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Emory professor Xochitl Marsilli-Vargas receives New Directions Fellowship to study immigration law
Portrait of Xochitl Marsilli-Vargas

Emory College’s Xochitl Marsilli-Vargas, an anthropologist in the Department of Spanish, will use a prestigious fellowship from the Mellon Foundation to spend the next year studying immigration challenges faced by particularly vulnerable populations.

The legal logic in the asylum cases of unaccompanied minors baffled Xochitl Marsilli-Vargas when, as she was completing her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 2014, she volunteered as a translator.

An anthropologist by training and now an assistant professor in the Emory College Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Marsilli-Vargas helped the mostly Central American children talk with their attorneys. Then she watched how each asylum hearing focused on the “best interest” of each child — but not necessarily the child, such as the 15-year-old girl granted asylum even when she requested return to Honduras.

Of course, everyone thinks all children should be protected, but some of the ideologies projected onto these kids had nothing to do with them or their desires,” Marsilli-Vargas says. “I want a better understanding of how the system works so it can be better.”

As one of just 12 recipients of the 2022 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s prestigious New Directions Fellowship, Marsilli-Vargas will spend the next year developing that understanding.

“The New Directions Fellowship is a great recognition of Dr. Marsilli-Vargas’ scholarship and her ambitious research agenda focusing on the immigration challenges faced by particularly vulnerable populations,” says Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

Created in 2002 to encourage humanities faculty to pursue interdisciplinary training, the fellowship will allow Marsilli-Vargas to devote the 2022-2023 academic year to studying at different law schools with legal scholars who specialize in immigration and migration.

She tentatively plans to enroll in an introduction to immigration law seminar at Stanford University and an immigrant rights seminar at New York University.

She will bookend coursework with immigration clinics this summer and next, to help her effort to establish a more comprehensive understanding of legal reasoning and the judicial and practical dimensions of migration in the U.S.

Marsilli-Vargas plans to turn her intensive study and hands-on work into new courses on how language influences law. She also plans to complete a book following her fellowship year. It will be her second, after a debut due this summer.

In “Genres of Listening: An Ethnography of Psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires,” Marsilli-Vargas traces how psychoanalytical listening circulates beyond the clinical setting to become a central element of the culture in a city with the world’s largest number of practicing psychologists and psychoanalysts.

Marsilli-Vargas conducted extensive anthropological ethnographic fieldwork for the book. She plans to replicate that immersion with her New Directions fellowship, especially with children and other vulnerable populations.

“What is beautiful about this fellowship is that it gives me time to do fieldwork, gather data in different law schools and work with the people affected,” Marsilli-Vargas says.

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