IIR Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Carol Cleaveland

by Charlie Meyer

IIR Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Carol Cleaveland

Dr. Carol Cleaveland is an Associate Professor of Social Work at George Mason University and is an Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) faculty affiliate. Her current research focuses on undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and how current policies governing both affect their lived experiences. On Tuesday, February 21, 2023, I was privileged to sit down with Dr. Carol Cleaveland and ask her about her research in immigration studies and her time working at George Mason University.

Q: Could you tell me about your connections to immigration work or background in immigration?

My first connections to thinking about immigration began when I was a high school student in the 1970s in Texas. We had a large population of mostly Mexican, or what we then called Chicano populations, living in Dallas at the time. Just [by] working on political campaigns for Democratic candidates back in the day, I became aware of the unique social position and needs of this population.

After that, I went to college in Washington, at American University, during a time when the Shah of Iran was still in power… I got to know a number of Iranian students and hear their concerns…as overseas students on student visas who were worried about [the consequences of political] engagement…

My first career was as a journalist. And during my time as a journalist, I did one or two stories related to immigration. There were a lot of refugees and asylum seekers…in the 1980s, there was a substantial population of Polish refugees who were fleeing when Poland was still under the Soviet block and there was the solidarity movement led by Lech Wałęsa. There was a pretty substantial population of refugees being relocated where I was working. So, I got to interview some of them about being dissidents, about trying to reestablish themselves in a new country, [and learn a] new language, different customs, etc.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about the work that you've done while at Mason?

My first study when I came to Mason [in 2007] was with Debra Lattanzi Shutika, who is in the English Department. She's a folklorist. And we were looking at the Manassas and Prince William County areas and opposition to immigration there…looking at why whites were opposed to this sort of new influx of Latino immigrants in their neighborhoods. And these [immigrants] were folks who were working in the service industry… at, restaurants, construction, etc.…You have a family living in a home and then all of a sudden you have a [neighboring] house with six unrelated construction workers, who may all have different construction vehicles parked on the street and all a sudden it feels like the character of your neighborhood is changing… And with that came some anti-immigrant lawmaking, demanding escalation of arrests as well as just generally trying to make the area so inhospitable that immigrants would be inclined to leave. Then I also looked at: How was that affecting the immigrants themselves, were they more afraid to leave the house? Were they packing up and moving? Those kinds of issues.

After that is when I began to look at the question of human smuggling, because I met so many women while I was in Manassas talking about the conditions on the ground [there]. We had just happened to get talking about what they'd gone through to get to the United States that I got interested in human smuggling.

Q: Do you have a project or accomplishment that you are most proud of within your career?

Right now, I'm excited about the book that I have coming out with my co-author, Michele Waslin, who used to be at Mason [as the IIR Program Coordinator]. She's now at the University of Minnesota. And the book title is tentatively called… “Private Violence: Latinx Women in The Quest for Asylum.” [The book] looks at forty-six women I've interviewed who are trying to obtain asylum here in the United States. It also involves a review of immigration judges’ decisions on asylum cases that attorneys have shared with me in a redacted form, as well as ethnographic observation of asylum court hearings.

Q: What is something you wish that more people in America knew about immigration?

I wish the situation at the border wasn't always [shown] as a problem of national security. I wish that we had a fast and efficient mechanism by which people who need to enter the United States could be allowed to come into this country and work and fill gaps in labor that need to be filled. I wish there was a much more agile system of asylum…I know we have to regulate who crosses the border. It seems like there would be ways to do that while we also have humane processes and maybe that we have ways that people who need asylum can apply [and receive adjudication] quickly so that they're not detained for lengthy periods.

Something like more than 500 people a year die trying to cross the border. It's very hard to do. It's dangerous. The trip…hiring human smugglers is dangerous. It exposes women especially to all kinds of violence, because you're reliant on a smuggling network, which can put you in contact with criminals who take advantage of you…I wish more Americans understood who is crossing our southern border.


You can read more about Dr. Carol Cleaveland here.