With its ties to the Brookings Institution, UNLV is giving its students a platform for sharing their insights on public policy at a national level.
The most recent example can be found in the five-part podcast series “Our Nation of Immigrants,” hosted by John Hudak, senior fellow in governance studies at the Washington D.C.-based organization. The series explored the demography of immigrants, the rhetoric around the U.S.-Mexico border, the economics of immigration, and policy solutions.
Interviewing an array of individuals — ranging from elected officials to children of immigrants to activists — Hudak seeks to challenge the myths, misinformation, and confusion surrounding the immigration crisis. Among them were three UNLV first-generation college students who have done research work with Brookings Mountain West:
- Yanneli Llamas, ’20 BA Criminal Justice and English with a Brookings public policy minor
- Santiago Gudino-Rosales, ’20 BS Biological Sciences with a neuroscience minor
- Saha Salahi, communication studies major with a Brookings public policy minor
“We can sometimes forget, amid pages of data tables and visualizations, that public policy is about people’s lives, and those of their families and their futures,” said William Brown, UNLV director for Brookings Mountain West. “With their thoughtful, powerful, and inspiring words, our three colleagues reminded policymakers what is at stake and what truly matters.”
Telling their story
In episode one, Yanneli describes the long and fearful process her parents went through to become permanent legal residents of the United States after immigrating from Mexico. Until her parents gained legal residency in December 2019, Yanneli carried a burden most children do not - what would I do if my parents were deported?
“I was seriously considering dropping out of school and getting a full-time job should my parents be deported,” Yanneli says.
Yanneli is a UNLV Honors College graduate and now attends the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University with a full scholarship. Had the worst occurred, Yanneli would not be where she is today. Yanneli hopes those who listen to the podcast approach it with an open mind and not through the prisms of race or politics.
“I hope they simply see them for what they are: accounts of the human experience, our human experience,” Yanneli says, “and having done that, I hope they can extend the same grace to individuals they encounter in real life and those they hear about on the news, always seeing them as people first.”
Santiago’s story in the fourth episode focuses on the difficulties faced as an undocumented immigrant for the majority of his life. After his high school counselor said he did not have the proper paperwork or financial means for college opportunities — despite his academic achievements — Santiago had to take a gap year.
Santiago received his citizenship in 2015 and attended UNLV as an in-state student. “It was a process that lasted a couple of years, specifically because of the financial reason,” he said. “There are documents that you have to be able to find as well as acquire from your own existence here in the nation, that of your family.”
Santiago also said receiving his citizenship resulted in a mix of emotions since some of his family members share a mixed status and cannot experience the same freedoms he now does.
“I hope that listeners will hear our stories, empathize with what we have had to endure, and become allies and advocates in our journey to improve the lives of immigrants in our great nation,” Santiago said.
Saha, the child of Afghan immigrants, discusses her life growing up in America and the rhetoric surrounding the Muslim community in the fourth episode. She describes hiding her Muslim faith as a child so as to not be judged, but now she uses it as a strength to bring a different perspective to conversations.
“I can’t thank my parents enough for the struggles they went through to create the life they did for our family,” said Saha.
“Being able to hear about other incredible individuals' stories was an eye-opening experience and a resource that I will cherish for the rest of my life,” Saha noted after the release of the podcast series.
Raising the discourse
“Our Nation of Immigrants” is one of the ways the Brookings Institution is raising the discourse on immigration policy. Hudak is a frequent contributor to Brookings Mountain West, a partnership between the Brookings Institution and UNLV.
“John’s many interactions with UNLV students, and our students’ thirst to improve public policy here in Nevada and beyond are helping improve our society every day,” Brown said.
As John Hudak states, “bringing data to bear to deal with the country’s policy problems is always more useful than defaulting to the worst tendencies among us.”