Telana Kabisch signed up for Professor Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof’s immigration law course to learn more about the system that affects her loved ones.

History 335, Immigration Law: Critical Approaches to Contemporary Issues, wasn’t like most history courses. It was part of the Immigrant Justice Lab, a long-term project in which students grapple with the current immigration debate by analyzing its history.

“My experience in the lab has been different from other history courses because we did really interesting activities that facilitated deep discussion,” said Kabisch.

The Immigrant Justice Lab is part of the department’s new HistoryLab initiative, which provides students with interactive, exploratory, team-based experiences to address challenges in the real world. HistoryLab is a key component of the department’s new commitment to public engagement.

“Through HistoryLab, the department is fulfilling the university’s core mission of publicly engaged scholarship and teaching,” said Professor Matthew Lassiter, who served on the task force that helped shape the initiative. “At the same time, we’re providing our students with important career-related skills through projects designed to communicate historical research to public audiences and policymakers.”

“Many of our students are immigrants, are from immigrant families, or are thinking of careers as immigrant advocates,” said Hoffnung-Garskof, a professor in History and American Culture. “The Immigrant Justice Lab allows them to put their academic skills to work and develop new skills, as researchers for attorneys representing unaccompanied minors in asylum cases.”

Kabisch worked with a team of students on the case of a Honduran boy seeking asylum after suffering abuse at the hands of family members and gang members in his home community. Asylum petitions must show not only that clients may suffer harm if they are returned to their country of origin but also that this risk of harm is part of a broader pattern of persecution against (or failure to protect) people of a particular ethnicity, race, religion, political affiliation, or membership in some other recognized social group.

For her client’s case, Kabisch helped compile a research dossier on violence against children in Honduras and on the state of child protection services there. She continued in the lab this summer as a law clerk with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), a nonprofit partner in the project. This fall she’ll apply the knowledge of immigration law she’s picked up at MIRC in History 477, the lab’s advanced research practicum.

In addition to doing research on behalf of individual clients here in Michigan, students in the Immigrant Justice Lab are putting the results of their historical research into a new open-access digital database that will be available to all attorneys representing asylum seekers. Immigration attorneys who take the cases of immigrant children pro bono often lack the time and expertise to do research on country conditions for each client.

History 335 students Meghan Brody and Elijah Arons spent the summer developing the database architecture. The project benefitted from Brody’s knowledge of library science and Arons’s expertise in computer science. This interdisciplinary team-based approach is integral to the HistoryLab concept.

“In the fall as a lab assistant I will be working with the students in History 477, teaching them how to input information into the database,” said Brody. As conditions on the ground change, future classes can update the database accordingly.

After she graduates, Brody plans to become a social justice librarian. She will be able to show the database to potential employers and graduate schools, a tangible demonstration of the skills she’s gained in this history course.

Students in future Immigrant Justice Lab courses will expand the database, work with community partners like MIRC, and begin new projects. The lab has received three-year funding from Instructional Support Services in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. This will help cover costs for undergraduate and graduate student lab assistants, travel expenses for off-site visits, and internships with community partners.

“Students often wonder what they can do with a history degree after graduation, but HistoryLab turns this question around,” said Hoffnung-Garskof. “What can history students do out in the world now? Our department is committed to teaching historical thinking and research skills by engaging students in meaningful public history projects.”

Other HistoryLab Projects

Fall 2018: Policing and Social Justice Lab

Students in History 393, Cold Cases: Police Violence, Crime, and Racial Justice in Michigan, will begin developing an online database of police killings in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, most of which have gone uninvestigated. Led by Professor Matthew Lassiter, students will choose cases for in-depth review, undertake extensive research in Detroit archives, interview witnesses, and present findings online. Future iterations of the lab will continue to develop a comprehensive database for the entire twentieth century. The lab will contribute historical knowledge to current debates over policing and crime, racial and social justice, and mass incarceration in modern America.

Winter 2019: Holocaust Sources in Context

Graduate students in Rita Chin and Jeffrey Veidlinger’s HistoryLab will partner with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to develop content for the museum’s Experiencing History website, a tool for teaching about the Holocaust through primary sources. Student teams will work with museum staff to build a digital exhibition, presenting and analyzing primary documents for the general public. This new lab course will introduce students to skills outside the solitary reading, writing, and teaching typical of graduate training. Students will learn how to collaborate in teams, work with institutional partners, and communicate complicated historical arguments to a general audience.