Contemporary History Brings Insight to Asylum Cases

In 2015, Patrick McNamara, a Latin American historian by training, was asked to serve as an expert witness on a federal immigration court case. The matter at hand was determining whether an individual fleeing dangerous conditions in El Salvador should be allowed to stay in the United States.

It was the first such case McNamara, PhD, associate professor of history in the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts, had worked on, but far from the last. Since then, he has provided insight to over 300 such asylum cases involving citizens from El Salvador and Mexico.

“It just really took off,” he said. “My role is to help the court understand a complicated situation in which people’s lives are at risk, and to help it make a decision about whether it’s safe to return them to their country of origin or if they can be permitted to stay here.”

Originally, McNamara’s research dealt in the traditional realm of historians: the past. That changed after an infamous incident in 2008, when members of a cartel in Morelia, Mexico, threw grenades into a crowd celebrating the country’s Independence Day, killing eight people and wounding over 100 more. The attack was part of a dramatic uptick in violence driven by cartel activity in a country that, only a short time before, had been relatively safe.

In response, McNamara shifted his focus to the present. He began studying violence directly and indirectly related to the drug cartels. He also explored how efforts to fight the cartels, both by the federal governments of Mexico and El Salvador as well as by the US in its decades-long global war on drugs, have further inflamed the violence. This line of research required him to use his skills as a historian to analyze the present in much the same way he would the past—a concept known as contemporary history.

“It’s a field that’s emerging within the discipline itself,” he said. “We use the methodologies for explaining events of the past to analyze what’s happening in the present, such as reading primary and secondary sources and interviewing people.”

Insight into Violence

Most of those seeking asylum, after making their request to a border agent when they first enter the US, have to wait a while for their hearing to come up. Some have work visas in the meantime, while others can be held in detention for several years. Asylum-seekers are typically from younger age groups, as many young men flee after being targets of gang violence, including forceful attempts to recruit them as gang members. Single mothers also seek asylum, as gangs often target them for extortion and sexual violence. Few older people seek safety in the US, however, as the journey over land through parts of Central America and Mexico is long and dangerous.

People might be denied asylum if the federal government can show they don’t meet the legal requirements or argue successfully that it would be safe for the person to return to their country. As an expert witness on these cases, McNamara provides insight and context into the issue of violence in the person’s home country. He details the risks of harm people may experience in El Salvador or in Mexico, the current status of gang violence there, and the effectiveness of government tactics used to fight gang activity. He also offers insight into domestic violence and whether governments enforce laws around it enough to protect victims.

“As a historian, I ground the details of the research in El Salvador and Mexico with more academic studies about domestic violence and about theories of violence,” McNamara said. “What I’ve tried to do overall is understand violence from the perspective of the perpetrators.”

That perspective can help explain the implications, for example, of how the gangs have changed from simply being criminal organizations to being political actors. It can also shed light on the mentality behind high levels of disappearances rather than traditional homicides, as gangs have learned that, as they say, “if there’s no body, there’s no crime.” In 2015, El Salvador had one of the highest intentional homicide rates in the world—a rate 20 times higher than the US. While homicides have declined since, disappearances are still very common.

McNamara’s input brings greater context to potentially misleading statistics, too. The raw number of homicides or disappearances reported, for example, may seem to suggest a capital city is the most dangerous place for residents than rural areas. After normalizing the data, however, the rate of violence can be higher in rural communities.

Converging Fields

A different area of McNamara’s expertise—what he calls cognitive history—can also prove valuable to understanding asylum cases. Cognitive history draws on cognitive psychology and neuroscience to better understand how the brain works in respect to past events.

That concept comes into play with the first step in the asylum process, the credible fear interview, when asylum officers ask a person about the danger they want to escape from in their home country. If someone changes their story or leaves out details in a subsequent version of these questions, it may be held against them as a sign that they are being less than fully honest.

McNamara, who has worked around memory theory for a number of years, knows that it’s actually normal for this to happen. In his role as expert witness, he can explain how hormones like cortisol and epinephrine affect memories in those who have experienced trauma or who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

These days, McNamara gets about eight new requests a month to serve as expert witness for an asylum hearing. While the first few he took were all based in Minnesota, he has now provided insight to cases in 28 different states. All of this work stemmed from the need back in 2008 to understand violence through the lens of a contemporary history.

“I really didn’t go looking to study drug violence; I would have been happy to stay in the archives,” he said. “But it found me.”


Research is Teaching

Each semester, McNamara brings three undergraduate students from across CLA into his research through the Dean's First-Year Research and Creative Scholars program. The opportunity gives students a chance to assist in summarizing human rights reports, literature around theoretical understandings of violence, and summarizing them to incorporate into my reports. Those who can read Spanish will also help him stay up to date on current events in Mexico and El Salvador.

“Many of them have become interested in legal work and human rights work,” McNamara said. “It’s been gratifying to see students I met as first year freshman now imagining themselves in these roles.”