Exploring borders


Beth Simmons ’79 examines the impact of stricter international border controls on human rights

National border and immigration policies—security, restrictions, a wall—have recently become much-debated topics. For most of her career as a professor at University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania, Beth Simmons ’79 has studied human rights and is currently heading a research team focused on how international borders affect a broad range of human experiences.

“Despite globalization in markets, ideas, and the movement of people, international borders are, in fact, hardening in many places in the world with potential to impact human behavior, well-being, and human rights,” says Simmons, who recently was elected to the American Philosophical Society, an eminent scholarly organization founded by Benjamin Franklin. She is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an award-winning author, and currently the Andrea Mitchell University Professor of Law, Political Science, and Business Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Simmons’ research team uses satellite imagery to document nations’ efforts to reinforce international borders and screen “welcome” and “unwelcome” people at their boundaries. “We also research legal institutions, such as visas or immigration and refugee rules, to understand how states throw up and tear down barriers,” she says. Documenting the “thickness” of international borders could involve a decade of detailed research, but Simmons believes understanding this world-wide trend is important: “International borders influence human rights, wellbeing, and life changes for millions of people around the world.”

As a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Simmons has also drawn from her international law background to serve on a committee advising the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on planetary protection policies. “These policies may prevent bio-contamination of Mars and maybe, someday, the icy moons of Jupiter during space exploration,” she says. Working with astrobiologists, engineers, and space mission specialists has been an interesting new twist to her varied career.

As a University of Redlands student, Simmons majored in political science and philosophy. Redlands Political Science Professor Bob Morlan encouraged Simmons to pursue a Ph.D. rather than defaulting directly to law school. “And that is what I did,” she says. Simmons earned a doctoral degree in government from Harvard University and, for 10 years, served as Harvard’s Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs.

Her early years at Redlands inspired a career in academia: “A smaller liberal arts college helped me see the possibilities for a career in university teaching and research,” she says. “This is probably because I got to know professors are real people with wonderful careers that involve freedom, wonder, and a human touch.”


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