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  • Writer's pictureINSMS International Network for Students of Migration Studies

Former Legal Services Coordinator with a Passion for Macro and Systemic Migration Issues

Today we have a special edition of our P2P campaign for you. We spoke to a young professional who decided to pursue a Master's degree in Migration in the middle of her career and continued the academic path with another Master's degree in International Law and Human Rights at the UN mandated University for Peace. We had the pleasure of speaking with Leah Durst-Lee from the USA. She is passionate about migration issues and full of energy and eagerness to learn.

Leah is 34 years old and originally from the USA. She graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 2021 with a degree in Advanced Migration Studies. That she very often does not allow herself big breaks is also evident from the following example: only 10 days after handing in her dissertation, she found herself in Costa Rica on the idyllic University campus of the United Nations-mandated University for Peace, where she started another Master's degree in international law and human rights. The reason for this choice was that Leah wanted to put her migration experience and human rights education on a solid footing. Now, a few days before graduation, she feels she has achieved this goal.

Working in the migration field as an early dream job

Leah told us that she had known she wanted to work in the field of migration since 2006. The catalyst for this desire was the event when she moved to Mexico to work as a translator and guide for humanitarian groups on the Texas-Mexico border. This experience stimulated her critical thinking about borders, passports, visas, immigration controls, cross-border power imbalances, philanthropy and many other migration-related concepts. Although she was involved in helping people who wanted to immigrate to the US, it was the macro and systemic issues that stuck with her and always made her curious to explore conceptual issues.

Years after this volunteering experience, Leah eventually had her opportunity to deepen her knowledge on migration issues when she took up a volunteer position at the Community Immigration Law Center (CILC) to help with free legal consultations for immigrants. Due to her commitment and passion for the subject, she was later hired as the Legal Services and Development Coordinator.

CILC had received funding in part by The Vera Institute of Justice to represent detained migrants in deportation proceedings, many of whom qualified for asylum or similar humanitarian relief visas. Nationwide in the US, only 3% of unrepresented cases receive positive outcomes on their deportation cases. However, using statistics from CILC’s and other participating pro bono law firms, the Vera Institute of Justice discovered a 38% positive outcome rate for migrants with representation. This figure shows the enormous difference of outcomes for those going through their deportation proceedings with and without legal representation and, Leah states, the human rights imperative for migrants to be provided representation in their deportation cases.

How Leah's curiosity of macro and systemic level issues stuck with her

While working at CILC, Leah intended to study law and work as a pro bono immigration lawyer. But the more deportation cases she handled, the harder it was for her to let go of the macro, systemic issues that had been on her mind since 2006. Consequently, instead of studying law, she applied for a Master's degree in Migration Studies and was accepted as a Danish Government Scholarship holder for the Advanced Migration Studies MA at the University of Copenhagen.

This eagerness to learn more about systematic issues in the field ledLeah subsequently to enroll in another MA in International Law and Human Rights at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace.

Now that she has complemented her MA in Advanced Migration Studies with an MA in International Law and Human Rights, Leah hopes to work in investigating human rights violations against migrants and advocating for more humane national and regional policies.

Leah's career thus shows that it is quite possible for someone to know from the outset that they want to work in migration studies, to gain initial practical experience through voluntary and paid work in order to find exactly the area within migration studies that triggers the greatest passion in them, and then to move a little closer to this dream through further training.

Tips for students of migration studies

With this in mind, Leah recommends that all migration studies students take the time to find out what migration topics interest them and invest in themselves by specialising early on.

"Get practical experience through internships and volunteering, and always learn another language. The world of Zoom has also opened up the world of courses and conferences you can attend online." This too helps to improve your CV for dream jobs in the migration field today.

Further, Leah recommends learning and practicing self-care techniques - "especially if you want to work with vulnerable groups or issues of forced migration, because burnout is a very real problem: Meditation, running, photography - whatever it is, find out what brings you joy and start now."

Thank you, Leah, for sharing these interesting insights with us!

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