Haas Scholar Celene Bolaños talks commitment to migration research

Since studying abroad in Mexico last year, senior Celene Bolaños has been immersed in research about Haitian migration across the Americas. The Haas Scholar, who will graduate this May with degrees in development studies and Latin American literature, interviewed nearly 40 Haitians in Mexico and Brazil about their migration experiences. 

Berkeley News sat down with Bolaños to learn about her research and what she plans to do next.

Celene talking with her friend Ayah on a balcony overlooking UC Berkeley's campus

Celene Bolaños will be graduating this May with degrees in development studies and Latin American literature. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Berkeley News: You’ve been doing research about Haitian migration across the Americas for the past year. Can you talk about how you got interested in the subject and what you’ve been investigating?

Celene Bolaños: During a research project in Chiapas, Mexico, I saw a lot of Haitian migrants crossing the border — going on this crazy journey with all these different vulnerabilities, especially not speaking the language — and realized that it was a big deal. Then, during spring semester of last year, I studied abroad in Mexico City, where I interned at an NGO that works with migrants and refugees. That’s when I started to really delve into the issue of migration.

When I got back to Berkeley, I applied to the Haas Scholars program and got it. I was really excited. For my project, I traveled to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Tijuana, Mexico, where I conducted 37 in-depth interviews with Haitian migrants. Some of them were planning to try to immigrate to the U.S., and others had made a home in Brazil. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a catalyzing force for Haitian migration across the Americas. In 2016, some 36,000 Haitians migrated from Brazil to the U.S.

What is the journey like for these Haitian migrants?

Migrating northward means going on boats, taking multiple buses, relying on smugglers, walking through jungles and across rivers. One of the most infamous parts of that transit is the Darien Gap — it’s this jungle in between Colombia and Panama. There are no roads, no highways. It can take around a week by foot to cross. There are pregnant women who go on this. These routes are transited by migrants from all over the world — from Cuba, Cameroon, Congo, India, Bangladesh, Nepal.

buildings destroyed after 2010 haiti earthquake

Celene says the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a “catalyzing force” for Haitian migration across the Americas. (United Nations photo by Marco Dormino)

I interviewed two Haitian men who made the whole journey — from Haiti, down Ecuador, down Peru, into Brazil and back up into the U.S. I remember asking them, “Did you bring a tent?” They laughed and said, “No, you sleep in the open skies.” There are monkeys, jaguars, snakes, and it’s raining — this is the wettest part of the Americas. They’re just wet the whole time and so uncomfortable. They’ve seen dead bodies along the path. It can be really traumatizing.

When these two men got to the U.S., they were detained for three months, then deported. They told me that they were handcuffed even on the airplane — it was really humiliating. So, they feel really negative about the United States. They went back to Brazil because they had families they helped bring in still there.

Part of my research is about temporary protected status in the U.S. It lets immigrants live and work in the U.S. But Trump has been trying to terminate it. There are people who have been living here for 30 years under TPS, they have kids here. If TPS ends, they’d be expected to self-deport. So, I anticipate if TPS officially ends, some Haitians who crossed will still try to stay without documents, and others will move towards Canada — though that option is becoming more difficult. Others will return to Brazil.

You interned at UNHCR — the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — in Washington, D.C., last semester. What kind of work did you do there?

I was working with people who were detained. I would contact them, or they would contact me through a hotline, or they would write letters and I would respond to them. They would trust me with their stories, and I would try to figure out what kinds of migratory processes apply to them.

celene presents her work at a podium

Celene presents her research on Haitian migration across the Americas at a Haas Scholars event. (Photo courtesy of Celene Bolaños)

In a detention center, people don’t have access to a computer and have to pay to use a phone. These are people seeking asylum — 95% of asylum seekers don’t have a lawyer. And they’re expected to represent themselves in court. But when you’re detained, you can’t build a good case because you don’t have access to the resources you need.

So, my work, besides sending them information about processes that applied to them in whatever language they needed it in, was to do research for them. They might tell me, “I’m fleeing from gangs in El Salvador,” or “There’s this crisis in Cameroon” or “I need you to find me information about this president or this party.” So, I would basically do that research and send them the information.

It was really depressing, in many ways. At the end of the day, you’re working with this broken asylum system. You can help someone build the strongest case, but sometimes it doesn’t even matter because it’s just based on the mood of the judge. There are 400 immigration judges in the U.S., and there is such a backlog. Migrants can be in detention for a year, sometimes more, and they’re in prisons. They’re treated like criminals.

Why is learning about migration so important to you?

celene with her mom and dad

Celene with her mom, Maria Luisa, and her dad, Cesar. (Photo courtesy of Celene Bolaños)

In Mexico, when I met people making the long transit across the Americas, I was really moved by what they were willing to do in hope of a better life. I think what’s missing from general knowledge is what some people have to go through to even make it to the border in the first place

It’s also personal — I’m a product of immigration. My parents came to the U.S. from the Philippines. And I grew up in San Mateo in a Hispanic area — this was before it was gentrified — and went to a public bilingual elementary school, where 90% of the curriculum was taught in Spanish. So, I had this weird cultural identity growing up — I’ve always felt kind of Latinx. When I was interviewing Haitians in Brazil and Mexico, I would hear their kids speaking Spanish and Portuguese. I could see myself in their kids. In meeting people and being trusted with their stories, my research became a very personal project.

What’s next for you?

I won a Fulbright Scholarship that starts next year in February. It’s flexible — I might continue to study Haitian migration in Brazil, but I also might even look into other issues related to migration.

I also got a fellowship from the Institute for South Asian Studies, so I’m doing an internship in India for the summer. I’ll be working with a team on a social impact assessment in Nandurbar.

After this summer, I’m going to spend two or three months in the Philippines with my dad. We have a family house there. I’ll spend that time working on my Tagalog and reconnecting with my Filipina roots.

celene and ayah sit on a log surrounded by trees)

Celene talks with friend Ayah Hamdan, who is also graduating in May. Celene won a Fulbright Scholarship and will continue her research on migration in February 2020. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)