The Political / Governmental: It’s been an interesting and horrifying arc of my fellowship to see how the laws & policies of the US Government directly affect immigrants, Heartland’s programs and by extension my ability to work with impacted programs at Heartland. Reading about it in the news is one thing but to see it first hand in Heartland’s programs has been a much more intimate experience of the issues than I imagined it would be. The political consequences coming from the Trump administration’s litany of executive orders were something that had real and lasting impacts on the programs at Heartland alliance I’ve been visiting. The frequency and suddenness with which a program could be affected was quite striking and a testament to how a executive action can sow an enormous amount of chaos in the country as a whole. Many of these actions were deemed unconstitutional or invalid but to reach that decision it had to slowly move through the courts. One day a new executive order could be announced and everyone in a particular Heartland program could be left wondering what that meant for their participants, the program itself and by extension their jobs. One of the examples that really sticks with me is Trump’s repeated lowering of the number of admitted refugees to the US and his repeated delays in signing off on those years numbers. When I was photographing apartments set up for newly arrived refugees there were periods where there would be no new arrivals specifically because of the delays that Trump inserted into the process. It was quite easy for the people in charge of the federal government to use the Bureaucracy of the state as a weapon in of itself against immigrants, unaccompanied children, asylum seekers and refugees. Even now in a new Biden administration there is uncertainty about what will change and when. The political limbo that leaves people in to do the important work that they do is just another sign to me that programs from places like Heartland are a bandaid on much larger systemic issues in our country and government.
The Bureaucratic / Institutional: If someone had told me how much of my fellowship would involve writing emails and having meetings, I don’t know if I would have believed them. When I started my fellowship in the fall of 2019, I didn’t realize how much time I would have to spend laying groundwork to identify programs I might want to work with at Heartland Alliance and then how much emailing would be involved to setup meetings with people and only much later truly gain the access I needed to meet Heartland participants, Heartland staff and to be allowed access to make photographs. It’s been the epitome of a bureaucratic or institutional process. The only things that I’ve experienced that come remotely close is the process of navigating the US immigration system for my wife for her spousal visa, green card and emergency travel documents so she could return to China when her mother died without losing her ability to get a green card. That involved endless phone calls, paperwork, online research and failed meetings at USCIS. The form of bureaucratic roadblocks for my fellowship are quite different but there’s certainly a structure in place where people exist within the institution of Heartland Alliance as gatekeepers. I do want to make it clear that I know these systems and gatekeepers exist for very good reasons. The very vulnerable participants that Heartland works with could not be protected properly otherwise. Additionally working within a large institution like Heartland and having to work within a larger chain of command means that you might create relationships with Heartland staff in key roles who might move positions within the organization or leave completely. I’ve had people leave for extended periods on maternity leave at least twice that I can think of, a couple people have left their positions they were in to move to another Heartland program or department. It can be a anxiety producing experience to spend a lot of time working with people to gain access, propose a project, make progress on implementation to only lose a key person in a role to one of those life/career changes. I try to remind myself that no one has to work with me on this fellowship and that the only reason it’s happening at all is because of the generosity and collaboration of the people I meet at Heartland Alliance.
The Pandemic: It seems like it should go without saying that the Pandemic has been the largest hurdle in my time doing the fellowship. It’s been life altering for the entire world and it’s no surprise that it’s certainly affected my fellowship in numerous ways. Access has been the largest and most frustrating thing affected by the pandemic. As I mentioned above with the struggles involved in navigating an institution like Heartland it took significant effort and time to get access to the right people, programs and then line up appointments where I would be allowed into facilities to make photographs and start engaging with people. The lockdowns that resulted from the pandemic in March of 2020 came just as I was about to have my first few days on site making photographs at several UC Shelters. It was only months later during the summer that I finally was allowed back on site to continue where we had left off. Several things happened that made this possible. First was the covid infections, deaths and hospitalization numbers had lowered after the first wave and during this time the U.S. government used executive branch public health powers to limit the entrance of immigrants into the country which included unaccompanied children. As children were no longer being admitted into the country, the UC shelters slowly began having lower populations as the children were resettled in other places and eventually there were only a handful or no children in the three UC shelters I had been visiting. The lower Covid-19 numbers and the lower number of children in the shelters made the risk of having me in the spaces much lower and as such I was allowed back in over the summer and fall until we had another lockdown in December 2020. The Pandemic has been a really interesting wildcard in my overall fellowship journey because it’s had large visible effects on the UC shelters in many ways but it’s also had many ways it’s effected me personally and impacted my overall physical health, mental health, my work and my personal relationships. Dealing with these things while also trying to continue my fellowship work has been a very difficult thing for me.
Writing about these larger outside forces that have been and are having a large impact on my fellowship is making me wonder how I could best address these difficulties in my project. It feels like it should be a written or audio component but if there’s a way to address this so that when people engage with my project they can understand what this journey has been like I think that might add something valuable to the project.