Finding the Human Interest

Katrina Burgess brings Leir Institute into the intersection of migration and human security
Katrina Burgess presents at the Central American Donors Forum in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in October.
Katrina Burgess presents at the Central American Donors Forum in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in October.

Katrina Burgess is thinking about how to change your mind. As Associate Professor of Political Economy and Director of the Henry J. Leir Institute of Migration and Human Security, Burgess promotes human security and dignity by complicating the stories told about migration.

Since coming into her role as director, Burgess has helped Leir articulate its new focus on the intersections of migration and human security. For a lot of folks working in migration, this overlap is implicit. Burgess and her team, though, are carving out this niche in order to expand understanding and find new levers for change.

“There are lots of other migration institutes out there, but we want to use a human security lens to understand not only migration but also its drivers and consequences,” said Burgess. “We want to create conversations between experts on migration and experts on other things that are relevant to migration.”

Under her leadership, and with funding from the Gates Foundation, Leir recently launched a new project, Digital Portfolios for the Poor. Through 4000 interviews with migrants in India, Nigeria, Kenya, and Pakistan, a team of researchers is investigating how poor women use digital technology for various purposes.

“It’s not a project about migration, but it has tremendous implications for migration,” said Burgess. “If people have access to digital technology, which then produces certain kinds of information and connects them to other places, then that digital technology can be an enabler for migration, particularly if people are not able to use it to access financial services at home.”

“Migration, if you look a little deeper, often becomes part of the story,” she added. “That’s what we’re trying to emphasize and explore at Leir. What are those intersections? How do they shape people’s lives? What are the policy implications that are maybe not being considered?”

In her own research, Burgess wants to understand how migrants traveling through Latin America use information to assess the risks and rewards of the journey. Migrants often receive conflicting reports. They might get messages from a relative in the United States that the trip was hard but worth it while also hearing stories of people dying in the Darien Gap, a dangerous jungle passage between Colombia and Panama.

“There are all these statements about why people decide to make this very dangerous and often unsuccessful journey, and some, or maybe all, of those may be true, but we just don’t have data. They’re based on anecdotes,” Burgess said.

This month, Burgess and her colleague, Kimberly Howe, were awarded a Tufts Springboard grant to launch a new project, “Hopes, Fears, and Illusions: How Migrants Assess Risk and Process Information on their Journey to El Norte.” Through deeper ethnographic research that uses a trauma-informed methodology, this project will confront important gaps in research, investigating where migrants on the move receive information and how they act upon it. Teams of Fletcher students will spend several weeks at four shelters located along the route in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico, where they will speak with migrants along their journey.

As impactful as stories are for those deciding to migrate, so too do they have power domestically. Burgess seeks methods to shift the narrative on the local level.

“Politicians are responding to, but also churning up, certain responses to migration that enable less than humane immigration policies. A lot of the battle is to change the narrative about how people think about migrants and migration. It’s not about facts and figures,” she said. “Is there a way we can think about shifting migration narratives in different localities where there’s the potential to change minds, but the minds aren’t changed yet?”

In 2019, she embarked on a documentary film project with Aida Silva, a researcher from Tijuana, and Tim Ouillette, a filmmaker who teaches at Northeastern University, to better understand how shifts in US immigration policy impacted people at the border in Tijuana. What had initially been conceptualized as a five-minute documentary grew to nearly an hour as the team spoke with migrants from Central America and Haiti who’d gotten stuck. Recently, the documentary has experienced a second wind as the situation at the border remains dire for both migrants and local communities.

Whether with the film or her new projects, Burgess seeks to emphasize the human costs of policies. People who are already traumatized and vulnerable are pushed into increasingly dangerous situations.

“The US has taken what has come to be called a prevention through deterrence approach to immigration, which says, ‘Let’s make crossing so dangerous and potentially fatal that people stop coming,’” said Burgess.  “Both the film and this new project I’m developing want to push against that and show the human costs of these policies.”

“A lot of these people would much rather be home,” she added. “They don’t want to be migrants, and yet we’re imposing so much more suffering on these people who have already suffered so much.”

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