Carla Nayeli Mendoza, Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow (CC ’20)

Carla Nayeli Mendoza graduated from Columbia College in May 2020 with a double major in Ethnicity and Race Studies (CSER) and Political Science. While a senior, Carla wrote a thesis for CSER called “Destined Dysfunctionality & Deportation Death Sentences: a critical racial analysis of the need to establish an Article 1 independent immigration court,” which was awarded Outstanding Thesis. In addition, Carla was the guest speaker for CSER’s 13th Annual Research Symposium. She is a Fellow for Immigrant Justice Corps placed at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition in Baltimore, Maryland.

We asked Carla some questions about how her study of ethnicity and race at CSER impacts her current work in immigration law. See her answers below!

Where do you call home?

I grew up in the Central Coast of California. Currently, I reside in Baltimore. However, I also consider CSER my home in New York City. I have a culmination of several homes defined by the ties I have established in the historical understandings of these communities!


Can you describe how you first became involved with CSER?

I first took Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies taught by Professor Paredez with a general understanding of injustice and forms of oppression, mainly due to my experience and the barriers I have faced as the Mexican-American child of immigrants. But that previous understanding was not holistic, and I did not know how to proactively make changes in my environment, in my household, and in my own mind. Taking an introductory course with CSER gave me the tools to ask questions about how to reflect my own experiences internally, dismantle internalized oppression, and dismantle oppression in our surrounding communities.

CSER was also an inviting environment that allowed for discourses with diverse perspectives. It was an incredibly safe space where you can bring up your own experiences in the classroom, which were usually invalidated for its subjectivity. However, CSER provided the space where it was impossible to not bring up real-life experiences when talking about systems of injustice.

Why did you choose to major in Ethnicity and Race?

During my sophomore year, I chose to double major in Political Science and Ethnicity and Race. My major in Ethnicity and Race greatly informed my study in political science, and vice versa. I felt that both majors were always in conversation with one another and I used that communication across fields to my advantage. As a result, my interests became more specific to immigration, especially as the child of immigrants.

The same year I chose my double major in Political Science and Ethnicity and Race, I interned at the CARA Pro Bono Project for a summer, which provides support to people seeking asylum in the United States. I came into this position with the background from my political science courses and my CSER courses, trying to figure out how to best utilize what I learned in the classroom. In conjunction with my experiences as a person of color and a child of immigrants, I saw myself beginning to make changes.


I came into this position with the background from my political science courses and my CSER courses, trying to figure out how to utilize best what I learned in the classroom. In conjunction with my experiences as a person of color and a child of immigrants, I saw myself beginning to make changes.

How did you see your work at CSER impacting your interests in immigration law?

Originally, I did not think I needed a degree to help people. Coincidently, the summer I was an intern was the same time Trump issued the Zero Tolerance Policy, making it more difficult for families to seek asylum while separating parents from their children. As a 20-year-old trying to figure out how to do my part and help, I found it really difficult to see separated and reunited families in distress without legal services and support.

Every week, lawyers would come in volunteering their time. For example, there was a lawyer, who had a background in litigation, working with a client for three hours. This lawyer and the paralegal on-site could not figure out how to help this female client and her claim for asylum. As a result, the paralegal turned to me to help figure out how to best help this client. It was initially very difficult to talk to this client, but I managed to surpass the initial barrier of miscommunication. It was incredibly helpful to have lawyers assisting asylum seekers using their expertise, but I realized that this well-versed lawyer did not know how to navigate this conversation of asylum in a culturally competent way.

Providing legal services walks the line of also providing emotional service. This experience taught me about trauma-informed lawyering. Asylum seekers come from a background of trauma from their experiences in a detention center, their home country, or in the United States. It angered me that there were not enough lawyers and people providing legal services that did not deeply understand the situations of these families and women. I took those experiences with me back to Columbia to improve my cultural competence, observe the discrepancies in law, and change the system where something like the Zero Tolerance Policy will not emerge again. Specifically, I chose classes with Professor OuYang that taught me about comparative constitutional challenges in the legal landscape of oppression and white supremacy. I also learned about post-9/11 immigration policies and the privatization of the carceral state.

Describe your research interests at CSER.

As a senior, I took CSER’s Modes of Inquiry and Senior Seminar, which launched me into the research world of immigration law and the court system. I asked myself, what specifically in the vast legal landscape of immigration do I want to change? I learned that I was frustrated with the court system which was under the auspices of the executive branch. If a judge was under the executive, they were more likely to follow orders that reflected the racist and xenophobic policies of the executive branch. Under the Trump administration, immigration courts were under the purview of the executive, issuing asylum seeker cases that were conservative.

Modes of Inquiry as a class gave me a wake-up call. I used to think that research was legitimate if it was objective. Professor DasGupta taught me how to have a decolonial perspective when approaching research, speaking with people, and how to prevent yourself from essentializing their experiences.

My thesis argued for an independent immigration court—the court should not be under the influence of the executive branch. I used community outreach, hosted webinars, previous anecdotal experiences, and talked to community members, established lawyers, and judges. Law journals make explicit the implicit bias in the courtroom and how a judge appointed by the executive had a bias that determined the outcome of cases. I learned how the system was incredibly racist, sexist, and xenophobic, and the actual changes that needed to be done.

The development of my thesis and its final form could not have been done without the support of professors like Professor Darius Echeverria, Professor Mae Ngai, Professor Dasgupta, and Professor OuYang. I believe it is professors like them that cultivate an environment of intellectual curiosity and personal growth. CSER professors are different in that they not only care for your intellectual growth but they also prioritize your emotional and personal growth. It is because of professors like them that students hold on to their passion and desire to learn more and do more for the communities and people around them. My CSER professors reminded me that you can be a student, advocate, friend, teacher, follower, and leader at the same time. The department as a whole built me into the person I am. Students, Professors, and Staff like Josephine build this community, and I cannot be more appreciative of all that they have done.

Had I not been educated at CSER, I would not have had the cultural competence to be a better legal assistant/fellow.

How did CSER galvanize your current career in immigration law?

CSER gave me the critical understanding to conduct research in a way that was not necessarily black and white. I was open and free to do research that allowed me to be imaginative in how I talked to judges, clients, and implemented oral histories. CSER taught me how to cultivate and create a theory of justice that was not euro-centric or westernized, but holistic and understood trauma and race. I wanted to reform our legal landscape. So, I decided I wanted to continue my work in immigration law and became a Fellow for the Immigration Justice Corps.

From that fellowship, I now work for the Capital Area Immigration Rights (CAIR) Coalition, a non-profit law firm that is at the cross-section of immigration and criminal law. Society places immigrants who have committed crimes or misdemeanors in a trope of the “bad” immigrant. Immigration reform has historically relied on painting an image of the “good” immigrant—someone who is educated, conducted no misdemeanors, etc.—as an argument for immigrants being allowed to stay. Immigrants who have made mistakes are viewed as deportable and not protected by the law. The work I do with CAIR wants to change that trope.

People should be given a second chance—no matter their immigration status or past mistakes. This controversial statement taught me to uphold a judicial system that is not punitive, but forgiving. CSER taught me punishment does not lead to justice. Restorative justice is the process that creates a system that supports those who do not have such help.

Can you give any advice to current students at CSER?

Do not silo yourself to one topic of interest. I could not get the most out of my CSER experience without the diversity of courses I learned from. For example, I took a class about native food sovereignty.

I have only graduated from Columbia one year ago, going through these difficult questions with myself about my work and the change I want to implement: What am I learning? What are the holistic approaches to my work? How can I best understand my client and their full life? Had I not been educated at CSER, I would not have had the cultural competence to be a better legal assistant/fellow. I am so privileged to have come from this perspective and help others in the best way I can. I was given something and I feel I have to make the most of it.

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CSER continues to be Columbia's main interdisciplinary space for the study of ethnicity and race and their implications for thinking about culture, power, hierarchy, social identities, and political communities.
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