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for people who care about the West

A guide to borderland education programs

A number of universities, especially those in border states, have programs that examine the influx of people who bring change to their new homes.


In this globalized world, international migration and immigration is an increasingly important and controversial area of study. In 2013, a federal judge upheld a law passed by the Arizona Legislature in 2010 banning the Mexican-American studies program taught in Tucson’s public schools. The bill’s supporters had argued that the classes “promoted resentment” by teaching students about their heritage — an important issue in Arizona, where an estimated 10 percent of pupils in public schools have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant. The University of New Mexico’s Chicano Program called the bill “dangerous and divisive,” saying that such laws “undermine the dialogue that is necessary to address our nation’s racial, ethnic, and immigration issues.” 

A number of universities, especially those in border states like Arizona, New Mexico and California, have programs that examine the influx of people who bring cultural, economic and social changes to their new homes, as well as the bureaucratic structures and policies that impact their lives, for better or worse. The programs, law clinics and research centers listed here study immigration, or the act of coming to another country to live there permanently, as well as migration, defined as the movement from one country or place to another. The subjects studied range from law and policy to Chicana feminism, arts and culture to race and ethnicity studies, all of which are important threads in the fabric of immigration and migration studies.

Professor Evelyn Cruz, director of the Immigration Clinic at Arizona State University, teaches students how to work with clients and track cases.
Courtesy Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Law clinics give college students real-world legal experience under a mentor’s supervision. Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in Tempe, Arizona, holds an Immigration Law and Policy Clinic that provides immigration services for foster children in need. The clinic, which partners with community advocates, local nonprofits and government agencies, focuses on providing on-the-ground legal assistance, including immigration petitions for “special juvenile status” and naturalization processes for foster children adopted by U.S. citizens. Clinic participants write legal correspondence, represent foster children during immigration proceedings, and interview and prepare experts and witnesses for cases.

For students looking to study immigration outside of law and policy, the University of Arizona’s Mexican American Studies includes immigration in its interdisciplinary research program for doctoral students, as well as migration studies in its master of science curriculum. The Ph.D. in Mexican American studies allows for an individualized study plan, in which students examine a blend of topics, including gender, health, immigration, indigenous and historical studies, just to name a few. Ph.D. students work with other departments to formulate their own studies to complete their degree requirements. Students interested in the master’s program can choose from three major pillars: historical and cultural studies, Latina/o health and wellness, and migration studies. For those in migration studies, courses zero in on the background of policies that affect Mexican Americans and the places they live. The University of Arizona in Tucson also has an immigration policy program through the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, which “aims to illuminate the complexities of immigration in a global economy.”

Prescott College’s Small Scale Agriculture class works with a women’s agricultural collective, DouglaPrieta Trabajan, and learns about community organizing in the borderlands.
Courtesy Zoe Hammer/Prescott College

Students seeking more flexibility in curriculum and programs can look to Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, where undergraduates and graduates can formulate their own degree plan based on their interests. Students can choose classes on subjects including the history of conflict in the Southwest, the political economy of the border region and Chicano studies, as well as a number of other classes that fit their degree, with the help of faculty and mentors. Prescott College also has a more structured curriculum in its Social Justice and Human Rights Resident Master of Arts Program, where students get the opportunity to travel along the border with faculty for three weeks, meeting with immigration officials, human rights advocates and Border Patrol officers, and visiting an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility. The college also offers a limited residency graduate program, in which students stay immersed in their communities of interest and form a curriculum for themselves, while frequently visiting the campus and their mentors.

Prescott College’s Small Scale Agriculture class visits Tierra Y Libertad, an urban agriculture-centered anti-racist community organization in Tucson, Arizona, to learn about supporting immigrant rights, building Latino political power, and sustainable infrastructure.
Courtesy Zoe Hammer/Prescott College

The University of San Francisco’s master’s in migration studies gives students an opportunity to get hands-on experience by conducting fieldwork and attending research seminars. Students enrolled in the two-year program spend their first semester at the University of San Francisco, and their second semester at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, where they study migratory mobility as well as other core topics and attend a research seminar. All courses are taught in English. The program also offers opportunities at affiliate campuses around the world, including in Central America. Students can take courses on public policy and the social implications of migration, on identity and more to prepare for careers in non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, local, state and national government agencies, and policy and planning firms.

Los Angeles County in California has the largest number of -undocumented immigrants in the U.S., bringing the conversation of local immigration issues front and center. University of California, Los Angeles School of Law offers an Immigration Studies Program for those wanting to learn more about marginalized immigrants in their community. Students take part in law clinics, attend lectures by leaders in immigration studies, and take courses in subjects such as immigration law, political crimes and legal asylum, political asylum and more. In addition to classes and clinics, the school hosts student organizations like the American Constitution Society, National Lawyers Guild and El Centro Legal Clinics, a group of volunteer legal aid clinics in L.A. The topics in the El Centro Legal Clinics are wide-ranging, including youth deportation, homelessness prevention, labor and economic justice, and landlord-tenant -clinics. For students in the immigration studies program, a postgraduate public service fellowship program is available to further their experience in the field.

Contra-Tiempo, an Urban Latin Dance Company, performed at an event hosted by the Center for the Study of Immigration Integration at the University of Southern California. The event focused on building a civil society by exploring cultural differences through dialogue and the arts.
Kerville Cosmo Jack/ Contra-Tiempo

Also located in Los Angeles is the University of Southern California and its Center for the Study of Immigration Integration (CSII). According to CSII, one-third of Los Angeles County residents are immigrants, and nearly half of the workforce is foreign-born. CSII researches the relationship and “mutual benefits” that exist for immigrants and the communities they live in. Integration has long been a sticking point in the conversation about immigration. How do immigrants settle in their new communities? How much do they absorb from their new country, and how much is left in their old one? According to its website, CSII “defines immigrant integration as improved economic mobility for, enhanced civic participation by, and receiving society openness to immigrants.” The institute also employs research assistants and features research projects and policy briefs by undergraduates, graduates and doctoral students in USC as part of the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Just 30 miles from the Mexico border is the University of California, San Diego, a hub of conversation about immigration issues. UC San Diego’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies has been researching immigration since 1999, and now has research associates in 25 different countries. The center runs programs for students at different levels of higher education: a master’s program in Latin American Studies with a focus on international migration, an undergraduate minor program in international migration studies, and field research through the Mexican Migration Field Research program, which takes students to Mexico for field research and publishes their findings. The center also hosts fellowships for students of migration studies through the California Immigration Research Initiative. The program accepts four graduate students a year and allows them to research immigration at any University of California campus. The center also partners with the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, which offers fellowships for doctoral candidates working on dissertations. The program looks for research focused on public policy and Mexico, as well as relations between the U.S. and Mexico. 

South of Los Angeles in Irvine is the Center for Research on International Migration, part of the University of California, Irvine. While the center looks at international migration and policy-based research, its main focus is on U.S. immigration through interdisciplinary studies in sociology, law and policy, political science, economics, public health and more. Also at UCI, for undergraduates and graduates, is the Chicano/Latino studies program, which offers a bachelors of arts degree, a minor, a certificate program and a graduate emphasis. The program also allows for honors studies, starting in the senior year of a student’s time in the program. Among the many classes offered are community politics, U.S. Latino literature and cultures, and race and ethnicity in political science. The program also encourages students to study abroad and do internships with health, law and policy organizations during their time at UCI.

At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, the study of race, ethnicity and migration is deemed an essential part of liberal arts. The Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies program analyzes how “processes like colonization, migration, diaspora and displacement” have come to affect conversations around migration today. The migration studies program casts a wide net, with courses covering countries in francophone Africa and Asian studies, as well as at-home issues like immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border and immigrant communities in Colorado. The program also offers related subjects like social movements, philosophy and race, and gender in America from colonial times to 1920. Additional topics cover anthropology, ethnicity, feminism, religion, English and sociology. Colorado College just added the option to major in the migration studies program in June 2016.    

The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque has Chicana/o studies for undergraduates interested in either major or minor programs, certificate programs and research opportunities. The program also has a student organization that seeks to “bridge the gaps” between the university’s various ethnic studies groups, with undergraduates serving as representatives of their programs.  Students enrolled in the program will understand the intersectional nature of Chicana/o studies by the end of the program, which covers a broad range of related courses, such as arts and culture, Chicana feminism, transnational U.S.-Mexico experience, gender and sexuality, focusing on New Mexico, the Southwest region and Mexico. They also offer an online degree program in Chicana/o Studies.

Irene Vasquez, director of the Chicana/o Studies program at the University of New Mexico, discusses the richness and complexity of the Mexican-American population.
Aaron Hilf/UNM

The University of Washington’s Immigration Law Clinic gives law students hands-on experience with legal defense for immigrant families. Students receive supervision from a mentor from the law school faculty. Seminars are available for students on political asylum cases, representing people facing deportation, and other skills. The clinic is only open to students in their second and third years of law school, and just six to eight students will be accepted. The law clinic in Seattle works in conjunction with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which works with immigrants on legal cases, especially refugees and low-income immigrants.