As migration continues to dominate headlines, and in the aftermath of the pandemic causing border closures and travel bans around the globe, the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs is stimulating dialogue on the subject through regional experts.
Dr. Heide Castañeda is a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida and an author of two books: Borders of Belonging: Struggle and Solidarity in Mixed-Status Immigrant Families and Migrant Health: Cross-Disciplinary and Critical Perspectives.
Castañeda is also a well-published researcher with organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health funding her studies on migration and health care access for immigrant populations. On Feb. 16, Castañeda will share her wealth of knowledge on those subjects and how it relates to the region at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs (SPCWA).
“It’s (SPCWA) one of the first real opportunities to get people from across the planet together and actually be, to some degree, in one room,” said Castañeda. “It’s a great opportunity to move beyond – at least in my world – meetings and singular classroom settings and move into broader dialogues again, which is something that we haven’t had in the past two years since the pandemic started.”
Castañeda’s presentation at the conference is titled “Crossing Borders: Politics, Culture and Identity.” She said national sentiment on borders and migration has shifted, both before and during the pandemic. After two years of experiencing Covid, she believes it is a timely moment to host a global discussion on those issues.
Castañeda explained that countries adopted more of a nationalist approach in the wake of the pandemic, limiting travel from certain regions and shutting down borders. She said this was in direct contrast with previous global health emergencies, where cooperation was more common.
“It really has disrupted what we think about in terms of international relations, global health emergencies and nationalism,” she said.
While border closures and travel restrictions during the pandemic were expected, Castañeda said the degree to which nations put self-interest over cooperation was unpredicted by experts. She said self-interest hampered efforts to quickly move through the pandemic and still negatively affect relief efforts today. For example, many Americans have received their third and fourth booster shots, while underdeveloped countries struggle to provide initial vaccinations.
Castañeda noted that many countries still prohibit foreign nationals from crossing their borders under the guise of the pandemic. Castañeda, who also has a background in public health, said the practice makes no sense. Especially for respiratory viruses.
“With something like Covid, border closures really don’t do much,” she said. “They buy you a few days – at most.”
Additionally, border closures hinder the transportation of medical supplies and staff and create a disincentive for countries to accurately report outbreaks. Castañeda said that as soon as nations reported an outbreak, the uneven practice of enacting travel bans and border closures followed.
“You want people to be transparent,” said Castañeda. “You want them to cooperate and have faith in one another.”
Castañeda’s research focuses on how borders are permeable – but only to certain segments of a population. She called mobility an unequal practice, allowing some groups to freely migrate across any border they choose, while for others, it is a life-or-death endeavor.
Castañeda said the theme of inequitable mobility has persisted throughout her years of research and continues today, both locally and globally. She said many people forget that Florida is a border state, and in many ways, the state is the face of the United States to international neighbors.
“Florida is really important when it comes to migration policy,” she said. “Maybe that’s an understatement because we’ve known for decades that Florida has played a major role in things like asylum policy.”
When people think about migration, the thought often goes to people crossing defined national borders. However, Castañeda said, migratory impacts last well beyond the actual journey. Instead of a geographic boundary, borders become a part of everyday lives through a lack of access that many citizens take for granted.
Castañeda explained that immigrants in the region encounter these borders daily. Access to health care, education and interactions with local governments and institutions present another barrier immigrants must struggle to cross.
“That’s kind of way to think about immigration and borders,” said Castañeda. “It doesn’t just stop at the physical spatial boundary.”
Castañeda said that many people do not realize the difficulties associated with immigrating to the U.S. and the privilege of holding a passport and traveling freely between countries. She points out that most citizens share communities with immigrants from around the world, and most have lived in the country for decades.
During research for her book on mixed-status families, Castañeda found that those families lived in America for an average of 19 years. She said immigrants are part of the fabric of the nation’s communities, and it is important to recognize them as neighbors who contribute to society.
“I think it makes sense to sort of revisit the policy aspects about how we talk about a migration and the kinds of laws and processes that we put in place for them,” she said. “I think it’s just time.”