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Social scientist uses data to help migrants, asylum seekers

DePaul Migration Collaborative Practitioner in Residence Elizabeth Kennedy shares her expertise with campus, Chicago


Elizabeth Kennedy
Elizabeth Kennedy (Photo by Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)

At just 14 years old, Elizabeth Kennedy knew she wanted to participate in a language immersion program in Mexico. By 17, the Texas native had saved enough of her own money to pay for it and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer from her parents. 

While across the border, she put her tutoring and coaching experience to use at an orphanage, working with 10- to 13-year-olds. When some of the children in Kennedy’s care began to tell her they were preparing to migrate north, she got curious and asked why they’d want to leave home. One boy’s answer still resonates with her to this day. 

“Quiero ser alguien,” Kennedy recalls him saying. “I want to be someone.” 

Since then, Kennedy has dedicated her academic and professional work to collecting and sharing the stories of migrants and asylum seekers. After earning a master’s degree in refugee and forced migration studies from the University of Oxford, Kennedy went on to complete her Ph.D. at the joint program in geography at San Diego State University and University of California-Santa Barbara. 

As a social scientist, her focus is developing data-driven country conditions reports that assist migrants in their efforts to earn asylum in the United States, Canada, the U.K., and other countries around the world. That work led her to DePaul this academic year, where she is serving as an inaugural DePaul Migration Collaborative Practitioner in Residence

“Elizabeth brings to DePaul her extensive experience working with data-based analyses of the causes of displacement in the Northern Triangle countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala,” says Professor Shailja Sharma, co-director of the collaborative. “Most people coming to the U.S. are from these three countries, often comprised of unaccompanied women and children. She has done groundbreaking scholarly work, but more importantly, has worked as an expert on the conditions people from these countries fled.” 

The Practitioner in Residence program allows experts and professionals working on migration, immigration and human rights issues to contribute to DePaul’s Reframing Refugees Project, addressing key challenges facing forced migrants in the United States and across the world. 

“Dr. Kennedy's work provides immigrant advocates with expert information and resources on the drivers of migration in the current regional context and provides asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras with additional resources. Her work improves access to asylum and is thereby aligned with the mission of the DMCs Reframing Refugee Project,” says Professor Sioban Albiol, co-director of the DePaul Migration Collaborative. 

In addition to her 2023-24 role at DePaul, Kennedy is a 2023-24 Fulbright Scholar to El Salvador and the Vanderbilt University Latin American Public Opinion Project 2023-24 Honduras expert. While in residence at DePaul, Kennedy will continue to produce country conditions reports and editorials, as well as conduct trainings with immigrant-serving organizations, DePaul students and faculty, and the broader Chicago community. 

“Less than 10 percent of people seeking asylum from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are granted it each year,” Kennedy says. “Through documenting reasons families leave, what happens on their routes, and what happens once they’ve reached their destinations, and analyzing other statistics such as homicide, rape, and disappearance rates, I create country conditions reports that can help asylum seekers and their advocates in their efforts to document the harm that would occur​ if someone is sent back. When the court has this evidence through a report or expert testimony, grant rates increase, meaning that those who very much need protection receive it and get to create the safe, full lives they deserve.” 

A Chicago connection 

As of July 2023, more than 11,000 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in Chicago, many from the countries in which Kennedy’s research lies. While city officials and nonprofit organizations work to assist new arrivals, Kennedy hopes to share her expertise with the DePaul and Chicago communities to encourage dialogue and involvement. 

“I look forward to working with faculty on campus who are interested in applying their research to become experts in testimony for asylum seekers and migrants,” Kennedy says. “I also want to leave behind country conditions reports to increase representation of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and potentially increase grant rates for migrants.” 

Beyond working with faculty, Kennedy hopes to have an impact on the larger conversation happening in the city. 

“To the average person who wants to help but does not know where to begin, I encourage you to inform yourself of the conditions from which people are fleeing,” she says. “Most people don’t want to leave their homes; horrible events usually must occur. Talk with your smaller communities about what can be done to help. You likely can’t help 10,000 people, but maybe you could help 20 in your community. For those 20 people, that may be the world.” 

The DePaul Migration Collaborative is accepting applications​ for its spring 2024 Practitioner in Residence program. The deadline has been extended to Nov. 15. Questions many be directed to 

Rachel Wojnicki is a Newsline contributor.