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John Doering-White Studies Young Immigrants on the Move

John Doering-White is earning his joint PhD in social work and anthropology at the U-M School of Social Work, having completed his MSW in 2015. He is set to graduate next spring and is currently applying to social work schools for a faculty position. Just recently, he received a Henry Meyer Award, named after the first director of our PhD program, for a paper he wrote on Mexican migrant shelters that help Central Americans heading to the United States. This is the culmination of a fascinating career path for John.

John earned his undergraduate degrees in Spanish and in Human Development and Social Relations from Earlham College in Indiana in 2010. He then took an AmeriCorps position working with Latin American immigrants and refugees. While working there he heard about a network of Mexican shelters that assist Central Americans coming to the United States. This would become his passion and the focus of his research as a PhD student at U-M. He came to the U-M School of Social Work to study community organizing around immigrant issues. He spent two months working in a Mexican shelter in 2014. He focused his dissertation work on the shelters and those who pass through them.

John’s dissertation, “Violence and Care in Transit: Humanitarian Infrastructures of Central American Migration through Mexico,” discusses how the shelters have responded to intensified policing of migrant routes throughout Mexico. In recent years, the shelters, which already aid hundreds a week, have also increasingly advocated for undocumented migrants to receive formal humanitarian recognition.

Says John, “Shelters increasingly serve as alternatives to detention, particularly for minors migrating without guardians. Like their adult counterparts, they must decide between seeking refugee status in Mexico and continuing on their way. The involvement of the shelters in helping minors challenges the way we think about the agency of young people and what is in their ‘best interest.’”

John is currently evaluating an entrepreneurship training program for Latinx immigrants in Detroit. “I spent my childhood in Detroit and I have lived in the city while in graduate school,” John says, “so it has been meaningful to develop a project in my own community that speaks to issues of gentrification, economic justice and immigration.” The University recently awarded John a Rackham Public Scholarship (with support from the U-M Office of Research) to further this work.

John has found the School of Social Work’s PhD program immensely rewarding, particularly because, as a joint program, it encourages dialogue across disciplines. “In my work with shelters,” John says, “I draw on ideas about agency and oppression that come out of debates Jane Addams and others were having over a century ago, and also out of theories of materiality connected to archaeological traditions.”

As John prepares to defend his dissertation and receive his PhD, he looks ahead to a career as a professor of social work, and he wants to continue ethnographic research around undocumented immigrants. “I am excited,” John says, “to pursue work that highlights the courageous ways that diverse coalitions meet challenges faced by people living undocumented.”

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