AMELIA FRANK-VITALE, Doctoral Candidate, Sociocultural Anthropology
Interview and text by Nicholas Farrugia, LACS Administrative Assistant
Amelia Frank-Vitale is a doctoral student in the University of Michigan’s anthropology program currently working on her dissertation: “Leave if You’re Able: Migration, Violence, and the Everydayness of Deportation.”
Amelia graduated from Yale University in 2005 with a BA in Anthropology and later from American University in 2011 with an MA in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs. Amelia is now pursuing her doctorate at the University of Michigan in Anthropology with a certification in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Based on long term fieldwork conducted in and around San Pedro Sula, Honduras, she continues to work with deported and displaced youth and young adults to (re)present their experiences through interviews and participatory photography, documenting how they rebuild their lives and reimagine their futures after being deported back to some of the world's most dangerous neighborhoods.
Amelia’s research primarily focuses on the everyday violence experienced by young men in Honduras and how deportation has radiating ill effects in an already corrupt government.
With a population of just under 10 million people, Honduras has the second highest rate of homicide in the world and continues to be ruled by a narco-dictatorship. Behind the political chaos is a nation suffering from poverty, gang violence and a despotic military regime that amplifies the many issues faced by Hondurans. The government, whose leadership has received support from the United States, contains 17 distinct police forces which enact state terror primarily in impoverished neighborhoods. The police exist as an ever-present, corrupt force, and influence violent activity from an array of organized crime groups. Through her research, she discovered that the primary victims of this violence are young men, who also represent the majority of individuals who seek asylum from this violence in the U.S. Her research focuses on the U.S. government’s immigration policy and, more specifically, what deportation means and how it impacts this demographic attempting to escape the violent environment in their own community.
The Path to Now
Amelia first became fascinated by Anthropology in 2003 during her undergraduate studies at Yale University. It wasn’t the curriculum that necessarily grabbed her attention, but the methodology of the discipline: understanding why people do things and think certain ways through close personal engagement. While at Yale, Amelia was witness to, and became an active participant in three labor strikes on the University’s campus. Participation in these labor strikes inspired Amelia to continue down a similar path of fighting for worker’s rights and social justice. After her time at Yale, Amelia moved to Tucson, Arizona where she became involved in a number of immigration issues. With the continuing pressures from NAFTA and immigration policy, she began to work on these issues, dedicating 4 years of her time to working as a union organizer.
A pivotal experience in Amelia’s academic career came in 2009 while pursuing her MA at American University in conjunction with the Universidad de la Tierra in Southern Mexico. There, she was given the opportunity to do research at a migrant shelter for her master’s thesis on migrants moving through Central America and Mexico. Amelia was further awarded a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs which funded her research efforts at various shelters across Mexico where she became very involved in documenting what happens to migrants in transit. These experiences ranged from maintaining the daily running of the shelter and registering migrants, to organizing caravans that physically accompany and protect migrants in certain parts of Mexico. With new insight and gained perspective on the many issues faced by those involved with migration and organized crime, Amelia began to postulate her next academic endeavor, a Ph.D.
Life in Honduras
While its barrier reef and tropical rainforests provide the country with a diverse ecosystem teeming with life, life in the cities is vastly different. With a government as corrupt as that of Honduras, Amelia was faced with a plethora of anthropological issues to investigate. A commonality within all was the primary victim of the myriad crimes committed, young adult men. In the process of writing her dissertation, Amelia began to follow the everyday experience of violence for young adult men in the country, and more specifically how their lives intersect with deportation. Amelia’s dissertation looks to challenge and reconstruct how “we”, as the collective reader, can better understand these deep-rooted problems. The very basis of her research lies in thinking about circulation. Throughout years of collecting research, Amelia started to examine how people circulate and are displaced within Honduras and Central America, to develop an overall lens of deportability. What she uncovered was far more complex than what she originally anticipated. Violence takes form in Honduras every day and is a primary reason why many look to migrate or seek asylum. Within the borders, Hondurans suffer from deep fractures present within their governmental structure. Between the violent doings of organized crime, and strict, violent policing, many young men looking to migrate out of Honduras.
“Land of the Free”
Throughout years of collecting research, Amelia has been able to give her perspective to the court in asylum cases for people from Honduras. With the long-enduring violent state of the country, more and more individuals look to migrate to the U.S. In an effort to stop migrants before they reach the U.S. border, immigration enforcement has been pushed south. This has primarily taken form as: “... Prevention through deterrence, something that has been especially deadly in Arizona - this same logic has been pushed through Mexico, mainly by DHS, making it more dangerous and expensive to go through Mexico.” She also shared that, “...Since 2014, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the U.S.” a statistic that many may be privy to. The U.S. hegemonic determination of regional migration has unfortunately resulted in many Hondurans being deported back to a violent environment by the determination of the very country they sought asylum in.
University of Michigan and LACS
Amelia’s previous academic experiences gave her great insight and perspective on migration and organized crime, but her doctoral work was, as she describes, the beginning of what it truly means to be an anthropologist. She expressed, “as an MA student, you are still learning about what other people think and you’re distilling it - you still don’t know how to produce your own knowledge.”
“Starting at U-M, it's a new level of engaging in the world of scholarship - not only learning and discovering but producing new knowledge and contributing to a larger conversation of information and knowledge - much more demanding than just being a student.”
Her experience at U-M was made special by the range of experience and knowledge in the Anthropological department. As she describes, the breadth of faculty helped introduce her to new challenging approaches to the world. While Michigan’s anthropology department is known to be traditional in their approach, Amelia has been appreciative of the support she’s received from the faculty for public-facing anthropological studies. Both the Anthropology and LACS departments have helped to train and enable her to be competitive nationally for grants on field work and her dissertation. In 2014, the LACS department helped in the funding and facilitation of a conference organized by Amelia which brought individuals affected in Honduras to come speak on these issues.
Entering a New Decade
As 2021 begins, Amelia plans to continue her research into the violence experienced by young men in Honduras, and their displacement that ensues. Having lived in Honduras from 2017-2019, Amelia is eager to return, but only as soon as the situation with Covid-19 lends itself. Until then, she continues to use her research to explain conditions in Honduras to immigration courts, attorneys, students, and community groups. Ultimately, it is her dedication to the discipline that keeps her motivated.