Schar School’s Kelly K. Richter Brings Her Expertise to Mason’s Institute for Immigration Research

A woman with dark hair and bangs in a black jacket smiles broadly at the camera.
Kelly K. Richter: ‘What I really try to do in that class is help students build critical thinking skills and work on argumentative writing.’ Photo by Buzz McClain/Schar School of Policy and Government

Schar School of Policy and Government assistant professor Kelly K. Richter, who teaches legal studies, recently joined George Mason University’s Institute of Immigration Research (IIR) as affiliate faculty. With a juris doctorate and license to practice law in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and PhD specialization in modern American political history, her expertise combines a diverse applied practical background with an academic research background. She has worked on Capitol Hill and in immigrant rights advocacy as well as representing immigrants in immigration courts and before administrative agencies.

"As we grow our network of faculty affiliates, we are thrilled to add Professor Richter's expertise to the IIR in a time when immigration and immigration policy is the leading domestic policy issue heading into the 2024 election cycle,” said IIR Director Jim Witte.

The IIR, which produces valid, reliable, and objective multidisciplinary research on immigrants and immigration in the United States for a variety of stakeholders, profiled Richter in March.

Current Research: The Creation of Latino Unauthorized Immigration as a Political Crisis in Modern America

Richter’s research approaches U.S. immigration from the intersection of history, policy, and law. In the book manuscript she is currently preparing, Richter examines how Latino unauthorized immigration has been created as a political crisis in modern America.

She highlights the complicated historical roots of this phenomenon and argues that “backlash toward unauthorized immigration has spanned across the political spectrum.” The book will detail “the political and policy debate over Latino unauthorized immigration in the United States starting from the late 1960s onwards” to illustrate how “populist backlash on this issue evolved over time and fueled an ineffective, inhumane, and even counterproductive public policy.” 

“Original backlash in the modern era in the United States originated amongst liberals making economic populist arguments about unauthorized immigration,” she said. “Then, over time, conservatives seized the issue and brought in more populist cultural arguments relating to law and order and reframed fiscal arguments.

“The book looks at complications of our government institutions and political system of federalism and how they contributed to political polarization and the fracturing of immigration policymaking that made it more difficult to find reasonable national policy solutions.”

Richter draws on historical research in various archives of elected officials and advocacy groups and as well as published policy, academic, and media materials, especially focused on the influential state of California. She examines individuals and government institutions across the political spectrum and documents, in her words, “how this issue of Latino unauthorized immigration plays into realignments in modern American politics. This has been underexplored by a lot of political historians.”

How She Came to Immigration Research

Richter’s interest in immigration began during her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago.

“I ended up taking a class focused on U.S. foreign policy and human rights in Central America and learned about the destabilization of countries that led to migration to the United States,” she said. “That got me interested in learning more about regional migration.

For her undergraduate senior honors thesis, “I conducted research on the history of Mexican unauthorized immigration in Chicago. When I got to graduate school at Stanford University, I had wide interests in modern U.S. political history. Surveying the literature, I realized I could make an impactful contribution continuing to focus my research on this important and understudied topic.”

Advice to Current Students: Follow Your Motivation

Building on her own experience, she advises current Mason undergraduate and graduate students to “take classes where you get opportunities to do individually directed projects…and can calibrate the written assignments to fit exploring whatever issues you’re motivated to learn more about.” 

In addition to elective courses, Richter teaches GOVT 301 Public Law and the Judicial Process in the Schar School each semester. She describes the course as a “high impact gateway course for students who are interested in pre-law” that focuses on “legal reasoning, how the courts work, and the role of law in our political system.

“What I really try to do in that class, is help students build critical thinking skills and work on argumentative writing. I build that into the course structure; teaching about legal reasoning is a really good way to do that, because you can see how much discretion is involved and how many persuasive arguments you can make on any side of an issue.” 

When asked about what she wishes more people understood about U.S. immigration, Richter said most people have limited knowledge about the country’s immigration legal frameworks. 

“Even in teaching classes with students very interested in immigration, there's always a lot of surprise on the part of student of just how limited pathways for legal immigration to the United States are, how difficult the process of legal immigration actually is, and how many disproportionate barriers there are, in addition to surprise about the degree to which U.S. immigration policy is already enforcement-focused,” she said.