Political Science at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (feat. Neil Hernandez)
Alumni Aloud Episode 21
Neil Hernandez is an Asylum Officer at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Neil earned his PhD in the Political Science Program at the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Neil tells us about the rewards of blending practice and theory in public administration, the rewards of making a difference in people’s lives by understanding and affecting policy implementation, and the different ways that qualitative research skills he gained during his PhD have helped him thrive in his role at the agency.
Positions like Neil’s often have very short application periods. If his work sounds interesting to you, set up a profile on the www.usajobs.gov website, load a resume, and let the system know what kind of jobs you may be interested in (including Asylum Officer positions). In turn, the system will alert you when a new position that is linked to your profile is announced.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: I’m Anders Wallace, a PhD candidate in the Anthropology program at The Graduate Center. In this episode I catch up with Neil Hernandez whose an Asylum Officer at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security. Neil earned his PhD in the Political Science program at The Graduate Center. In this episode, he tells us about the rewards of blending practice and theory in public administration, the rewards of making a difference in peoples’ lives by understanding and affecting policy implementation and the different ways that qualitative research skills he gained during his PhD have helped him succeed and thrive in his role at the Agency.
NEIL HERNANDEZ, GUEST: My name is Neil Hernandez and I’m an Asylum Officer at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. And at the risk of sounding like a wet blanket, I am required to tell you as a federal employee that anything I say today is my personal opinion and only my opinion. And it doesn’t represent the views of the US government, the Department of Homeland Security or my current Agency.
WALLACE: So can you tell me a little bit about how you came to do this work?
HERNANDEZ: So I spent, as a doctoral student here at The Graduate Center, I spent quite a bit of time doing research and writing as part of my dissertation and my dissertation focused on the immigration system. And so, after spending a considerable amount of time looking at how the immigration system was re-organized in the early to about the middle of the 20th century. I had a good grounding on how the immigration system worked and what created in me was questions about how the system worked today.
WALLACE: What you studied was political science?
HERNANDEZ: Yes, I graduated from the Political Science. My concentration was public policy and my minor was American politics. And my research agenda and my interest is the study of how public agencies are designed and re-organized to affect their performance and how they are influenced by politics and how that affects their performance.
WALLACE: Really interesting. So you were interested then in how it changed in the last half century, the recent implementation of immigration?
HERNANDEZ: Yes, because I spent so much time in the early part of the 20th century, I have a lot of curiosity about the latter part of the 20th century and today. And so that created in me an interest in wanting to see how the immigration system evolved further. But not only from a theoretical perspective but more from a practical perspective. One of the recurring themes that I found in my research was that people are coming to the United States during the early 20th century but by the midway point of the century, because they were being persecuted in other countries. And so that also created an interest in me to say “hey, what part of the immigration system today handles cases where people are coming because they’re fleeing persecution and naturally these programs [inaudible]. And it created an interest in me to want to join.
WALLACE: That’s so interesting and this is so relevant nowadays with the number of refugees around the world. These are very important issues to be engaged with, it must be very satisfying.
HERNANDEZ: It is, it’s a incredibly rewarding experience to be able to grant protection to somebody who would otherwise return to their country and face persecution. I think, assuming they qualify of course, I think it’s hands down one of the most rewarding feelings in this job.
WALLACE: Right. Can you tell me a bit more about your academic background?
HERNANDEZ: Prior to enrolling in the PhD program, I was a practitioner. So I worked in local and municipal government. And when I worked in local and municipal government, I had an interest in complementing the practice of administration with the theory of the administration. So I’ve been, since about that time, been migrating if you will, being a practitioner and being an academic. Because while I was here pursuing my doctoral studies, I was actually working full-time at CUNY’s Hostos Community College as a distinguished lecture. So I worked while going to school as a professor at Hostos Community College. I taught Public Policy Administration, Criminal Justice.
HERNANDEZ: And so I had the opportunity to really complement the idea that theory informs practice and practice informs theory. And so when I worked as a practitioner I benefitted from the theoretical and used it in the application of the practice with public administration. And when I came to academia as a student here and as a professor at Hostos Community College, I was able to use some of the practice to give the students more of a real-life perspective of things that were happening in public administration. Though at the same time, [inaudible] that the theoretical is equally important and just as important fro their involvement whether it be as public administrators or as academics. And so even today I take the theories that I learned and used those to better understand my work.
WALLACE: You suggested earlier, you have a strong passion for helping these people who are in peril and marginalized. That this drew you back to government in the sense of saying you could make a difference in these peoples’ lives by affecting policy. Is that a fair?
HERNANDEZ: I think it’s a combination.
HERNANDEZ: For me, certainly having had that experience learning about the immigration system and understanding how the system worked in the periods that I looked at. The immigration system, from my research, wasn’t as responsive to people facing persecution. We didn’t have a formal asylum program. This was most evident in my second case study when Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany and the United States as you know didn’t have a refugee program. It didn’t have a formal refugee program, a formal asylum program for those that were here in the United States. And so naturally that research sparked an interest in me of understanding, well how did our asylum and refugee programs evolve. More particularly, how did the asylum program evolve to help those that were here in the United States. So I think that’s where the interest lies but at some point in the future I can see myself returning to academia. Using some of my practical experiences that I’ve learned in this position and using it to advance some of my theoretical interests in political science.
WALLACE: You were working in government before coming to academia. Was the academic lifestyle a big shift from what you had seen so far working in government up to that point?
HERNANDEZ: To some extent it was the speed of academia, which is much more conducive to research and writing. And in government, at least when I worked in the municipal government just before, or actually while I was here in the PhD program… I had to take a time-out because I had been appointed as an agency head in the Bloomburg administration. I ran the city’s juvenile detention system so I took a time-out from studying, did that job for some years and transitioned back to academia as a full-time student. And so that took an adjustment. The speed as I mentioned was different. School had changed in terms of technology had become more prominent. There had been some evolution in the theory and the research and it was a learning curve to appreciate how public policy and American politics as a field had evolved.
HERNANDEZ: So that took some getting used to but I didn’t miss the 24-hour nature of the position that I did because I had done it for eight years and coming back to academia was a nice opportunity to also recharge the batteries that had been worn out.
WALLACE: Now you’re back on the other side, is that less stressful now, the job you have?
HERNANDEZ: It’s a different kind of stress because you have the lives of people that are being decided by you in terms of whether they’re going to be afforded protection by the US government. So I think that carries a fair amount of stress but like I said, when you can extend them the protection of the government, I don’t think there’s a better feeling than doing that.
WALLACE: Can you tell me more about your position and what it involves?
HERNANDEZ: I love that question. So let me start backwards. As an asylum officer, I’m adjudicating asylum cases and so what that means is that, on a typical day, I interview applicants who are seeking asylum. And so typically speaking my mornings are interviewing those applicants. And then my afternoons are spent making decisions about their cases, writing those, doing research about the cases and then writing those cases and making a decision. So that’s a typical day. And what’s not typical is what happens in between and that is that I meet people from all parts of the world, I get a chance to learn about different political systems through them because they may be facing political persecution, they may be facing religious persecution and other types of persecution. So I learn about other countries.
And then I think one of the more challenging parts of the job is they’ve survived some persecution and you’re listening to trauma regularly. And so one has to be sensitive about how one asks about trauma. One has to be sensitive about how one also deals with secondary trauma as well because at the end of the day, I haven’t lived what they’ve lived but I’ve had a chance to get a second-hand effect if you will of their experiences. And that can be challenging as well. I like that I don’t have to manage. And the reason I like it is because I can focus on the person, the person that I’m interviewing and not on the responsibility of managing employees. And one of the reasons that I also took the position was it would give me the opportunity to interview people. And I’m getting that. So much like a researcher, we like interviewing if we do qualitative work. And being able to interview people though I’m not doing research in the office of course, it’s an opportunity to fine-tune those skills of researching people, asking pertinent questions, building rapport with the applicants. And I think those things become transferrable for anyone who at some point, like me, would return to academia and engage in qualitative research.
WALLACE: I can also see that benefitting teaching and mentoring and all of these relational sides of academia. Are there other things that happen in a typical day or that come up?
HERNANDEZ: What’s not typical is the stories that you hear. I get a chance to read these documents that they’ve submitted in support of their case, I get a chance to read the applications that they submitted. I research and my colleagues research the current conditions of the countries that they’re coming for. So we have a lot of information. But then there’s that point where you are now one-on-one with the person. You’ve got to build rapport, you’ve got to convince that person in a matter of seconds and maybe minutes to trust you, to tell you their story and get them to open up. And my colleagues who work in the office of the New York Asylum Office do this masterfully. I don’t include myself in that category, I just completed a year. What they do masterfully is get people to trust them so that they tell their story. And in telling their story, my colleagues are able to determine whether those applicants qualify for asylum.
And I think what’s very unique about the skillset that an asylum officer has is we are representing the US government. Many of the applicants have had opportunities that haven’t been very positive with their governments, so you have to break that barrier in a very art-like way to be able to get the person to trust you. I’m very happy that I took the position as an asylum officer for many reasons. One of those reasons is being able to refine the interviewing skill. I can’t say that I’ve mastered them, I think I’m more competent but I’ve been very lucky with the colleagues that I have, in the New York Asylum Office particularly. Which I did my research before I accepted the job there. It’s very collegial and in many ways it’s kind of an academic environment in that it is so collegial. So colleagues are constantly supporting one other, helping each other to refine skills. We of course have a robust training program as well.
So I think those things have helped. In the past I had interviewing skills, I had previously been an assistant district attorney-I was a prosecutor. So I had experience as a professional interviewing people and also interviewing people in court. But that skill is far different. In that environment, you can ask leading questions, you can be very pointed with your questions. And this is totally different, it’s not adversarial, it’s open-ended questions primarily and you have to get somebody to open up. Here you want the person to open up to tell you their story of persecution and that is more of an art than a science.
WALLACE: What about some of the challenges. You mentioned it may be tough for people to get the story because people may have adverse experiences, trauma, and that. Are there other aspects of the job you find frustrating or anything else that you wish were different than it is?
HERNANDEZ: I think there’s two challenges. One, the bigger one and then a smaller one. And that smaller one could be one that other students and alumni, who I hope are listening to the podcast, as not a deal-breaker to come into work at the Asylum Office. So the bigger challenge is the converse of what the reward is. So the bigger challenge is when you can’t extend somebody the protection of the US government because they have not qualified for it under the law. That I think can be challenging because you’re denying somebody the opportunity to have protection. Of course, you should know procedurally they have an opportunity to go to the immigration court and try to get asylum at the immigration court. But I think that could be challenging and at times it has been challenging for me to have to say no.
On a smaller scale, I think the challenge that I face, and this is partly coming from academia right, because I had mentioned to you earlier where the pace is a little slower. So now I’m returning to government, this time the federal government, the pace is faster. And one has to get used to a quicker pace and that was a challenge for me at the beginning. You know, working on a dissertation we get the opportunity to do it at a pace that is, I wouldn’t say slow but a little bit leisurely at times. Where you have a chance to research things, look at other sources, edit your dissertation. It was as I mentioned a great place to be. So we have the benefit of more time. Here, the work is fast and you have to move very quickly. And it doesn’t compromise any of the efficiency, effectiveness, or substance of the program but you do have to work faster and that was an adjustment and a challenge particularly at the beginning. I feel far more comfortable now but I had the benefit of great support from the people that I work with and the training I received from the agency because we had a 6-week academy that we attend where we’re instructed on how to do the job. Which I hope your listeners will consider.
WALLACE: You want to illicit peoples’ stories and get the account, but I assume there’s also a pace, a quota, that you have to get through a certain number of cases?
HERNANDEZ: In practical terms, if I’m interviewing my first case and I’m investing more time because I need to like get the story. In practical terms it delays me from my second case. Which, there’s an applicant waiting for me. So that at times forces me to ask more focused questions and it just refines my interviewing skills. And none of us ever, as I say, compromise on getting the story in its entirety. It just forces us to do it faster. That’s something that takes an adjustment because your have to develop the skill, you have to then develop the confidence in that skill and then you have to execute and do it rather quickly.
WALLACE: Are there ways that finishing your PhD has benefitted you with your career?
HERNANDEZ: Yes in my current position, the hands-down two things that I think finishing my PhD helped with. One is as a researcher, I have to understand and learn about the country conditions of the places where the applicants come from. And I have to do that quickly and you know the world is a dynamic place that is constantly evolving. So my research skills helps me to do that quickly and helps me to look at different sources. In addition to the many sources that are provided to us, that my training allowed me to have a more expansive view. So I can kind of look at other sources that may not necessarily be readily available. And I think the other skill that the PhD program helped me with is how government agencies may work in other places. So I have a nice, as I said, a nice starting point about how other police agencies, other human service agencies, other bureaucracies work in other countries. And that gives me a good place on which to ask questions to someone who has faced persecution by another government.
WALLACE: Are there any skills or abilities that you would recommend current GC graduates might hone or learn or acquire that could help them work in a field like yours?
HERNANDEZ: Sure. I think because interviewing is so important as we’ve touched on today. And getting the story from the applicant is critical. I think any opportunity that a student has here or alumni who are in the job market or who are thinking about transitioning their current position to something asylum. I think interviewing skills is something to continue to refine. I don’t think one ever masters it. I think one can reach some level of competency but I think it’s something where every opportunity you get to finetune that and learn would be helpful. When I was here, I had the chance to take a qualitative course and learn some of the theory about just broadly interviewing. And then I also had the chance working with one of my professors, Francis Fox Piven, to actually do some fieldwork and interview some people as part of a paper that I completed for her class.
So I had that opportunity but any chance that any students have here to take a course on interviewing as part of qualitative methods in any one of the programs that are here, in my opinion. And also to do fieldwork, whether it be as part of a research paper or one’s dissertation or working in some kind of a non-profit organization during a summer or during a semester. I think you grab that. And also you know, the theory is great, getting the practice is great. But we all bring a certain amount of experience in how to connect with people, how to relate to them, how to ask questions. And that factor, our own individual self, which we all know well ourselves, that’s also an important element that people shouldn’t forget. Each of us have a good starting point.
WALLACE: That’s an empowering perspective, I love that. Is there anything you miss about academia?
HERNANDEZ: To some extent, I miss being able to advance my research agenda on a full-time basis. I do some of it now on a part-time basis. I attended a conference last year, I’m working on writing a paper for a journal as well. So that’s why I stay to some extent. I get to do some of the research agenda on a limited basis. And then my office, as I mentioned before, it’s quite an intellectually stimulating place. I’m currently with another colleague through the support of our director. We’ve designed and are coordinating an immigration policy history course. I’ll be teaching one of the classes, several of my other colleagues are also teaching some of the classes. We’ve got academics from CUNY coming to teach classes, we’ve got historians from the agency coming to teach classes. And so I get to dabble a little bit academically speaking even in my current position. So that’s why I say I miss it to a limited extent but certainly, as I mentioned before, there is a time where I’ll leave the practice of public administration, return to academia so I can continue to work on my research agenda on a full-time basis.
WALLACE: And that might be surprising to people listening that you have the opportunity to keep doing research as well as really develop this course in-house for staff. Do you feel well-supported in that or is it something you have to sort of work out of your own passion on top of the work you’re already doing?
HERNANDEZ: The director has been incredibly supportive. She actually created within the office a university-type program where staff can create classes that any staff member in the office can take. And so this is a natural extension of something that she created. And so I found that she’s been incredibly supportive. The office is intellectually stimulating and I’m happy to be able to bring with my colleagues, because there’s a group of us doing this course. It’s going to give people who practice immigration some of the theoretical and the historical aspects of immigration. That’s going to be fun.
WALLACE: That’s very cool! Are there benefits or resources at the GC that you wish you used more of looking back that would have benefitted you or you would have liked to do while you were here, in hindsight.
HERNANDEZ: If I had some more time when I was here, I would have loved to have look for more classes, more qualitative classes in other programs. I got an opportunity to continue that foundation for interviewing. Of the time that I did have, I was dabbling in other courses that were in immigration that were offered from other programs. So although I was in the Political Science program, I think any one of the students who are here in any one of the programs who have an interest in immigration. I think the Sociology department has offered some excellent events around immigration. And they also have some leading experts in immigration like John Mollenkopf, Richard Alba, Nancy Foner, Robert Smith. And so I think that’s something that people should take advantage of.
Also, I consider the students, my former colleagues, heavy hitters as well in immigration. There’s an immigration work group that is student-run, student-led that has very dynamic programs for involving scholars to present their work, have mini-conferences, and the Immigration Working Group, which I was a member of when I was here, it also sponsors workshops. You can bring in a paper, you can workshop a paper. And I think that’s something that, if you’re interested in immigration, that’s something to really take advantage of while you’re here.
WALLACE: There’s so many resources in-house, but potentially outside of a student’s department that they could benefit from working with, whether it be working groups or other courses in other departments. Are there other challenges that you see other graduate students facing that you feel students would benefit from learning and practicing as they’re students. Looking ahead to potentially taking a non-academic position.
HERNANDEZ: Because I would love to see more of my students and my former colleagues from The Graduate Center and current alumni become asylum officers and work in the immigration system; it doesn’t have to be as an asylum officer but working in the immigration system. I wouldn’t pretend how to advise them with doing their research and their writing. I think just broadly speaking, you work with your committee. I was fortunate to have John Mollenkopf, John Torpey, and [inaudible], my supervisor and dissertation committee members respectively. And I just got incredible support for them. But I would say while you’re doing that, if you have an inkling, even if it’s just an inkling, of wanting to engage in the practice of public administration, particularly in immigration, start to think about how to go about doing that.
Think about, if possible, an internship with a government agency, think about working for a non-profit organization perhaps during the summer, and start going on usajobs.gov. You can create searches for positions that you want. And start looking at some of the postings to see if you qualify. I would like to bring students and alumni that may be exploring the job market or may in the future explore the job market. One of the basic ways to qualify is having a Master’s or a PhD, as an asylum officer. Then also there’s an immigration analyst position in the agency that also does important work. The immigration analyst in the office provides key support on the processing of asylum applications. The analyst actually helps the applicant by receiving the applicant’s information to prepare their application, review the application, make sure there’s jurisdiction. Has interactions with applicants, with attorneys, and actually does one of the more important functions in the office.
That analyst also has the opportunity to present the decision to the applicant. Sometimes, as we’ve discussed, the decision is positive and sometimes it’s not so positive. And that’s an awesome responsibility that n immigration analyst has. And students and alumni who are interested in that position or in being an asylum officer can qualify not just based on having one year of experience working in an immigration setting or in immigration work but also by having completed their Master’s or PhD.
WALLACE: How do students apply for this job?
HERNANDEZ: So the starting point, which is the way I did it, is usajobs.gov. And literally the way I did it, you create an account, you create a search specific to the jobs you want and the positions you want, and then you would get daily emails and look at what’s available. And when I saw the asylum position I applied. What I had been doing with Jenny Furlong, the director of Career Services and Planning is sending her the postings along with the chief of staff of my office has been supportive of this effort of doing outreach here. To provide this office with postings so that students can see that if they haven’t had a chance to be at usajobs.gov.
WALLACE: And you mentioned internships – are there internships that students would be able to take?
HERNANDEZ: The federal government has internships and actually professional development programs as well. So I think one that’s popular and that I know students apply for here is the Presidential Management Fellows. And there’s others that one can explore to be able to segway from that program to the position of asylum officer. But a more direct route is the one that we’re discussing. And that is applying directly and having either the one year of experience, broadly speaking in immigration or having that Master’s or that PhD to be able to qualify.
WALLACE: Very interesting! Are there other things that you’d like to share with our listeners or anything else that comes to mind in this conversation?
HERNANDEZ: It’s been a pleasure to talk to you and I appreciate the invitation. I think in closing I’d just like to let your listeners know that if they have any questions, if they want to talk to me, I’m easily reachable. They can contact me by going to my website which is my name, neilhernandez.com and I’d be more than happy to talk to anybody who is a current student or an alum who is thinking of exploring the job market. And I’d be happy to answer any questions for them or tell them about some of my experiences.
WALLACE, VOICE-OVER: That does it for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Neil for coming on the show to share his experiences in government and public administration with our listeners. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every two weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter, and career planning at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
This entry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.