Caitlyn traces the lives and experiences of transcontinental migrants – or those migrants originating in countries on the African and Asian continents – as they travel through Panama and Mexico, en route to the U.S. and Canada. Often neglected in discourse and policy, the experiences of these migrants, Caitlyn believes, has important policy implications for border enforcement strategies in Latin America and beyond. 

Research Description

My research is centered around both the anthropology of borders and the anthropology of transit migration to study the impacts of border security and immigration enforcement policies on the migration experiences of individuals transiting through Latin America. In particular, I focus on how immigration and border enforcement policies impact transcontinental migrants – or those migrants originating in countries on the African and Asian continents – as they travel through Panama and Mexico, en route to the U.S. and Canada. While these migration experiences are often overlooked in public discourse, in 2019, just shy of 13,000 migrants from countries on the African and Asian continents were apprehended by Mexican authorities while transiting toward the United States. As Panama and Mexico have both responded to transcontinental migrants with particular policy responses not directed toward more regional migrants – like those from Venezuela and parts of Central America – my multi-sited doctoral project seeks to highlight the mobility strategies of transcontinental migrants and the implications of these journeys in understanding the impact of border enforcement strategies in Latin America.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

To me, being a public scholar means conducting research and creating knowledge that is inclusive to a variety of stakeholders. On the one hand, I consider public scholarship to be collaborative - a process of creating research and knowledge together with the communities where I work. Additionally, though, public scholarship also includes disseminating this knowledge to both a more general audience and to public policy stakeholders. As a result, I see my role as a public scholar to be one that centers on using my training in academia to benefit the communities where I work while also making research accessible and actionable.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The Public Scholars Initiative offers a space to think critically about the way that doctoral students are conducting our research and the types of outcomes that we anticipate from our doctoral programs. I think the PSI program has particularly re-imagined doctoral studies in three important ways. First, the program provides a platform for inter-disciplinary collaboration and methodological engagement between public scholars from different backgrounds to learn with and from each other. Second, the program encourages doctoral students to pursue a variety of careers upon graduation, including but not limited to academic jobs. Finally, though, I think the PSI's greatest strength is the encouragement from the program for public scholars to develop collaborative projects that center on the individuals with whom we work while encouraging us as scholars to develop public-facing research.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

I see the Public Scholars Initiative program as opportunity for me to learn to better navigate both public policy and academic spaces. While I am interested in pursuing an academic career upon graduation, I am not interested in abandoning my public scholarship nor my public policy research. I anticipate creating a space both at UBC - and wherever my career takes me - which is grounded in public facing, academically rigorous research.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My research is focused on the experiences and challenges of migrants from the African and Asian continents who transit in and through Latin America. Thus far, these migration experiences have - to a large extent - been overlooked by governments, civil society, and academics. As a result, I plan to focus specifically on these individuals' experiences and challenges. On one hand, I will be interviewing migrants and those who facilitate their journeys, but I will also interview government officials and international organization employees on their work as well. That said, I could not do this research alone. In Mexico, my research will be in collaboration with the Mexican NGO Espacio Migrante, who has been working with African and Caribbean migrants for years. Given their ongoing work with the migrant population in Mexico, this part of my project will be entirely collaborative between the migrant population in northern Mexico, the local NGO, and myself. I would not be able to conduct such work without the support of Espacio Migrante and the assistance of the Public Scholars Initiative.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

My project is working towards producing a public good in several ways. First, my project will visibilize a migration that has thus far remained under the radar, often to the detriment of the safety and needs of migrants themselves. Second, my collaborative project with Espacio Migrante is working not only to better understand the challenges of African migrants living in Mexico, but also to visibilize the work of the organization in hopes of building out a pro-bono law clinic at the NGO. Third, while my doctoral dissertation will be geared exclusively toward an academic audience, I plan to later write a more accessible book based on my doctoral research and to publish a number of policy briefs in both English and Spanish to advocate for policy change in the United States, Mexico, and Panama based on my doctoral research findings. For me, these outcomes will certainly reach a public good, though the specific policy change outcomes are yet to be determined.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

Coming from a public policy background, I have been trained to answer research questions from a policy lens of analysis. I think this training has been invaluable to me, but I decided to pursue my doctoral degree because I realized that many of the research questions I was interested in could not be answered with datasets or policy analysis alone. I was particularly drawn to a PhD in socio-cultural anthropology because I wanted to understand the human impact that policies have on communities. As a public scholar, I still want my work to inform policy discussions and decisions but this time through the lens of additional methodological tools including ethnographic fieldwork.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

The opportunity to live in Vancouver for a few years was certainly a draw to ultimately study at UBC, but there were several substantive facets of UBC that ultimately drew me in. I was really excited about the number of scholars across the university working on migration and mobility related topics. When I first applied, the university had a migration research cluster which has now been converted into the Centre for Migration Studies. This was a huge draw for me to be able to continue working from an interdisciplinary perspective on migration research. I became involved in the centre as quickly as possible. I was also drawn to UBC because of the policy school and the fact that I would have the opportunity to take classes and to engage policy discussions while in the anthropology department. Given my policy background and my goal to keep my research as public facing as possible, UBC's emphasis on public scholarship and interdisciplinary exchange really sold me.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

When I started applying for PhD programs, I had three main criteria. First, I was looking for a program that emphasized qualitative methods training as a strong component of the program. Second, was looking for a program that had scholars working extensively on issues of mobility and migration in the discipline of anthropology. Third, I was looking for a program that had a good balance of scholars who were working in the same region as me - Latin America - but also scholars working elsewhere in the world. The department of anthropology really checked all of those boxes.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

I have tried to approach my research around human migration and mobility from as wide a lens as possible. I have worked as a legal assistant and a policy analyst; I have worked with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and briefed government officials; I have conducted fieldwork and volunteered migrant detention centers. While at times, it has been a bit difficult to focus on migration from exclusively an anthropological perspective during my PhD, I also think that I would not be as prepared for my program or my proposed doctoral project had it not been for my diverse experiences prior to graduate school.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

My two favorite ways to spend my time are playing tennis and cooking. I have played tennis for about 15 years and always make a point to find a tennis partner whenever I move to a new city. As for cooking, I enjoy the time to make a good meal after a long day - and to learn new dishes and tricks along the way.

Do you have any tips for students from your home country coming to Canada / to UBC Grad School?

My first piece of advice is to not be afraid to ask. Throughout my policy career and now, and particularly as I started to study and learn about potential PhD programs, I emailed everyone. Students, potential advisors, folks who had decided not to pursue PhDs— I had conversations with them about their experiences. I think that helped me immensely in narrowing my own research goals and understanding what I was looking for in a program. Even outside of my studies, I have asked to work on collaborative projects, for funding opportunities, or if I could work with a researcher that I admired as a research assistant. Many of the most impactful opportunities I have had as a student and a professional have come from my decision to just ask. So, don’t be afraid to ask and to reach out.