Nurturing Illegalized Thought Into a Disruptive and Guiding Force

Guest interview featuring Joel

As part of the UndocuScholarship series at My Undocumented Life, we had the opportunity to interview Joel who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s data science initiative. Joel has led efforts to support undocumented students in the field of Psychology. In this post, Joel shares with us his insights about what it means to navigate academia while undocumented, including during the transition from graduate school to postdoctoral training. 

  1. Can you share with us what motivated you to pursue a postdoctoral program and your trajectory into your postdoc position? How has your work developed from your graduate to your postdoctoral work? 

This choice was driven by practical concerns. Academic pathway norms have been shifting due to a harsh job market in my field of social psychology (the study of how psychology operates in social interactions and environments). Postdoctoral programs (where you can get additional research training after you receive a PhD, but before you commit to a professorship) used to be a relatively optional step towards a professorship, now they seem to be more expected as they give you a chance to gain more experience in a competitive environment (e.g., publications, pedagogical skills). For me, I prefer my research to blend disciplines and knowledges to modify or create new perspectives. This position will serve as an opportunity to learn from data scientists and hopefully something exciting and useful emerges from it. 

Logo credit: Eva Diaz

Another concern came from the instability of illegality. At a personal level, it’s difficult to take on a professorship and all its responsibilities (e.g., securing funding, managing a lab) without the certainty of whether I’d have long-term employment authorization or legal status. A huge worry of mine is whether fluctuating immigration laws that place any status I have in danger will obstruct me from providing a long-term mentorship and academic home for potential students or assistants. The lack of currently undocumented professors in my field as examples makes navigating this uncertainty difficult. However, a group of us (who are undocumented and either current or former graduate students) have been working on developing programs to provide mentorship tailored to undocumented scholars trying to build a career path in the social sciences. As we begin to occupy professor jobs and build lab groups in the coming years, we are eager to share every lesson we learn and resources we find throughout the journey.

2. What advice would you share with students interested in postdoctoral programs/careers in academia as scholars of migration?

There’s the generic advice about whether you can afford to relocate every year or so; or how postdoctoral positions give you relatively free rein to take a breath and focus on your academic goals, etc. But for scholars of migration, I think it’s important to research the tea on departments and scholars you are thinking of joining and collaborating with. There are scholars who look great on paper but may treat researching immigration mechanistically as a curiosity or a career-building tool. Suspicious politics usually follow. The same applies for departments where there may be some cool people who are down with the cause, but who get alienated by their departments who don’t share the vision. There might not be a program that is 100% an amazing match or whose ideologies you can easily gauge, but at least be on the lookout for clues that signal intolerable conditions. The postdoctoral or faculty position should be one where you flourish – after completing a whole dissertation, you want to be able to fly, and that takes support, as well as an awareness of and preparation against potential obstacles.

3. In your experience working collaboratively with other scholars, can you share some key considerations for undocumented folks who would like to, or are asked to, join a collaborative project focused on migration or supporting undocumented scholars? 

Given that immigration is massively consequential in all areas of life, everyone has a vision for what it means to improve the system or immigrants’ lives. So, an initial consideration is compatibility – how are you each approaching the project? Maybe you’re wary of narratives of exceptionalism at the expense of others, but the collaborators are fond of using the DREAMer narrative. Are they willing to listen to alternatives or be challenged? Are you? Or maybe you see the fight for inclusion and citizenship as misguided and not liberatory, but others work from and towards that goal. Can a project be created or sustained across these differences? The compatibility of visions is worth thinking about since the final product will reflect all who contribute. You should be able to take pride in it. The lines you draw can also depend on the proposed project and whether potential collaborators are immigrants themselves – this is where everyone’s visions likely developed from personal experiences and so the process becomes one of in-group sharing rather than you operating as an informant for non-immigrants. But most important, you should trust your own voice and the environment should be one that nurtures it – this requires intentional reflection from all parties involved. 

4. You’ve led efforts to support undocumented students in the field of Psychology, can you share with us more about what motivated you to develop this support and your future goals for its growth?

Photo credit: Rolands Varsbergs

Our group is called Connecting Undocumented Social and Personality Psychologists (CUSPP) and it’s currently very small– which is not surprising given that our field(s) don’t often consider us as scholars in need of specific help. A huge motivator for me was my co-organizer Dr. Jun Won Park who was the only other undocumented graduate student I knew in psychology at the time. We figured the combination of their experience in student advocacy and organizing coupled with my experience in research skills could be a good resource for beginning and sustaining a community of undocumented scholars interested in developing an academic career in psychology (including social science more broadly). Given how new this group is, our goals as a group have been developing through multifaceted efforts: raising consciousness about our experiences of illegality within psychology, working on research projects together, mentorship, sharing resources for handling academic steps or obstacles, connecting (of course), and in the process, learning what it means to practice an undocumented psychology. In terms of growth, we are planning out what sources of funding we are eligible for with the hope that we will be able to support current and future members with financial burdens and research efforts.

5. What motivates you to examine the representation of immigrants as racialized narratives? 

My work on narratives started as an attempted counterforce to Trump clamping down on illegalized immigrants and pumping out criminalizing propaganda. At the time, my research was focused on abstract issues in social psychology, but I realized I needed to quickly change course to try to help somehow. Our resistance has often been rooted in the power of narrative to reorient, reveal, connect, and challenge, so my collaborators and I decided to apply an experimental approach to investigate what the common types of immigrant narratives (crime, achievement, struggle) were doing to people’s understandings of immigration and immigrants. 

Across many projects using data-driven techniques, we have repeatedly seen racist double standards in how European vs. non-European immigrants are mentally represented. Having now read more historical scholarship on U.S. immigration enforcement, I understand these consistent representations as clues into how U.S. colonial practices shape public understandings about immigration. My motivation now is trying to incorporate these connections between psychology and long-standing political contexts into my subfield of social cognition whose frameworks are often insular and have previously neglected the conditions illegalized immigrants face.

6. Some of your work on migration discusses the representation of immigrants and its effect on policy. What insights do you think undocuscholarship can contribute to the nexus of psychology and immigration policy? 

I am still trying to figure that out. But one contribution I am excited about is how we often refuse or reformulate the terms given to us by the discourses and disciplines we enter. Throughout our academic paths, we respond to research that either ignores our communities as too niche to study or that is about us but neglects perspectives from illegalized people. There is an effort among us to raise the standards and stakes, to push people to think bigger than mainstream discourse, and to dismantle taken-for-granted attachments to nation, border, rule, hierarchy, and law. 

My hope here is twofold. First, that undocuscholarship can disrupt thinking where needed in psychology and policy. Second, that our idea of “undocuscholarship” gets dislodged from the allure of academia’s illusory merit. This includes respecting the massively creative force and perspective developed by illegalized people outside of academia. Our presence is politicized, we should also politicize and affirm all the ways we can create knowledge and disruption.

JOEL is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s data science initiative, whose main area of study is social psychology and cognition. He is interested in mapping people’s understandings of contemporary issues in immigration, race/ism, and sexuality discourses and how to better quantify those understandings using data-driven analytic techniques.


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