Sara McKinnon: Illuminating Migration in the Americas

Sara McKinnon in Necoclí, Colombia, learning about the important work of the Interagency Group for Mixed Migration (GIFMM in Spanish) and their #gifmmcontigo information campaign, providing people with access to information to keep them safe in transit. (Photo from Migration in the Americas Project)

By Kendall Buehl, GHI Staffer… Ever since UW-Madison Professor Sara McKinnon started her graduate project on migration, she knew her passion would never change.

In the early 2000s, McKinnon was studying intercultural communication and rhetoric at Arizona State University. When asked about why she chose to focus her efforts on migration, she responded with the following:

Esperando. So much of the migrant experience throughout the Americas involves waiting. (Photo from Migration in the Americas)

“Given the context, it was just really hard not to think about migration as an important issue to consider in my graduate work,” McKinnon explained.

Thus, she decided the best way to fulfill her passion was to research the experiences of Sudanese refugees in Phoenix, Arizona. Working with them gave McKinnon the chance to unpack how identities might shift as people migrate from place to place.

She describes the layers of migration, like gendered differences, criminalization, and racialization, were all unexpected by the Sudanese refugees who traveled to places in which they were meant to find freedom. Through several years on the project, McKinnon collaborated to unravel these layers and continued to build upon migration research.

“And of course, when you do a dissertation on a project, you’re really with that project for the next ten years,” McKinnon noted. “By then, I was so deep into migration that I couldn’t escape it, nor would I want to. The different dimensions to migration continue to draw my passion and I have lots of questions that, as a researcher, I get to answer.”

In addition to being a researcher and professor in UW–Madison’s Department of Communication Arts, in the College of Letters and Science (L&S), McKinnon is also faculty director of Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS), and co-chair of the Human Rights Program, with affiliations in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and Chican@ & Latin@ Studies

In Necocli, Colombia with the Heartland Alliance International touring a space that may become a “Casa de Derechos” where migrants in the region can go for legal assistance on a range of questions and issues. (Photo from Migration in the Americas Project)

Now, you might be thinking, how does she stay motivated through the highs and lows of it all?

“I think it’s important for anyone, as we make these big decisions about our lives, to have information,” McKinnon shares. “That definitely keeps me going.”

For McKinnon, it’s not about what she’s going through- it’s about the conditions that so many others are forced to experience.

So she, and many other researchers, advocate for policy change in hopes of making these conditions better for all.

For example, McKinnon works with Erin Barbato, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic (IJC) at the University of Wisconsin Law School, and GHI Director Jorge Osorio, DVM, Ph.D., M.S., professor in the Department of Pathobiological Sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine on the Migration in the Americas Project.

Web banner from Migration in the Americas Project

Migration in the Americas Project is a policy and research collective of the University of Wisconsin–Madison focused on assessing migration policy and developing ways to reduce risk and harm to make movement and residence safer for migrants throughout the Western Hemisphere.

During the summer of 2023, this project (then titled Safe Passage from the Darién Gap) was awarded two years of Research Forward Initiative funding through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education (OVCRGE).

The Project shares critical migration policy updates with those affected through their social media (Instagram and LinkedIn) and in-person talks, while also constantly working with policymakers to make change.

“We have to recognize this is very ‘slow and steady’ work,” McKinnon comments. “Nothing happens overnight.”

Because this work isn’t akin to readily developing and distributing vaccines, progress is measured in some distinct ways: the vastness of their network and rate of engagement.

A young mother learns how to use a baby wrap provided to her by the UNICEF workers in Necoclí, Colombia, to carry her baby through the jungle of the Darién Gap. UNICEF also shares important information about safety and risk prevention along the migration route. (Photo from Migration in the Americas Project)

Right now, Migration in the Americas Project has built a multidisciplinary network with several universities and organizations in both Colombia and Mexico, and garnered wonderful engagement rates on their webinars and social media, where they share critical migration information.

“I’m really satisfied of what we’ve been able to accomplish in a year,” McKinnon excitedly adds. “We hope to continue building an infrastructure of information that helps people navigate communicative and legal complications.”

In addition to breaking down communication and information barriers, Migration in the Americas Project is working with GHI One Health Center – Colombia to mitigate the risk of illness and disease as people move from one location to the next.

The Migration in the Americas Project team has been working directly with GHI Director Jorge Osorio and GHI’s Global Virus Network Visiting Scholar, Karl Ciuoderis, to tap into OHC-Colombia’s network and build the foundation of a health clinic designed for specimen collection in Necoclí, Colombia, to augment the emerging infectious diseases focus area of the project.

“Working with them is a dream; they’re both so responsive,” McKinnon says. “And I think one of Jorge’s superpowers is saying yes and having this expansive view to figure out how something will work.”

Yet another GHI-Migration in the Americas Project connection is Leonor Hidalgo-Ciro, a PhD student at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW–Madison, who is also working as McKinnon’s research assistant for the Spring 2024 semester. Currently, Hidalgo is working with GHI as she continues her graduate research. Since she has a particular interest in the rights of children as they migrate and move, McKinnon expects their work to adopt that specific focus as well.

The Migration in the Americas Project and IJC went to Tijuana, MX to learn from the organization Al Otro Lado about the migration context in border cities and how the CBP One app works for those waiting to schedule appointments. (Photo from Migration in the Americas Project)

Speaking of students, Migration in the Americas Project works with UW–Madison law students from the IJC on various tasks, seeing as their director, Erin Barbato, is co-PI of the Project. The IJC also utilizes social media (Instagram and Facebook) to update their various audiences.

For example, on their first trip to Tijuana, Mexico, third-year law students helped facilitate “Know Your Rights” presentations in migrant shelters and one-on-one consultations. Both formats allow people migrating to understand the legal policies of their origin and destination, in group or case-by-case sessions.

Now, students continue to add to the growing success of Migration in the Americas Project, whose work inspires so many to contribute.

IJC Director Erin Barbato gives a “Know Your Rights” presentation to people who are waiting in a Tijuana, MX shelter. (Photo from Migration in the Americas Project)

“We’re trying to think of migration not as just a national construct but as a transnational one,” McKinnon notes. “There’s a lot of U.S. immigration clinics, but our goal is to create a model of what this international perspective looks like.”

And regarding how she stays motivated while hearing tragic stories almost daily, McKinnon humbly responds:

“I have my own methods of taking care of myself when I encounter moments of overwhelm, but it’s always with the recognition that it’s quite a luxury,” McKinnon answers. “The individuals that I’m working with can’t do that to the same extent that I can.”

So, what’s next for Migration in the Americas Project?

McKinnon says more networking with legal clinics, migration organizations, and universities will be key for the future of the project. As we Badgers know, progress is all about building multidisciplinary connections that last a lifetime. And at GHI, we are proud to be a part of this work that embodies our model of putting the Wisconsin Idea in global action.

If you are interested in collaborating with or funding the Migration in the Americas Project, contact Sara McKinnon at