Executive Director, Jasmijn Slootjes, on How BIMI's Research is Addressing Migrant Needs at a Time of Unprecedented Strife

Jasmijn Slootjes
November 2, 2020

Jasmijn Slootjes is Executive Director of the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Research Initiative (BIMI). She coordinates BIMI’s research projects, training programs, public engagement and grant writing. Based at IGS, BIMI is a partnership of faculty, researchers and students who investigate human mobility, immigrants’ integration and the ways migration transforms societies around the world. IGS's Kelly Jones spoke with Jasmijn about the Initiative's current projects in the face of the pandemic.

IGS: BIMI recently advertised an upcoming symposium on “Migration Research, Scholarship, and Policy at a Time of Multiple Crises.” Might you explain what the Center for Migration Studies, which is hosting the symposium, means by “multiple crises?”

JS: When the pandemic hit, we were in the middle of a project mapping immigrant legal and health services, mostly, but also refugee services and youth services, in California, Nevada, and Arizona. 

From the onset, it was quite clear that immigrants were hit particularly hard by the pandemic. They bore economic consequences. They were first responders. Immigrants are not only most exposed as first responders and essential workers, but there are factors making it more likely they would get seriously ill if they do contract COVID-19. Then, of course, undocumented immigrants are afraid to get tested. Many do not have health insurance. We have been talking a lot at BIMI with our stakeholders about the public charge rule, which leads to a chilling effect among people using the services they need and have a right to. So in this broader context of increasingly severe migration policies, increasing distrust, and increasing anti-immigrant discourse, the pandemic hit. This compounded an already precarious situation with many complex factors. 

Professor Irene Bloemraad, BIMI’s Faculty Director, and I recently authored a policy brief, which was published by the Social Science Matrix, about why immigrants are especially at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. We decided, because we already have this mapping project, to create an interactive mapping tool that encompasses the entire United States and where COVID infections are happening while also visualizing the locations of at-risk immigrants. It shows us where those who do not have health insurance and are foreign-born live as well as where those who do not speak English live and where information is not available in another language. You can find the interactive map under the “COVID-19” tab on our website. The map gets automatically updated every day. I think it was really cool that we could pivot the work we were already doing to something very relevant and important right now. It is helpful to know the spatial mismatch between those who need health services and what is available. 

IGS: Wow, the application of research BIMI already had underway is immediately useful for the pandemic. That goes to show how critical this work is. Are there already measurable benefits coming out of this project, policy-wise?

JS: Yeah, this kind of visualization helps policymakers identify at-risk groups and where they are located. It helps service providers and policymakers target their efforts. Before Irene started gathering this type of data around 2004, there was no targeted information for them. Quite often, service providers are not aware of how accessible their services are. Often they are unsure what languages they should make their materials available in because they do not know the language demographics of the community. Now with a few clicks on the interactive map, one can easily identify at-risk groups, where they are located, and what languages they speak. 

IGS: Is the map also helpful for those seeking services?

JS: Yes, so the map has two aspects to it—two layers. One looks at more structural issues such as where services are and where people can find them. Then there is also an interactive aspect to the map, where people looking for services can apply filters. The filters are useful when people want to narrow their search to meet specific needs. For example, they might be looking for primary healthcare but work during the day and can only go after regular hours. There is a filter for that. There are filters for whether or not someone has health insurance and what language the practitioner offers their services in. The list goes on. That aspect of the map is more about connecting immigrants to services, which is one of our goals. 

Another goal, which focuses more on the long-term impact of the project for immigrant communities, is actually changing the service landscape. We talk to a lot of funders and service providers, and they all have limited resources. That's a constant. Every organization has too little money and too few people. But it helps them to decide what to focus on. If they see that all seven health clinics in San Francisco provide health services in Spanish, but none in Korean, even though this is a big, important group, then clinics can change the language they offer to better suit the needs of their community. This increases the efficiency of service provision. With the same amount of money, they can do a better job and be there for those who need it the most. 

IGS: Amazing work, Jasmijn. I know BIMI has a focus on training future researchers. What are you excited about program-wise these days?

JS: Yes! One of the major parts of our mission is training. For example, every year we have the Collegium Fellowship available to students. Irene teaches a course about immigrant integration. We hire six Collegium Fellows who help train the students in the class to do research, often also related to our general mapping project. This year was special because we pivoted to focusing on COVID-19. Each group focused on a different county in the Bay Area. They looked at efforts and best practices in responding to the pandemic. The students interviewed mayors, police chiefs, and school teachers for the Collegium project, asking about best practices in social welfare. They examined projects like one in Oakland where they handed out wifi hotspots and laptops to those in need, discussing best practices with the organization. The students had some interesting findings from these interviews and field work. As an example, you can look at the findings of the team assigned to San Mateo. They created a website summarizing them. That is under, “Bay Area Assessment” under the “COVID-19” tab on the BIMI website. 

IGS: I love that the students get hands-on training in the field. Getting to conduct hands-on research was definitely the most galvanizing experience for me as an undergraduate. The nature of the work really lends itself to a practical experience for them, and they get to meet some of the people their research will benefit. 

I noticed that BIMI is constantly putting out policy briefs, highlighting the work of faculty affiliates. Can you tell me a little more about this format?

JS: You’re referring to our Policy Brief Series. We have faculty affiliates, just like IGS, who contribute to the series. The Berkeley professors work on migration and come from different disciplines. With a team of graduate student policy brief authors, we pick topics that are especially relevant for policy and we translate their academic paper into policy implications. For example, graduate student Chelsea Muir took findings from Professor Catherine Ceniza Choy’s research on Filipino nurses in California and highlighted in a brief the policy implications her work might have. 

We also just received an exciting grant from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research for another project with sociologist Woody Powell’s team at Stanford. We are looking at how nonprofits change with regard to their diversity and inclusion over time. We will post more about that on our website soon. 

Another project we are currently working on, funded by an NSF grant, involves developing an index of the accessibility of immigrant services. To generate metrics that measure accessibility, we looked at competing hypotheses, including political factors, resources available, human capital, supply and demand, and so on. We have gathered extensive data on these indices in California, Nevada, and Arizona, which we will use to assess accessibility in other geographic locations. 

IGS: So you’re building a predictive model based on the data that you have for those three states and then applying the model to other places?

JS: Yeah, this can help us understand things like why certain areas are served better than others. For example, LA is doing much more poorly than San Francisco in terms of immigrants’ access to services. The model can help explain why. We have different hypotheses about the differences between the two cities, one of which is that there are disparate levels of the “suburban free-riding” phenomenon in each area, where you have suburbs assuming that big cities will provide social welfare services for immigrants.

IGS: Wow, Jasmijn, you have a lot going on.

JS: It’s true! And we are preparing for our annual Summer Institute, which, sadly, will probably end up being virtual this year. The virtual aspect is a shame because normally we fly in thirty scholars for two weeks for training over the summer. But I am confident that we will be able to host something beneficial for the trainees online. It just will not be the same. 

IGS: Well, that is unfortunate to hear. But it sounds like BIMI has been incredibly agile in adapting to the post-COVID environment. I applaud your ability to conduct this high-level research, which is critically needed at this time, amidst the pandemic. It was so nice catching up with you, Jasmijn. I certainly miss seeing you at IGS. But we will be back in Moses before long!