U.S. Immigration Crisis: Historians as Expert Witnesses

The History Department’s first “History in the Headlines” event of the semester, “U.S Immigration Crisis: Historians as Expert Witnesses,” was a poignant and informative discussion about the current U.S. immigration crisis and the role historians can play in addressing it.

In a discussion moderated by LMU associate professor of history Margarita Ochoa, attorneys Yanira Lemus (Loyola Law School Immigrant Justice Clinic) and Sabrina Damast (in private practice) and Kimberly Gauderman, associate history professor, University of New Mexico, students were educated on the complicated process of applying for asylum in the United States. The speakers outlined the current eligibility requirements for asylum, including that the applicant must have a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. However, these categories are not as straightforward as they may initially seem.

Lemus started the conversation by informing students that this definition can change depending on each individual case, courtroom, or even judge, making it extremely difficult to build a case. She also introduced the idea of an expert witness, or a historian who compiles a comprehensive and well-researched history of a client’s country in order to give the judge the context necessary to understand their persecution. Kimberly Gauderman went more in-depth about her role in court cases as an expert witness. She stressed that as a historian one must bear witness to horrifying events, but as an expert witness she can actually change history one person at a time. In her cases, she draws upon her research skills, historical knowledge, and ability to make interdisciplinary connections, all of which she gained through the study of history, to build a compelling and unshakeable argument for each applicant. Sabrina Damast then discussed the importance of expert witnesses such as Gauderman in her cases. Expert witnesses often help fill in knowledge gaps and bolster arguments in order to secure the best possible chance for freedom for her clients.

All of the speakers emphasized the importance of linking the legal with the historical in order to understand how we got to our current crisis, and how to help people get out. The presentations were followed by an energetic question and answer portion with questions about rapidly changing immigration policy, the impact of social movements on the law, and the critical lack of legal representation available to immigrants. Overall, it was a fascinating and eye-opening night about how walls of all kinds are being built to keep people from seeking asylum and how history can help to overcome them.

Thea McKay, ‘20
History and Theatre Arts Double Major