Staff Member Awarded Knapp Fellowship

Project 'Familia United' Aims to Reunite Families

Yesenia Grajeda Yepez
December 01, 2019

During a GW graduate course on the Care of Children in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, Yesenia Grajeda Yepez was inspired to develop a research project to assist Central American immigrant families in Yuma County, Arizona with family tracing and reunification.

Ms. Yepez, a GW staff member working in the CPS Dean’s Office, combined her concern for families in her hometown with her graduate studies in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies with a concentration in Security and Migration. She designed a project to develop and implement a private app, Familia United, to assist families in finding each other.

She was awarded the 2019-2020 Knapp Fellowship for her project. This Fellowship, established by former GW president Steven Knapp and his wife Diane Robinson Knapp recognizes, rewards and facilitates creative public service and academic engagement. Chosen fellows work with the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service and may work with other students or community partners to execute a project that makes a significant difference to the lives of others.
Her project was fueled by a passion to keep immigrant families safe and together. Ms. Yepez’s research project is anchored in both quantitative and qualitative methods because she knows that focusing solely on numbers will only tell part of the story. We asked her a few questions to try to understand the underlying politics and migration issues in her hometown:

Q: Who is arriving in your hometown and why? What kind of volume?
A: Yuma County is located in southwest Arizona, bordering Mexico and overlooking the Colorado River. It is being used as a convenient crossing spot for migrants from Central America and other parts of the world experiencing conflict, such as China and Romania. Within the last year Yuma County has received more than 200,000 immigrants, which is a 100%+ increase from migration numbers five years ago.  

Q: Are the migrants being held in government facilities or somewhere else after crossing the border?
A: The migrants seeking asylum are commonly processed quickly and released by U.S. Customs & Border Patrol (CBP) into Yuma County. In the last year, most have been transported to Catholic Community Services and Salvation Army shelters where they are provided clothes, food and assisted in arranging transportation to homes of their relatives or friends while they wait for their court dates.

Q: What is causing the need to find family members? Are children being separated from their parents?
A: Young children aren’t being separated from their parents, at least not anymore. The information in the media can be misleading and sensationalized and the situations vary significantly depending on the geographic area being discussed. My project is focused on the journey of migrant children, because they are the most vulnerable in this crisis.

By assisting in the documentation and reunification of immigrants with their family members in the U.S., I am minimizing the amount of time families are left in limbo and at processing facilities where they may experience traumatic events. Minimizing trauma furthers the goal of personal development and integration of immigrants, especially asylum seekers, into U.S. society while they await processing and acquisition of citizenship.

Ms. Yepez is harnessing the power of technology and her knowledge of community engagement and cultural issues to help keep immigrant families safe and together. While it can’t be found on the App store or other common download site, she said the Familia United app is already being tested and available for private use.

Her project’s development was fueled by her knowledge of local conditions and her personal relationships with many of the local community members. She said that building trust in the community and understanding the motivations for migrating are critical to understanding the environment and key to providing a solution to the Central American migration crisis.

While there aren’t any easy answers to this multifaceted issue, she said two things are very certain. One, policies need to be appropriate to the specific geographic areas and involve the local community. She said the situation in Tucson is very different from Yuma County and they need to be handled differently. Two, the immigration backlog of court cases needs to get unclogged. It can take asylum seekers years to have their cases heard.

She is working closely with her faculty advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Rule, assistant director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy, who is guiding her research for the Knapp Fellowship. The app is a key part of her research project, as well as plans to develop a mini manual to help integrate Central American immigrants, especially children, into American life.

“I centered my project around aiding and attending to the needs of the child, minimizing their trauma, because the child is the most vulnerable in this immigration crisis,” said Yepez.

If you are interested in learning more about Ms. Yepez’s work please come and hear her presentation at the Symposium on Community Engaged Scholarship on December 9th. She will share more information about her project during the symposium, including a demo of the app. She can be contacted by email at [email protected].

We congratulate Yesenia on winning the Knapp Fellowship and know she is already making a difference in the lives of others!