Grace Argo is graduate supervisor of the Immigrant Justice Lab. Led by Professors Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof and Amy Sankaran, the lab is dedicated to creating an open-access digital repository available to attorneys defending asylum seekers anywhere in the United States.

Fellow graduate student Taylor A. Sims, the department’s 2020-21 public engagement and professionalization coordinator, caught up with Argo to learn more about her work in the lab. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Taylor A. Sims (TS): Can you tell me a little bit about the goals of the Immigrant Justice Lab (IJL)?

Grace Argo (GA): The lab is always evolving, but its aim is to use the University of Michigan as a resource for community partners that do immigration advocacy work. We have, for example, faculty with expertise in area studies who can serve as expert witnesses or provide country conditions consultations for immigration attorneys. We have teams of law students and advanced undergraduates who collaborate on writing asylum briefs, which involves using U-M Library resources to research country conditions and Sixth Circuit case law. We also have a translation center on campus, The Language Bank, which provides translations of foreign language materials at no cost to our community partners. 

On my end, which is research, we work primarily with the Unaccompanied Children’s Program at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, or MIRC. We work with attorneys representing children in Michigan foster care to put together special immigrant juvenile status petitions and asylum applications for kids, most of whom are fleeing family violence or child abuse. The core function of the lab—and the bulk of our work—is helping MIRC attorneys write asylum applications. We’ve also worked with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in Chicago, trying to reunite children who’ve been separated from non-parental family members at the border by writing best practice advisories for immigration judges, and with the American Immigration Council in Washington, DC, compiling indexes of country conditions research for asylum briefs that attorneys all over the country can use.

TS: You mentioned that the lab is always evolving. Does it adapt to what community partners need? What determines how the lab changes, or what variables determine the shape of  the IJL?

Grace Argo, PhD candidate in the Department of History.

GA: One of the variables is the community partners’ needs. For example, MIRC is scaling up its operations this summer to serve not just kids in foster care, but also children who are placed with sponsors (family members residing in Michigan.) Their caseload is going to double. So while they’re working to come up with the capacity to do that, we also have to work on our end to maintain the lab’s capacity year-round. This means running two IJL seminars with the History Department and the Law School instead of one during the academic year and having students stay on as research assistants in the summer. Our capacity fluctuates because students come and go, and there’s always going to be a high rate of turnover. However, I will say I’ve been working with some students since we started this like two or three years ago.

TS: That includes undergraduates?

GA: Yes. My research assistant, Tela Kabisch (BA 2019), started the same semester that I was a GSI for Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof’s Immigration Law [History 335] course, and she is still working with me now, three years later, on cases that come through the lab. She and two other of our research assistants are now alumni and staying on for summer 2021Carolyn Chen (BA 2020), and Rahul Kak (BA  2020). So yes, people can stick around for a long time if they want to, but a lot of times they have other things they have to do. During the summers we typically have less capacity, or it’s a different kind of capacity, where we might be able to do more country conditions research for cases but not have any law students to do case law research.

TS: So you serve as the supervisor of undergraduates both as a group and individually? 

GA: I actually supervise all the teams. This past semester, Winter 2021, we had a team of nine undergraduates and law students,  plus me. This summer [2021] there are four of us. As supervisor, I read all their drafts, make sure they are collecting information and storing it appropriately in our database, and point them to resources for their research. I also work on cases myself. We do about six cases per semester, sometimes more.

TS: How does your work with the IJL compare to being a History GSI?

GA: It’s very different. You are working with real people’s lives and real people’s stories. Of course, in a way, historians do that all the time. But it’s not as immediate or pressing to get the interpretation of their story right. With lab cases, their life kind of depends on it.

TS: The stakes are high.

GA: The stakes are very high. That adds a layer of  seriousness and professionalism to the work we do. It’s also different in the sense that we’re working with a variety of sources, not just historical ones, and historical argumentation is only part of our strategy. We have to argue within the constraints of the law, which are weird and particular and sometimes frustrating. We’re still using evidence to tell a story and make an argument, but legal writing involves a different kind of creativity.

TS: Tell me a little bit about the day-to-day work. What does the process look like when you get a case?

GA: Once a case is referred to us, we put it in a queue. We have criteria by which we prioritize the cases. Children who are not eligible for special immigrant juvenile status, whose only avenue to legal status is asylum, get first priority. From there, we ask: Is this a case that needs research we’ve never done before? That’s high priority. Is it a case involving gang violence? Those get high priority, too, because they’re difficult to argue legally. So many people are fleeing gang violence, and the United States does everything in its power to shut them out.

TS: So because those cases might take more time, energy, and research they go to the top of the queue? 

GA: Definitely. Our first priority are cases that involve extensive country conditions or legal research. A secondary consideration is trying to prioritize requests from attorneys we haven’t worked with before, or haven’t worked with as much as others. Once we’ve decided which cases we’re working on, we receive redacted copies of the client’s personal declaration and a case summary written by the attorney. We figure out what our legal arguments might be and what kind of research we need to do to support them. When we do country conditions research, we’re looking for evidence that objectively supports the child’s story. 

So, for example, we might find a source that says there’s a 95 percent impunity rate in this country for sexual crimes against children. Or we might find that there’s a nonprofit agency in the child’s hometown which says 911 calls don’t get answered, or the police refuse to investigate reports of domestic violence—things like that. Sometimes we might also do  a little bit of, like, cultural mediation or translation. I’m thinking about cases where we have psychological abuse, in addition to or instead of sexual or physical abuse, where it’s not as obvious to a judge what the abuse is. For cases like that, we might have to explain why, for example, making a religious child do things they consider sinful constitutes abuse. Or we might research why making a child sleep outside at night in a rural area is really dangerous based on the kind of wildlife that lives in the region. 

From that very local level of analysis we move to a state-level analysis, where we have to prove the state does not adequately enforce its child protection laws or it condones the abuse in some way or another, because mechanisms for international protection kick in when states don’t effectively protect children from private actor violence. It’s our job to connect that child’s personal story to their context, to provide objective evidence which can show a judge that this child deserves to be recognized as a persecuted minor and deserves asylum and entry into the United States. The law students typically focus on the legal side, although recently I’ve started writing briefs from top to bottom, including all of the legal arguments. That’s sort of new territory for me, but I interned at MIRC as a legal researcher for two months, took an immigration law training course, and I have support and oversight from the attorneys who continue to represent the kids.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing the legal arguments is proving that a child belongs to a “particular social group,” which is a category in asylum law. There are the things people are typically persecuted for—race, religion, nationality, political opinion. Those are obvious to the US government. But there’s also persecution on the basis of “membership in a particular social group,” which is loose and not very well defined, except through case law. For example, being LGBT can constitute membership in a particular social group. But a particular social group can also be a family, or “girls who reject gang members’ sexual advances,” or “children lacking effective state or parental protection.” Membership in a particular social group is a nice category to have because it’s theoretically flexible and can encompass a wide range of private actor violence. But they also require more work to prove they’re legally cognizable, and the tests you need to satisfy are different in every jurisdiction.

So I guess that’s what we do. It usually takes us about two months to do all of the research, write the brief, and submit it to the attorney. The attorney reviews it and gives us feedback. Eventually, the brief is submitted when the child goes for their interview with USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.) They have an office in Chicago where all the Michigan kids go and get interviewed in a non-adversarial environment. They’ll make a determination about whether they want to approve the child’s asylum claim; if they say no, then the child has to go to immigration court and defend their case all over again. In addition to being a more difficult environment to argue asylum in, it’s also just very traumatizing, I think, for kids to have to repeat their stories. So you really want to have an airtight case once they go into USCIS, have that be the last time they need to repeat that story to anybody, and hopefully move on with their lives.

TS: So if not for the lab and all the work you do as a team, who would be doing this work?

GA: The attorneys would be doing it, but they have so many kids to represent and so little time. So they come to us for help with cases that need a lot of research. “I need help figuring out how to argue this” or “I need help learning about this country’s history so I can make a case for this kid.” Then it’s our job to go and find all that information for them and give them a sense of how they might use that information or context to make an argument.

"Que siempre encuentres la luz dentro de ti y tengas el coraje de darte una oportunidad" ("May you always find the light within and have the courage to give yourself a chance"). Drawing by one of the children applying for asylum in the United States. Used with permission.

So the IJL assists not only with the quantity of cases, but also the quality of cases. 

GA: Which has to be very high.

TS: Like you were saying, in history, we usually deal with people in the past; and of course, that is important work. But this is immediate; and if the case is not airtight, there are immediate consequences for the child. It’s actually kind of hard to wrap my mind around. It must be very heavy stuff to work with day-to-day.

GA: Yeah, but the students handle it well. You see horrible, terrible stories, and the students are just determined to get the kid asylum. They’re up to the challenge.

TS: What do you bring to the table that’s unique because of your training as a historian?

GA: I think of it as my training as a feminist historian. Within feminist studies there’s a saying that “the personal is political,” and demonstrating that connection is very much my job. We’re connecting a child’s personal story to their political,  historical, and cultural context. So when I’m working with family violence cases, where the persecutor is a private actor rather than the government, it’s my job to say, “You know, family violence is not inevitable. It’s created by historical conditions, contingent on policies and laws.” 

For example, I do a lot of research on how war, displacement, and migration have fractured family structures, which makes kids more vulnerable to abuse. I look at how war and displacement have shaped people’s reactions to violence—what kinds of violence people think are normal or what types of aggression are understood as justified or acceptable. I research how institutions like the law and medicine have been destabilized to the point where they’re not able to effectively protect children from violence, even if they might want to. I examine police corruption. I look at how women’s movements have tried to get the government to address domestic violence, how they’ve explained what’s happening on the ground. It’s very much a feminist historian’s task to take the perspective of a child, see the world through their eyes, and then also take their story and place it in this broader social context. I feel like it’s rare for anybody, really, to see themselves as historically constituted subjects, especially kids, but that’s what the US government is asking them to do. Once in a while we get one or two kids who are super self-aware of themselves in that way. But most kids aren’t thinking about their experiences of violence explicitly in terms of their country’s history and politics.

TS: It sounds like this work requires a certain level of creativity, and you’re not just doing isolated research. You’re also in a supervisory and project management role. So what skills do you find that you lean on the most?

GA: I need everything. Teaching skills are important because I need my teams to cooperate with each other, coordinate to get work done, and communicate effectively. I need to show them how to use evidence compellingly and organize information efficiently. There’s a more equal relationship between me and the students in the lab, though, because our success depends on one another. Then there are research skills. You have to be excellent at weaving together evidence and argument, which historians are. We’re very good at thinking critically about sources, connecting scraps of information to tell a story in a powerful way. I also think, as a PhD student, you’re teaching yourself new things all the time. That comes in handy when I’m writing legal arguments. The parameters of legal argumentation are very different from those in history. It helps to be able to dissect the relationship between evidence and argument and make educated guesses about how to replicate it within a new set of constraints.

TS: So adapting as you go or learning on the fly.

GA: Yes. The skill of staying adaptable.

TS: How long have you been working with the IJL?

GA: We first piloted the lab in the winter of 2018, when I was the GSI for Immigration Law. Before it was “the lab” it was just part of this course, and I was helping students compile country conditions research. We weren’t writing briefs then; our goal was just gathering data the attorneys could use. Over time, we evolved and started writing briefs once we began working with students in the law school.  

TS: What’s been the most difficult part? What’s been the best or most rewarding?

GA: One of the hardest things is that when you’re doing the research, you get intimately familiar with a country’s policies, their laws about child protection, their attitudes toward child empowerment. I think what’s really sad is that some of these countries have more progressive laws and policies for child protection and children’s dignity than the United States. The United States could frankly learn a thing or two. For example, Honduras has banned the use of corporal punishment in homes and schools, which the United States has not done. Yeny Rivas, who heads the gender department of El Salvador’s Ministry of Education, is a brilliant woman—she has important ideas about how to curb the country’s gendered violence and has worked very hard to bring them to fruition despite opposition from the conservative government. 

It can be upsetting to do this work and see that these are places that could be some of the best places in the world to be a child, but they don’t have the resources to make that happen. It’s important to remember a lot of these places are countries the United States has destabilized. So our work can feel like a fool’s errand or like we’re putting bandaids on bullet wounds. We’re not by any means “saving” children or “solving” a crisis. These are conditions that the United States has created, that these kids are bereft of protection within their own countries and have no place else to go. Somebody has to do this work, right, but it’s never going to be done because you can’t stop a problem that you’re creating. I think that’s one of the hardest aspects, just the relentless, unceasing nature of it.

TS: That’s a very real answer. I really appreciate it.

GA: But I think the best aspect of it is getting to support extraordinary kids in their fight for freedom from violence and working with an incredible team of people who support them. It’s really an indescribable gift to be able to do this work. When we learn little details about the kids, like their favorite movies, their favorite music, their hobbies and interests—it’s so nice. It reminds us why we do this—we want them to have a little bit of happiness and creativity, a little space to define themselves and who they are in the world. They share the worst experiences of their lives with us and we do our best and then hope and pray everything works out. Even if they are granted asylum, we know that getting to stay in the United States is no guarantee of stability or happiness. But at minimum, we hope they’re able to have a sense of identity, safety, maybe moments of reprieve. 

TS: It sounds like you get these little glimpses of self-determination. They decide what ice cream they like, or they get to decide what movie to watch. It might be a glimpse of what they want to do someday. I bet that’s really moving. When you send cases off, do you get reports back about how it went, or just hope and never really hear?

GA: The asylum application process in this country is a mess. Most of the time we send off these cases and don’t hear anything because it takes so long for a case to move through the system. Occasionally we do get news that the child was granted asylum, and that’s always a relief. I worked on one case where—because the child moved to a different jurisdiction, where the asylum acceptance rate is very low—she did not get asylum when she did her interview with USCIS. She had to appeal USCIS’s decision in immigration court. I don’t know how that went. I felt like I failed her. I cried for two months. For the most part the Sixth Circuit USCIS office is gentler on children, but I never want to make it seem like arguing kids’ cases is “easier” because children are more sympathetic than adults. You should never assume that. That’s such a dangerous assumption. 

TS: It doesn’t seem like easy work.

GA: It’s never guaranteed that their case will be successful. They’re going through this traumatic experience of being placed in removal proceedings from the United States, and you’re arguing they deserve to stay. It takes a huge toll on the kids, mentally. I don’t know. I wish the process were different and was just like … welcome. Thank you for being here; you’re awesome. But instead the government starts pushing them out from the moment they arrive.

TS: It’s more like, you’ve been through the hardest thing, and now let’s put you through more hard things.

GA: Right. I can’t imagine being a kid and not knowing what my status is for years and years after applying for asylum. You have to tell people the worst things that ever happened to you over and over again and hope the government designates you as worthy of protection, but then your case is in limbo for ages. I think that’s traumatizing in its own right. So sometimes we find out how the cases go; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find out, and it’s not good—but that’s rare. 

TS: Is there anything else about the IJL, your work with the lab, or the collaborative work more broadly that you would like people to know?

GA: People often ask me how to get involved. If you want to join the lab as an undergraduate, enroll in Immigration Law [History 335] and then apply. It’s a competitive selection process, but we’re going to start running the lab twice a year—in the fall and in the winter—so there will be more opportunities for people who want to help. You can also sign up to be a translator with The Language Bank, or volunteer with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights—they have lots of ways to help, like fundraising, driving people to court, answering calls on the hotline. I’ve been on their communications team for a few years. 

TS: I learned so much about the IJL, and I hope it’s around for a long time. 

GA: Me too.