Suffolk University Law School Professor Ragini N. Shah will spend a year in Mexico studying whether there are connections between U.S. economic policies and what has become one of the largest human migrations in the world.

Mexican migration to the United States has a long history. One out of seven adults is leaving Mexico, and 50 percent of the immigrant population in the United States hails from our southern neighbor.

Why are they leaving?

A Fulbright Award that is strongly backed by the Law School will support Shah as she conducts her research. The associate clinical professor, who has been directing Suffolk University Law School’s Immigration Law Clinic since 2007, will spend four months excavating Mexican government archives and another three months interviewing the country’s rural poor about what is influencing their decisions to migrate into the United States.

“The primary question is, ‘Why are they leaving?’” said Shah. “I want to focus attention on ‘that moment,’ the one where the person decides to leave their home country, and why.”

Economic policies

Shah says there is plenty of qualitative evidence that the economic policies of the United States and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization are responsible for changing conditions that lead people to leave Mexico. Shah would like to track some of that older research and see if it still holds true in the modern, post-NAFTA era. Part of that research will examine whether Mexico’s decision to tilt domestic spending heavily toward police and military enforcement and away from agricultural subsidies for the rural poor has influenced people’s decision to leave Mexico.

“The U.S. invests a lot of money in the Mexican drug war, and to qualify for those funds the Mexican government needs to show progress,” Shah said. “So one question is, ‘What effect does U.S. involvement in counter-trafficking in Mexico have on people’s decisions to migrate?’ ”

Siphoning local aid

In other words, Shah says, Washington’s emphasis on encouraging Mexican drug policing, which has depleted the government funds available for farm loans and other local aid, may be having the paradoxical effect of driving Mexicans back over the U.S. border so they can amass the capital they are not finding at home.

“I will not be asking people directly about the drug war and its effects on them, as that would be a dangerous question that would likely not invite a straight answer,” she said. Instead, “the research will utilize very traditional open-ended interviewing regarding the reasons people are leaving Mexico for the United States.”

Listening to migrants' voices

In addition to conducting fieldwork, Shah will study more than two decades of migration data at the University of Guadalajara. In her Fulbright application, she said that her work will “contribute to domestic and international law debates on migration” by allowing her to “harmonize” the stories of rural residents with the global policy shifts buffeting them.

“Little has been done to involve migrants themselves in the crafting of policies,” she notes. “Perhaps there are solutions the migrants themselves would propose.”

Student connection

Shah says she enjoys teaching her law students the nuts and bolts of immigration cases. She likens their training -- which includes intensive work on actual cases and rehearsing interviews with actors -- to “walking them toward the deep end of the pool” instead of being thrown in, as she was in her early days as a legal services lawyer.

But she has wanted to write more from her perch at Suffolk Law School and believes her time in Mexico will be “rejuvenating” -- an experience she can share with the school, its faculty, and the student body. She has the backing of senior colleagues eager to see her research and was granted a year’s leave of absence. She has immersed herself in Spanish since 2006 and, to sharpen her linguistic proficiency, she is learning the idioms and colloquialisms prevalent in various regions of Mexico.

While episodes of kidnapping and violence against foreigners in Mexico are worrisome, she said, her prior experience there has taught her proper caution.

Personal connection to work

Shah, who grew up in North Carolina, is the daughter of immigrants from India. She said that her personal experience has shown her firsthand the daily travails faced by foreign-born citizens.

“I am sure that is where my interest in immigration law came from,” she said. “You see how people are sometimes treated.”