IIR Welcomes Kelly Richter as Faculty Affiliate

IIR Welcomes Kelly Richter as Faculty Affiliate


Kelly K. Richter, Ph.D., Esq., is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at the Schar School at George Mason University. With a J.D. and license to practice law in D.C. and Maryland and Ph.D. specialization in modern American political history, her expertise combines “a diverse applied practical background with an academic research background.” She has worked on Capitol Hill and in immigrant rights advocacy and legally represented immigrants in immigration courts and before administrative agencies.


Current Research: The Creation of Latino Unauthorized Immigration as a Political Crisis in Modern America

Professor Richter’s research approaches U.S. immigration from the intersection of history, policy, and law. In the book manuscript she is currently preparing, Professor Richter examines how Latino unauthorized immigration has been created as a political crisis in modern America. By adopting a historical lens, she highlights the complicated roots of this phenomenon and argues that “backlash towards unauthorized immigration has spanned across the political spectrum.” The book will detail “the political and policy debate over Latino unauthorized immigration in the United States starting from the late 1960s onwards” to illustrate how “populist backlash on this issue evolved over time and fueled an ineffective, inhumane, and even counterproductive public policy.” 

Based on her research, she explains: 

Original backlash in the modern era in the United States originated amongst liberals making economic populist arguments about unauthorized immigration. Then, over time, conservatives seized the issue and brought in more populist cultural arguments relating to law and order and reframed fiscal arguments. The book looks at complications of our government institutions and political system of federalism and how they contributed to political polarization and the fracturing of immigration policymaking that made it more difficult to find reasonable national policy solutions.

Methodologically, Professor Richter draws on “historical research in various archives of elected officials and advocacy groups and published political and policy, academic, and media materials, especially focused on the influential state of California.” She examines individuals and government institutions across the political spectrum and documents “how this issue of Latino unauthorized immigration plays into realignments in modern American politics. This has been underexplored by a lot of political historians.”

In subsequent projects, she plans to apply her expertise to conduct policy-focused research that addresses relevant and contemporary questions about immigration, law, and policy. 

Pathway into Immigration Research: “Take the Risk to Dive into Exploring your Interests”

Professor Richter’s interest in immigration and conducting research on immigration began during her own undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago:

I ended up taking a class focused on U.S. foreign policy and human rights in Central America and learned about the destabilization of countries that led to migration to the United States. That got me interested in learning more about regional migration. I had great faculty advisors; for my undergraduate senior honors thesis, I conducted research on the history of Mexican unauthorized immigration in Chicago. When I got to graduate school at Stanford, I had wide interests in modern U.S. political history. Surveying the literature, I realized I could make an impactful contribution continuing to focus my research on this important and understudied topic.

Building on her own experience, she advises current Mason undergraduate and graduate students to “take classes where you get opportunities to do individually directed projects…and can calibrate the written assignments to fit exploring whatever issues you’re motivated to learn more about.” This is something that Professor Richter also works to incorporate into the elective courses she teaches.

In addition to elective courses, Professor Richter teaches GOVT 301 “Public Law and the Judicial Process” each semester. She describes the course as a “high impact…gateway course for students who are interested in pre-law” that focuses on “legal reasoning, how the courts work, and the role of law in our political system. What I really try to do in that class, is help students build critical thinking skills and work on argumentative writing. I build that into the course structure; teaching about legal reasoning is a really good way to do that, because you can see how much discretion is involved and how many persuasive arguments you can make on any side of an issue.” 

For students interested in strengthening their research skills, Professor Richter also recommends that students familiarize themselves with library resources and reiterates that “faculty are always eager to chat with you and help you figure out potential topics of interest.”

“There isn't a Line for a Lot of People”: Limited Pathways for Legal Immigration and Need for Reform

When asked about what she wishes more people understood about U.S. immigration, Professor Richter highlights that most people unfortunately have limited knowledge about this country’s immigration legal frameworks: "Even in teaching classes with students very interested in immigration, there's always a lot of surprise on the part of students…of just how limited pathways for legal immigration to the United States are, how difficult the process of legal immigration actually is, and how many disproportionate barriers there are, in addition to surprise about the degree to which U.S. immigration policy is already enforcement-focused."

Moreover, Professor Richter emphasizes:

There isn't a line for a lot of people. The legal immigration system doesn't match the needs of this country, economically or on a humanitarian and family reunification basis…I think if people understood better how broken the legal immigration system is, they would support reform, and that could be more constructive to resolving some of the policy problems. There needs to be very major legal immigration reform.