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The border wall dividing the city of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales,Sonora, Mexico.
Who do people turn to for help? It’s a seemingly simple question. Many turn to family or close friends. In certain situations, people may even seek out state authorities. But what happens when these options are no longer available — when you have left behind your families and friends, and state authorities will sooner detain you than offer you help?
This is the reality for thousands of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the driving question for Nick Cackett’s ’24 and Quinn Jones’ ’23 summer research projects.

“Migration has become such a hot topic, especially during the last [presidential] administration, and it really divided people and created so much misinformation and misinterpretations of what’s actually happening at the border,” Cackett said. “With this research, we have a chance to show the real picture.”

Jones and Cackett conducted their research while participating in a Border Community Alliance internship in Nogales, Ariz., a city located along the U.S./Mexico border. They had heard about this opportunity from their advisor, Assistant Professor of Government Heather Sullivan. When the two received internship positions, Sullivan proposed they apply for a Levitt Center grant to study interactions in the borderland.

“Questions surrounding the state have always been interesting to me,” Sullivan said. “In my research and my teaching, there’s this theme of state capacity. And eventually, I got to this question of how people act in the absence of a state that is effective for them.”

The majority of Jones’ and Cackett’s time in Nogales was spent on their internship. For two days each week, they worked with an assigned nonprofit organization. Jones offered support at an asylum shelter in the Mexican city of Nogales. Placed with Border Youth Tennis Exchange, Cackett provided activities to children on both sides of the border. The rest of their week was spent learning about the immigration process, traveling along the border, and meeting with community leaders.

“In my research and my teaching, there’s this theme of state capacity. And eventually, I got to this question of how people act in the absence of a state that is effective for them.”

Cackett and Jones used the internship experiences as part of their research in what is known as participant observation. By observing the everyday interactions of migrants, they formed a foundational understanding to use for more focused interviews with a variety of individuals, including local residents, non-profit organization leaders, migrants, and state officials. 

From their research, Cackett and Jones determined that when migrants need help, they often turn to local nonprofit organizations, the majority of which are faith based. These organizations not only provide essential services that migrants cannot access from the state, but they also help form important social networks that connect migrants to each other. This conclusion challenges the assumption that migrants rely most heavily on illegal actors, Sullivan said.

Based on these initial findings, Sullivan plans to design a broader research program related to the borderland, state authority, religious and illegal actors, and migrant interactions. Jones hopes that continuing research on the borderland will help change peoples’ perceptions and generate greater empathy.

“Through the process of illegalization, there are a lot of people who are falling through the gaps and aren’t able to survive in the same way that we are because we are documented,” Jones said. “We still have a responsibility to take care of those people, regardless of their documentation status, and I hope this research helps people see the reality of migrants in the borderland.”

Nick Cackett ’24

Majors: World Politics and Literature
Hometown: Coral Springs, Fla.
High School: Archbishop McCarthy High School

Quinn Jones ’23

Majors: Government and Hispanic Studies
Hometown: Fort Plain, N.Y.
High School: For Plain Junior/Senior High School

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