May 2019 Faculty Spotlight
May Faculty Spotlight with Assistant Professor, Neil Hernandez
As the world’s populations migrate due to climate change, war, and other hazards, asylum for refugees in the US and around the globe has had an increasingly focused spotlight placed on it. Neil Hernandez tells us about his research on the US immigration system, work as an asylum officer, and pedagogical aspirations on his return to the Marxe School.
Can you tell us about your recent work as an asylum officer? What does that position entail? How does it tie to your previous research on bureaucratic reorganization in the US immigration system?
For almost two years, I served as an asylum officer at U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In that role I interviewed people, from all parts of the world, who sought protection from persecution. They included newcomers at the Southwest Border. While my responsibilities required that I enforce national security and public safety regulations, my more challenging duties were to build rapport with asylum seekers since they may have experienced trauma in the past and/or were anxious about returning home, where they might suffer future harm. By putting them at ease, they could more readily share their stories with me. Based on their narratives and other evidence, I then adjudicated their cases.
In my dissertation, I examined two cases in the U.S. immigration system, from the early to mid-twentieth century, when Congress and the president created complex bureaucracies, which were used to either tighten or liberalize the immigration laws then in effect. The other time when the immigration system was restructured into a complicated amalgamation was in 2002; Congress created DHS, consisting of 22 agencies, including three immigration bureaucracies. My service at DHS afforded me an insider’s perspective on the contemporary operation of the immigration system. My time there was a complement to my historical perspective of the system. Moreover, I chose to work in the Asylum Corps because this facet of the immigration system did not exist in the periods of my study. Indeed, when Jews fled the Third Reich, there were, tragically, no Refugee or Asylum programs in the U.S.
Tell us about your upcoming research project on the Asylum Program.
Even though America has been a beacon of hope for the oppressed, the asylum process was not authorized until 1980. That year, Congress passed the Refugee Act, which permitted the Attorney General to grant asylum to refugees physically present in the U.S. The Asylum Program in operation today was established in 1990 and reformed in 1995. Each time the Program was overwhelmed by demands for protection: in the 1980s, mostly Haitians and Cubans and in the 1990s, mainly Guatemalans and Salvadorans. Currently, people primarily from the Northern Triangle clamor for safety. The Asylum Program, again, is in crisis.
My planned research into the asylum process will focus on President Trump’s efforts to restructure and restrict the process. Notwithstanding those efforts, in 2018 asylum officers determined that 89 percent of migrants seeking protection at U.S. borders qualified for (preliminary) refuge. The relationship between the President’s actions and the discretion exercised by these officers may shed new light on the “bottom-up” implementation process, particularly the role of “street-level bureaucrats.” Such research has the potential to reveal the Asylum Program’s organizational capacity to not only alleviate the humanitarian crisis at the Border through case processing, but also to inform the extent to which the Program’s backlog of cases may have contributed to the crisis.
You previously taught at Marxe. Tell us about that, why you decided to return and what you are looking forward to teaching to your students most.
Several years ago, when I served as an agency head in the Bloomberg administration, I co-taught a public management course in the Executive MPA program with Fred Lane, who had invited me to join him in the role of practitioner. I enjoyed putting that perspective to work in the service of the students. And I benefited from our sessions as I reexamined management theory. I enjoyed the experience and through it I bonded with the Marxe School.
I decided to return to Marxe because I thought it would be a good fit for me to advance my research agenda, which I was ready to commence after serving at DHS. Indeed, my engagement with faculty members during the campus interview confirmed my thinking.
In the classroom, I am most interested in instilling in my students the principle that theory informs practice and vice versa. In the short-run, I want to support them to use theory to be effective practitioners as they lead programs and organizations. In the long-run, I am hopeful that they will use their work experiences to advance theory. They could do that by pursuing doctoral studies, like I did (after completing my MPA), and/or by working with faculty members on research projects. Thus, I envision them contributing to the scholarship on public administration.