American Sociological Association

Sociology in Action: Tara McKay

Tara McKay, Vanderbilt University, worked with a law firm in Washington, DC, that assists detainees and asylum seekers. ASA asked McKay about her work:

What is the mission of the law firm? The firm I worked with provides pro-bono representation for detainees and asylum seekers, among other legal counsel.

Could you describe your involvement? For the past few months, I've been serving as an expert witness in an asylum case for a gay man from Malawi. This has involved preparing a 20-page affidavit on the experiences of LGBT people in Malawi as well as on specific aspects of health care provision in the country. When I became involved in the case, the asylee had already been in detention for over a year. The last hearing was in October and, due in part to my expert testimony on human rights and health care conditions in Malawi, the government offered him asylum. Within a day of this last hearing, I learned from his counsel that he was released!

What sociological knowledge and/or skills did you use? As part of my testimony, I provided several pages of historical, political, and sociocultural background on Malawi, detailed information on human rights abuses of LGBT people over the last 10 years, cultural understandings of gender and sexuality, and detailed statistics on health care infrastructure. This testimony was based on a decade of research on LGBT rights, health, and organizing in Malawi specifically, and elsewhere on the African continent.

How did you connect with this law firm? A network contact referred me to the organization. The firm was looking for an expert to provide background on LGBT issues in Malawi for a particular case.  It is now possible for other scholars to register to serve as an expert witness for their topic/location in the UC Hastings searchable database for advocates and legal representatives. This database helps take the guesswork out of finding someone for the people working hard to make sure that asylum seekers and the courts have access to experts who can provide much needed information about current country conditions. If someone is interested, they can register here.

Duration of the project? The case took about three months once I was involved.

Is there anything else you would like to share about this work? This was a very easy process to get involved with, and it was very rewarding to help someone in a practical way with my expertise. The legal team I worked with was fabulous in terms of communicating what kind of information was needed and what kind of background might help the government to understand the asylee's particular circumstances. They also took care of all the legal formatting for text and citations so that the formal conventions weren’t a hurdle for me.