Managing Editor Caroline Mullooly was pleased to interview Hyphenated America founders and CU graduates Sophia Houdaigui and Maria Castillo.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sophia Houdaigui (BC ‘21) and Maria Castillo (SEAS ‘21) launched Hyphenated America: a website, newsletter, and podcast that provides free and accessible immigrant education. The name of the organization comes from the term ‘hyphenated American,’ referencing the hyphen between the name of one’s home country and American. This term has been used negatively towards Americans who were born in other countries to separate them from Americans born on U.S. soil.

Bwog: What inspired you to create Hyphenated America?

Sophia Houdaigui: Maria and I knew each other from [the Columbia Political Review] and so we knew we had a positive working relationship, but around April of last year, I saw a concerning amount of misinformation being shared online by college and high school students. This really demonstrated to me that immigration law and policy is a really difficult field to understand. It’s not necessarily accessible to the public, so I knew I wanted to create some kind of platform that made immigration laws and policies easier to understand. So, Maria and I decided to work on this project to get the public and young people to understand immigration, so they can, as a result, make positive change in the immigration space.

Maria Castillo: I’d say we felt that there was an opportunity to take back the narrative on immigration that has been so whitewashed and not focused on the way that policy affects actual community members in different ways. So we felt that this was a way to impact those community members and complimenting cool, accessible analysis with what this means for people on the ground.

Bwog: How did you get started, whether that’s the logistics of planning what to cover or organizing the information? 

Sophia: We wanted to figure out what modes we wanted to present our material with, as we said, we wanted to make this information as accessible as possible to the public. So we thought about ways that we consume media, whether it’s the fact that we both listen to podcasts. We thought about interesting guides that people find visually interesting because they back a lot of content in them, and we thought about newsletters for disseminating the information. So it was really about deciding what are the vehicles to get this out to the public and going from there.

Maria: On what we wanted to cover, our two main areas were immigration policies and what’s going on at the border, and Sophia was really amazing at breaking down big timelines of immigration news and policy breakthroughs. We care about contextualizing immigration because it hasn’t just been crazy under the Trump administration; it has been a seed for xenophobia and labor practices since the beginning of this country. We also contextualize post-9/11 shifts [in immigration policy] which complement the militarization of the border, which that’s where I started running with our idea. I really just wanted to showcase how militarized our border is and how enforcement really terrorizes immigrant communities on both sides of the border.

Bwog: Maria, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re from the border. I’m guessing that has impacted your experience with all of this. Have you been interested in doing any kind of in-person interviews down there when you go home?

Maria: I knew a lot of truths about immigration very casually and passively through my life experiences and experiences with family members. I knew how arbitrary citizenship, I knew how unfair the immigration system is to low-income immigrants, I knew about this line that people had to get into to wait… I knew that because my family members had been waiting for more than 20 years and have gotten caught up in the legal fees. And it wasn’t until college that I materialized that interest [in conjunction] with policy. Growing up on the border has definitely provided me with more information.

Maria: As far as interviews, yeah it was a huge asset that when we started Hyphenated in that Sophia was in D.C. and had the politics down, whereas I was at the border. So yes, I was able to connect with a lot of activist groups based in the city that I’m from. When COVID was really ramping up over the summer [of 2020] and people were concerned about protections for people in detention centers, I was able to connect with a reporter, Maria Mendez, and ask “is there testing? are there masks being provided?” So we were able to get some reporting from someone who’s been in the detention centers and telling us “there’s no social distancing, there are outbreaks,” so that was an asset in that being home was really helpful.

Bwog: Yeah, I have listened to your podcast, and you’ve had some really incredible guests—Reyna Montoya of Aliento, María Méndez of Texas Public Radio, and more—how have you been able to get in touch with these individuals? Are you planning on having more guests on the podcast in the future?

Sophia: We actually have an interview with Michelle Hackman, who is the Wall Street Journal’s immigration reporter, and if you look through our podcast guests, [you’ll see that] we really try to get a variety of perspectives on immigration. So much of the debate about it can be focused on public servants, rather than focus on attorneys working directly with clients or people directly on the ground, like journalists who have been working on this for decades. For us, it’s about focusing on a specific topic and going into depth on it. One example of that was looking at Ava Benach, who’s an incredible attorney who’s worked on asylum cases and with transgender women who have been in detention and going through the process. So we knew we wanted an asylum episode, and finding an expert who could speak on that was great. Or, we look at a specific guest and craft an episode around them. Julio Varela was an absolute example of that—Maria is one of his biggest fans, and I think that really helped. Being excited about your guests and conveying how much you want to speak to them helped us delve into Varela’s personal experience in the immigration space. Once people respond, they’re usually excited to speak to students and get a lot of their information out to a young audience.

Hyphenated America Founders with their website

Bwog: You were both pretty busy on campus. Previously with the Political Review, and Maria I know you’ve done a lot with the SEAS faculty and Sophia with theatre, predominantly The Varsity Show—how did you find the time to create this organization?

Maria: I honestly don’t know, We have really exciting content, whether it’s the podcast or our Instagram Live series—where I spoke to Fresh Off the Boat’s Hudson Yang—it’s definitely taking all my interests [and putting them together]. We also get to see the numbers: the initial feedback from our followers and public… I know exactly what pieces are hitting people and what they want to learn about. We also have a really engaged audience, which helps us craft where our research goes and what [the audience] wants to see. We can reevaluate as we go along.

Bwog: Tell me a little bit about your weekly newsletter, “The Breakdown,” and how it came to fruition.

Maria: I am one of those people that uses email as a form of social media, so I asked Sophia if we could do one because that’s a good way to connect with people. The [content of] our newsletter is really important to me; I didn’t want it to be just the bigger news stories. So we feature news stories of longer reading, and we also feature an activist organization. Initially, I was like “oh my gosh we’re going to run out of activist organizations,” but that has not been the case. What I’ve learned the most is that immigration activism is so versatile. So we feature on the ground organizations, like Justice in Motion that went to Central America and Mexico to find the parents of separated children under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, and I had never heard of them. And then we feature other types of organizations, like Project South that was able to sue for the nonconsensual hysterectomies that happened in the ICE facility in Georgia. I think we’ve shown our readers that immigration is in everything: it’s in the food service industry, in the legal industry, in labor, in education, and there’s so much work to be done.

Sophia: Maria is completely correct. By including these organizations, we give our followers a very specific, small action item for each week in that they can follow an organization and figure out how to get involved. Another important thing is being able to connect with the writers of the articles we feature over Twitter, who will often engage with us as well.

Bwog: As Hyphenated America has grown, I noticed that you’ve brought on more people to help with research and outreach. How did you make that decision to expand to a whole team?

Sophia: I think what Maria and I have the continuous problem is that we’re both people that will just “do things” that have to be done, and that’s not sustainable. So having other people who can contribute [to the process], takes a lot of pressure off of us, and it’s great to have a diverse team of different interests and identities. We’re proud to have not only students from Barnard and Columbia but from around the country with graduates of Sarah Lawrence and Vanderbilt. It’s been great to also have partnerships with other organizations; We have one with RAICES, and that happened through an individual we brought on our team. Bringing on more people has helped us diversify what content we offer. One example of this is a recent guide about immigrant women in the workforce, and that was by one of our researchers who goes to Barnard and wanted to do her own research on how these women are impacted by the labor force.

Bwog: As you both graduated this April, do you see Hyphenated America still maintaining this presence as a source of immigration news once you’re in the workforce full time?

Sophia: Maria’s going to go work and change the world, and I’m going to go hide in law school for a couple of years. *laughs* But what has been really exciting about our expansion from a small group of followers to a weekly reach of over 10,000 is the fact that Hyphenated can take a multitude of changes and different forms. I’m really excited to see what we can do in the future, whether it’s partnering with different organizations, or getting financial sponsorships, I’m just looking forward to expanding what we do and reaching new people. One thing we’ve discussed is creating presentation packs for different schools across the country, so they can have their own Hyphenated America immigration lesson. We’ve been reaching the 18-24 age group, but the lack of immigration education in the United States education system is what creates so much confusion about the topic in the first place.

Maria: We’ve built something that’s malleable and now that we’ve gotten other people involved, it can still form into something great. I will say though that Hyphenated compliments both of our career paths very well, as Sophia goes to law school, and I’m in environmental engineering and there are huge issues with climate refugees right now. As we said, immigration is in every corner of how we live our lives, so I’m excited to see how what we do can affect the most vulnerable communities.

Sophia: Also, check out Maria’s interview on Al Jazeera as she discusses the intersection between climate change and immigration.

Bwog: You have referenced the Biden administration that started in January. Does either of you have a specific goal for what President Biden or other elected officials should do regarding our immigration policy? Is there anything you think can be done immediately, or something more long-term?

Maria: An immediate thing is to pass the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, and that’s not necessarily on the administration, that’s on Congress. There are five million undocumented people that were essential workers holding this country up during the pandemic as agricultural workers, healthcare professionals, teachers, and more. COVID has shown us how vulnerable a lot of populations are, and sometimes the people that are most essential to our economy are most at-risk health-wise, but when it comes to undocumented immigrants they are also at risk of being deported and not compensated for their work. We’ve all been cheering or clapping for essential workers, but one thing we can do is give citizenship to the people that have been holding our country together. The bill is co-sponsored by Alex Padilla and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate and Joaquin Castro and Ted Lieu in the House. Longer-term, we want to keep the outrage that we had during the Trump administration when we realized how inhumane and militarized the system is, and also scale back that militarization and give humane alternatives of community-based solutions.

Sophia: I completely agree with Maria. One specific thing I’d like to see changed is taking unaccompanied children immediately out of ICE control. These [ICE] facilities are not equipped for them, and even moving them into [Department of Health and Human Services] facilities would make sure these children are accessing food, shelter, water, and sufficient education to thrive in these vulnerable moments when they’re away from their families. This may require an increase in funding in the coming months, but it’s worth it and can be done swiftly. Having children in our facilities is something no country should ever be dealing with, so handling them with as much humanity as possible is necessary. In terms of a larger plan, we’re working with a system that’s broken. Immigration has been on the back burner for years. We know people that have been sitting in this system for 15-20 years because the fees are too high, so being able to expand the channels [to legal entry and citizenship] that exist would require an overhaul of the system. This is not only on the Biden administration but also the House and the Senate. We can’t just stop after [passing the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act], we have to keep going.

Bwog: Where should someone look, besides your website, if they want to learn more about the issues surrounding U.S. immigration policy?

Maria: My initial reaction would be to have a good mix of players, first with activist organizations like RAICES and Al Otro Lado which leaves water and items for people crossing the border, legal organizations that are suing ICE like the ACLU’s immigration team, and then journalists at the border who break a lot of stories. Just get good analysis from a mix of sources, not just what Alejandro Mayorkas is saying. 

Sophia: Also getting the perspective of leaders in the public service space who are trying to make a difference, even though they are a dime a dozen they do exist, and I think Alex Padilla truly is altering the way the Senate views immigration. Give him a follow, he’s done some good stuff. Also look at activists on the ground, like Juan Escalante, our first guest on the podcast. He truly is upfront about how policies are impacting him and his family and the larger immigration space.

Maria: Joaquin and Julian Castro are also our favorites—they literally speak out on every issue.

Bwog: What’s one thing you’d share with people who have probably lower political efficacy than you both as Columbia students and don’t have strong feelings on immigration as of right now?

Sophia: If immigration isn’t something you actively care about or think it doesn’t impact your community, take a look around and think again. Undocumented people truly exist in every single industry in the United States; people are helping your life be better… And I get it, if you are from a white town in Middle America and haven’t been exposed to the beauty of the immigrant community and what we have to offer, then I understand why you don’t care. But immigrants are powering this country to move forward in every industry, so taking a moment to say they are contributing to positive aspects of your life, how dare you truly not care about them? And why not care about them?

I grew up in my dad’s bagel shop around every kind of immigrant from every single country in the world, so I got to be exposed to the beauty of different cultures around the world. That’s something that I carry with me when I think about this work when I think about advocating for them and finding ways to give back. These are people that serve you and help you, and they don’t have to serve you and help you.

Maria: Half the U.S. was Mexico before it was the U.S., so Mexicans have the right to be here and our current narrative on nativism is very flawed as Indigenous people and African-Americans have always been here. Just to poke holes through a lot of xenophobic arguments, I’ll just say that.

Through our research and life experience, we’ve learned that citizenship and borders are very arbitrary. Had I been born a mile south, I would have not been a U.S. citizen. Remembering that there is no line or fair system of who gets to be here and who doesn’t, so dispelling the myth that if you work hard, you get to be a U.S. citizen. The system is inherently flawed, and it discriminates against different types of immigrants from different countries. It’s not a meritocratic system—be empathetic, people trying to get into this country are not risking their lives just for fun.

Bwog: Thank you so much for all your time and your honesty, is there anything you would like to add?

Sophia: Check out all of our socials—our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And if anyone wants to get involved in media or graphics, we’re always welcome. They can shoot us a DM or an email. If you have a connection to the immigrant experience, come and work for us! We want to give you a platform to get your work out there!

Maria Castillo and Sophia Houdaigui

Hyphenated Logo via Founders

The Founders via themselves

The Graduates via themselves