for the creation of a DREAM Center on campus. But really it’s in the wake of the elections in 2016, [when I had] two DACA students come into my class and talk about DACA. In the end basically everybody turned and looked at me and was like, “Well, Doctor, what are you going to do about this?”
What did you do about it?
I got together with a group of equally concerned faculty who were having similar experiences in their classrooms, and we wrote a letter to the university president pushing for really explicit campus support for our DREAM Center for our immigrant students. There were a number of really concrete asks in that letter, including better counseling support for students, more resources for programming, more staffing, more access to scholarships and things like that. The university president responded very quickly. With their blessing, we created this advisory board that brings together faculty, staff, and some student representatives to advocate for the DREAM Center. I’m serving currently as the co-chair of that advisory board. I’m also the faculty coordinator for redesigning the ally training on campus.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the advisory works?
We have key folks from around campus, unfortunately, mostly from the College of Liberal Arts, but the truth is [that] the faculty who are on the board are either subject matter experts in migration or they have extensive experience working with our undocumented students. So they bring expertise to the group, and then we have key staff members from around campus: a key person from financial aid, the executive director of the associated students’ organization, folks from housing, folks from student wellness, from counseling and psychological services as key locations on campus that we need to be able to coordinate with. It’s been useful because academic and student affairs sides work in different ways: when I run into a roadblock somewhere it seems like they have a workaround, and when they hit roadblocks, I have a workaround.
What are some issues that the advisory board is working on right now?
So right now one of our top [issues] is coming up with how as a campus we’re going to be looking past March: whether the lawsuits are effective or not, whether the federal injunction stays in place, whether there is a DACA 2.0, and whether there is a clean DREAM Act. [We are] anticipating the needs of our students and how we’re going to address those, and on getting this ally training up and running. Playing out the different scenarios that means: if DACA ends, we have students who are going to lose their work permits, we have students that are going to lose their driver’s licenses. There are going to be a whole host of financial issues that students are going to face. Then there’s a whole host of other issues they’re going to face if DACA continues, because anything that comes together is going to have application fees. So how are they going to be able to afford those? At the moment we are funding DACA renewal fees, which I think is a huge step for the campus.
If there is a clean DREAM act, it’s [still] going to leave out a lot of people and a lot of families. There’s a figure from the Migration Policy Institute that 12 percent of Californians live with an undocumented family member—almost 5000 students. We’ve had students who have withdrawn from the semester. There is a college student [who is] a US citizen, but his mother is undocumented, and she’s terrified of leaving the house. So he withdrew from school with just a few weeks left to go in the semester so that he could take his younger siblings to their school and their activities, and do the grocery shopping and take care the household, because his mom is too scared to leave the house. [We are] thinking through all of the ramifications of all these different possibilities for the campus writ large and not just for the thousand or so undocumented students we have on campus.
Could his withdrawal have been prevented?
Yeah. So it could have been prevented if that student felt he could have brought up [this issue] with his faculty or in his department, but if the students don’t think that they can share these issues with the people who have the power to make decisions then no. If colleagues would have known that at the beginning of the semester, perhaps, they would have been willing to work with him for alternative assignments. But this is something that I hear over and over again from students is they’re afraid to tell faculty members that they’re dealing with these things. They’re not sure how their professors are going to react. And they don’t think that they deserve any flexibility in terms of assignments or expectations.
That said, we have seen an unprecedented number of withdrawals for mental health reasons over the last year. So we have been directed in the interest of getting students through the semester successfully to be as flexible as possible when we see students struggling with anxiety or depression or things like that. If students don’t feel comfortable letting people know, then we’re not going to find out, and we’re not going to be able to handle things differently before it comes to this point of “I have to leave.”
When we talked at the AAA Annual Meeting, you made a comment that this work isn’t framed around politics. Can you tell us about that?
As far as I understand the history of our DREAM Center, it appears that it’s not supposed to be political—whatever that means! But I’ve been told that numerous times by numerous people: [that] it’s not supposed to be political, it’s not supposed to get political. Which just kind of funny because given the context we’re in now, there is absolutely no way not to politicize it. At the same time it’s helped me to say, OK let’s not talk politics, let’s frame it in terms of campus values and priorities that the institution and administration care about and dedicate resources to. On our campus, that’s student success. These students cannot be successful if they don’t have that kind of emotional and mental health support they need. These students cannot be successful if they are scrimping and saving and choosing not to eat so they can pay their DACA renewal fees. So reframing around the kinds of values that are seen as nonpolitical and seen as important to the campus has been a really interesting process—knowing your institutional context is key.
I think I say this to my students: I’m not giving you one side of the political spectrum here, what I’m giving you is a preponderance of evidence from the social sciences about migration. That body of scholarship shows that immigration policy has harmful effects on immigrants’ lives. That body of evidence shows that immigrants are not criminals but that the law criminalizes immigrants. I think it’s a fine line to walk, but it seems like one of the constraints of the campus of the moment, which could certainly be frustrating.
Luzilda Carrillo Arciniega is writing her dissertation Diversifying Capitalism: Race, Value, and the Making of the Corporate Workplace after Affirmative Action at the University of California Irvine. Find her on twitter: @luzildac
Caitlin Fouratt is an anthropologist and an assistant professor of international studies at California State University, Long Beach.
Cite as: Carrillo Arciniega, Luzilda, and Caitlin Fouratt. 2018. “What Can We Do for DREAMers?” Anthropology News website, April 10,2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.821