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Meaghan LaVangie '09 Heads to the Border to Research Immigration NGOs

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"I've always found immigration really intriguing," says Meaghan LaVangie, a rising senior from South Portland, Maine. "Maybe because it's so controversial, that's why I'm drawn to it." LaVangie will spend this summer working on a project funded by an Emerson Foundation grant, in collaboration with Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Shelley McConnell. LaVangie will investigate the relationship between civil society and democracy by studying Border Angels and No More Deaths, two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that give humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants on the Mexican border.

To demonstrate the controversial nature of immigration policy, LaVangie points to a poll conducted by the Public Agenda Foundation on March 18, 2008. The poll asked individuals to rate the United States on its border immigration policy using a letter grade. Seventy-five percent of those polled gave the country a "C" or below. "I don't know if people will ever accept a particular policy because everyone has such strong opinions," LaVangie said, but the complexity is precisely what she finds interesting.

Her project involves both research and fieldwork. Currently, LaVangie is researching the relationship between civil society and democracy, as well as studying historical cases of civil disobedience, such as the Great Salt March of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." LaVangie points out that although NGOs such as Border Angels and No More Deaths are not illegal, they do create problems for the state similar to those of civil disobedience, because they undercut state policy. "I think we'll see more and more NGOs like this in future if the government doesn't change its policy," she predicts.

For the second part of LaVangie's work, she will volunteer with both organizations and keep a journal to supplement her research. She will travel to Tucson, Ariz., to work with No More Deaths for a week, and will then work with the owner of Border Angels in San Diego, volunteering at the three-day conference of the National Council of la Raza. Then she will return to Hamilton to finish a 25-page paper on her findings, which she hopes will also become the basis for a senior thesis.

At Hamilton, LaVangie is a double major in government and Spanish. She sees her work this summer as a "combination" of her two majors, and says that she is particularly drawn to the Spanish component. Having spent the last semester in Madrid, Spain, she hopes that her knowledge of Spanish will enable her to learn more from her volunteer work with Border Angels and No More Deaths, particularly to investigate how Mexican and other immigrants feel about the issues she's studying.

This is LaVangie's first summer working on an Emerson grant, but her interest in government and public policy is long-standing. After her freshman year she obtained an internship at a law firm, and last summer she worked as an intern for her congressman. She says that this summer she was drawn to the idea of designing her own project, and having heard about No More Deaths from past Hamilton volunteers, this subject became an obvious choice.

After she graduates next spring, LaVangie hopes to attend law school, possibly to pursue a career in immigration law. Her advice to students thinking about applying for grants is to be as specific as possible. "Everyone is going to write a good proposal," she says. "The more specific you are, the better your proposal will be. Pick something you're passionate about."

The Emerson Foundation Grant program, created in 1997, provides students with funding to work collaboratively with faculty members, researching an area of interest. The students will make public presentations of their research throughout the academic year. 

--  by Laura Bramley

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