There and Back Again: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Perspective on the U.S. Immigration System

By Ian Thompson, J.D. Class of 2022

Prior to enrolling at William & Mary Law School, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years in a rural farming town in Senegal. My assignment was to develop local business opportunities in my adoptive community. To that end, I organized simple entrepreneurship classes for middle school students using soap making to demonstrate how to calculate costs to ensure a profit. While the students seemed to enjoy mixing the water, shea oil, and lye to make soap (feeling the intense heat produced by the chemical reaction), and while everyone was able to take home a small amount of soap as a souvenir, we were never able to make a soap product that could compete with the mass-produced version that dominated the market.

The obstacles we faced in producing a marketable soap product were common in other areas of the Senegalese economy. Whereas in an earlier period consumers would buy their shoes from local leather workers, those leather workers were unable to compete with cheap imports and were driven out of business. The only remaining economic opportunities in my area readily available to Senegalese youth were smallholder farming, often family-based and unremunerated, and gold mining, where success was rare and dangerous. 

It should be unsurprising that given the limited economic opportunity within Senegal, many locals sought opportunity abroad. A majority of the young men I met, but also a humorous number of elderly women, would ask me to help them travel to America. A running joke throughout my time in Senegal involved me immediately agreeing to do so, provided they could fit in my suitcase.

Many local youths tried to emigrate on their own. Dura, a man my own age and one of the first friends I made in town, made it as far as Libya on his way to France before running out of money and deciding to return home. He had yet to make it back to our town by the time I left, but he was in touch with his family, and they knew he was okay. He was fortunate; news made it to our town that six brothers from a nearby village perished together while trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat.

While in recent years, lawful migration to the West had become less common for the local community, that had not always been the case. Many locals had family members who had migrated decades ago and, in some cases, had even been granted citizenship. Through their families, they heard stories of life in the United States and could compare those stories with those of life in France or Italy. Locals had strongly held opinions of the respective strengths and shortcomings of each country based in large part on how the expatriates they knew had been treated. France and Italy were detested, although in France’s case its role as the colonizer of Senegal may have prejudiced local opinion. The United States was revered. Everyone knew that the U.S. was the place to go for fruitful employment and that, unlike France and Italy, the U.S. treated Senegalese people well.

While I was able to coast on the goodwill the U.S. had generated in the past, I doubt future Peace Corps Volunteers will be as fortunate. When the U.S.’s treatment of migrant populations is defined by images of imprisoned children separated from their parents and paramilitary agents raiding and terrorizing immigrant communities, our national reputation is more than at risk, it is already ruined.

Ensuring that the process through which foreign nationals have their immigration claims adjudicated is marked by dignity and respect rather than fear and humiliation would go a long way to strengthening the United States’ reputation as a land of justice and peace. Contributing to that effort through my participation in the William & Mary Law School Immigration Clinic would make my adoptive Senegalese community proud.