WATCH: Expert panel debates immigration, inclusion and who belongs in America

A group of Vanderbilt scholars with legal, historical and political expertise on immigration came together Oct. 19 to discuss the crisis around Haitian migrants at the southern U.S. border and the recent influx of Afghan refugees to the United States.

“Migration is a fundamental evolutionary strategy for the last 300,000 years—which is why people keep doing it and will continue to migrate,” said Gabriel Torres-Colón, assistant professor of anthropology and co-author of Genetic Ancestry: Our Stories, Our Pasts (Routledge, 2020). “The issue today is that we have inequity within our social groups, and we need to put forth public policy to address the disparities among them.”

The virtual panel—hosted by the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy—stressed the need to “recreate and reimagine” the immigration system to root out racism and bias.


  • Sarah Igo, moderator, is the Andrew Jackson Professor and professor of history and the dean of strategic initiatives for the College of Arts and Science. Igo’s primary research interests are in modern American cultural, intellectual, legal and political history, the history of the human sciences, the sociology of knowledge and the history of the public sphere.
  •  Karla McKanders, clinical professor of law at Vanderbilt, is an expert on immigration, race and the administrative state and chairs the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration. As the founding director of the Immigration Practice Clinic, McKanders supervises students providing representation to asylum seekers and unaccompanied minor children.
  • Jesus Ruiz is a National Academy of Sciences Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Caribbean History at Vanderbilt. His research—situated at the intersections of Caribbean and Latin American history, the African diaspora and the digital humanities—focuses specifically on the histories of the Black Atlantic, Afro-Latin America and colonial and early modern Haiti.
  • Emily Ritter is an associate professor of political science. Her research centers on the effects of international legal institutions on the strategic relationship between government repression and dissent activities, with particular attention to the methodological implications for causal inference that stem from strategic conflict behavior.
  • Gabriel Torres-Colón, assistant professor of anthropology has research and teaching interests in race, politics, sports and intellectual history. He also researches the intellectual history of race in anthropology and the intersections of early American anthropology and philosophy.

About the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy:

The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy aims to advance toward that more perfect union at a time when the urgency of the political moment calls for action. Established with the core premise that the country has become disconnected from evidence and reason, the project seeks to supplant ideology with fact. It will re-introduce evidence, broadly defined, into the national conversation, pointing to solutions beyond reflexive ideological claims that will mix responses from the “left,” “right” and “center.” Whether in statistical or narrative form, evidence shines a brighter light on how to solve problems than ideology.

  • Visit the NEWS & EVENTS page to view other programs from the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy.
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