Photo Courtesy of Grace Meng
Grace Meng is a senior researcher in the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to defending human rights worldwide. Her research and advocacy focuses on human rights abuses within the U.S. immigration system. She has investigated sexual violence and harassment experienced by farmworker women and girls; abuses following enactment of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law; the steep rise in criminal prosecutions of migrants for illegally entering the United States; and the harsh penalties of deportation and family separation for drug offenses for immigrants, in contrast to decriminalization and other drug policy reforms in the criminal justice system. She is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School. We are excited to work with Grace as she joins The Little Market’s Advisory Committee this year.
Please describe a typical day as a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
One of the best things about being a researcher at Human Rights Watch is that my day can vary greatly. I can be in the field: in a detention center in rural Louisiana interviewing people who are facing deportation or in a small town in the Central Valley interviewing farmworkers. If I’m in the office, I might be writing an op-ed, answering questions from a journalist, finishing a report, or working on a HRW response to breaking news, such as an immigration executive order signed by President Trump. Our goal is always to effect change, so my work also includes visits to legislators and agency representatives at the state and federal level, to share findings from our research and press for the change we see as urgently needed. Recently, I’ve been editing and coordinating supporting research for our blog, “The Deported,” highlighting the stories of men and women who were recently deported, based on interviews Human Rights Watch has been doing at a migrant reception center in Mexico.
Who were your role models and/or mentors growing up?
When I was in law school, I had a clinical professor who made a tremendous impression on me. She taught the immigration clinic but I also knew her personally because she is the aunt of one of my best friends, and I ended up babysitting for her then-young children. I didn’t know any attorneys before I went to law school, and she was one of the first attorneys I met whose life I wanted to emulate. She was an incredible teacher, really digging into the complexities and challenges of representing immigrants, and nearly all my classmates from my clinic are still doing immigration work today. But she also had a wonderful family and a home that was refreshingly messy and full of love and creativity. I know it wasn’t necessarily easy for her to do her work and take care of her family at the same time, but there was an integrity to her personal and professional life, a unity to the values in each sphere, that I found so inspiring. She once told me about a conversation with her children, who couldn’t have been older than 6 or so, who asked her why she spent any time away from them if they were the most important people in her life. Before she answered, her older child said to her, “I think when you leave us, you’re working to help other people be with their own children.”
She defined vocation as “where the world’s greatest need meets your greatest joy.” I think about that all the time.
How did you become interested in immigration and human rights?
When I did the immigration clinic my third year of law school, I had a client, an Ethiopian who had been imprisoned and tortured as a dissident, who was applying for asylum. My partner and I worked for hours on his case, interviewing him, getting personal and painful details, and at some point, he told us that we were the only people in the U.S. who knew his full story. He was living in an Ethiopian community in New Haven, but he didn’t know what side people had been on and so he had kept this incredibly traumatic aspect of his story to himself. I felt so honored and privileged that he trusted us with his story, and when the immigration judge granted him asylum, all of us — my partner, my professor, our client and I — we burst into tears because we had put so much of ourselves into this case. I had really struggled with law, the way it felt so abstract, and I realized that if I could use law to tell people’s real stories, then this was something I could put my whole heart into.
I really love talking to people, because almost everyone has an incredible story, and immigrants have some of the most amazing stories of all.
What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your job?
As mentioned above, I love talking to people. I love that my job has allowed me to meet people from so many different worlds, who have endured and overcome so many challenges, who really affirm my belief in the human spirit. The converse, though, is that it’s devastating when these people end up with lives that are destroyed because of governments who are unwilling to treat them humanely. I’m grateful I actually get paid to work to change the laws and policies that anger me most, but there are definitely days when I wonder when I’ll see the changes we seek.
Do you have a favorite documentary that you recommend for our readers?
I don’t generally watch movies about immigration — I have a really hard time seeing on screen what fills my thoughts day to day. I watch a lot of “The Great British Baking Show!” But for some reason, I don’t feel that way about books, and I highly recommend “Enrique’s Journey,” an incredible tour-de-force of reporting by Sonia Nazario who literally retraces the steps of a Central American boy on his journey to come to the U.S. and reunite with his mother. She tells the whole story without shying away from anything that is hard or even unflattering to Enrique and his family because the sadness and pain in this family has a lasting effect. But you see in this one person’s story a phenomenon that’s playing out all over the world, parents who leave their children desperate to make enough money to take care of them, and the trauma that ensues. Now that I’m a mother, I find it even more heartbreaking.
Migration and resettlement entails the movement of people, often across international borders. Could you briefly explain the difference between a migrant and a refugee?
There’s a legal distinction that makes a big difference in the obligations of countries under international law. A migrant is someone who leaves his or her home country for a wide range of reasons.They’re generally seen as people who are looking for economic opportunity. A refugee is someone who qualifies for protection under the Refugee Convention because they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group (such as being a member of a family targeted by a government). Governments have an obligation to allow people who are refugees or who are seeking asylum to apply for protection rather than deporting them to a country where they could face harm. Given this distinction, there’s often a lot of debate whether someone is a refugee or “just a migrant.” In real life, though, people who are refugees also having economic reasons for fleeing, and people who aren’t refugees often have incredibly compelling and heartbreaking reasons for needing to flee their countries, including famine and war.
And human rights law does protect migrants even when they are not refugees — they’re just isn’t as clear-cut an obligation to allow people to stay in the country to which they’ve fled. In our U.S. work, we’ve developed a great deal of research based on the obligations of the U.S. government to immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for years, have U.S. citizen family including minor children, who have strong and deeply rooted ties to their communities.
The writer Teju Cole wrote a beautiful essay on the distinction between “migrant” and “refugee”: “I say refugee, I say migrant, I say neighbor, I say friend, because everyone is deserving of dignity. Because moving for economic benefit *is* itself a matter of life and death. Because money is the universal language, and to be deprived of it is to be deprived of a voice while everyone else is shouting. Sometimes the gun aimed at your head is grinding poverty, or endless shabby struggle, or soul crushing tedium.”
What are the most common reasons people migrate or become refugees?
People leave their home countries for many reasons — to flee war, violence, persecution, to seek a better life for themselves and their families. Some of the reasons are ones most Americans have never experienced and can’t identify with directly, but I think anyone who has ever moved, even to another state, for a job or school or love, knows what it’s like, even in a small way, to make a big change in one’s life, the hopes and dreams and fears one can have all at the same time. Even people who are fleeing war and conditions we can’t even imagine are not that different from us. Humans are migratory animals, we always have been, and there’s something incredible common and human about a desire to move.
What are the specific vulnerabilities faced by women and children migrants and refugees?
Women and children are particularly vulnerable for the same reasons they are generally vulnerable in society. Everyone who is locked up in immigration detention suffers psychologically; children suffer so acutely, international law strongly limits the use of detention of children for immigration purposes. Women and children are often subject to abuse by smugglers, including sexual abuse. For example, women who came to the U.S. from Mexico or Central America frequently report they were sexually assaulted by smugglers or others along the way.
What can each of us do to improve the response to the movements of refugees and migrants?
We can make clear to the President, Congress, and all our elected officials that we strongly support being a welcoming country. We can fight back against proposed bills that would severely limit the ability of asylum-seekers to gain protection in this country, and we can publicly support people who are facing deportation to countries they barely know after decades here in the U.S. We can also do concrete things to welcome refugees and migrants in our own communities. We can join churches and other organizations that sponsor refugees, and we can donate money and items refugee families need to start their new lives. All the national polling indicates the majority of Americans support humane policy toward immigrants and refugees, but the voices that are the loudest, the people who call their elected officials the most and who write the most comments online, are those who are strenuously opposed to being a welcoming country. By just making clear what our opinions are, we can show what the majority of people in this country believe.
An organization called Welcoming America has some great suggestions here.