A Nation of Immigrants: A Discussion on Immigration Reform

Since President Trump’s administration entered office in 2017, the topic of immigration reform has been a heated point of debate. Experts in the conversation about immigration reform met at the Asia Society Texas Center to discuss the future of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Economy) Act, and immigration reform in the United States. Charles C. Foster, Chairman of Foster LLP, one of the largest global immigration law firms, moderated the event which began by discussing the recently rescinded DACA agreement.

“DACA isn’t just important for 750,000 families, it’s important to millions of Americans who learned that many of their neighbors, church, and friends are recipients of DACA,” said Alberto P. Cardenas, Jr., an attorney from the Vinson & Elkins law firm, who served as council on immigration policy for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison during the 109th and 110th Congressional sessions. “People are never going to forget what happens,” he said. Due to the sensational stories surrounding DACA, American voters will be closely watching which Congressmen vote for or against its replacement. This places pressure on legislators to reach a solution that most Americans would support, which means it is likely Congress will enact legislation that allows DREAMers to stay and work in the US legally.

At the same time, it is to be expected that Republican congressmen will make an effort to include funding for border security, increased interior enforcement of immigration laws, and merit based immigration policy in exchange for any legislation that would allow the beneficiaries of DACA to have legal permanence. According to Cardenas, “Republicans will try to include immigration enforcement funding and elements of the RAISE Act that lower rates of legal immigration into the legislation that replaces DACA.” The problem with the RAISE Act is that it not only attempts to cut rates of legal immigration in half, it employs a merit-based system that prioritizes younger immigrants and those with the highest paying job offers. This type of points based immigration system does not suit the needs of our diverse economy, especially in providing efficient laborers to its competitively disadvantaged sectors.

“We need the skilled farmer as much as we need the skilled engineer. We should eliminate the conversation of high-skilled versus low-skilled labor. In both cases we have people wanting to come work hard and support our economy,” said Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, whose new book There Goes the Neighborhood explores how people across the heartland of America learn to welcome and value immigrants. He also proposed that “the best way to reduce illegal immigration is to have a legal immigration system that meets the labor needs of our diverse economy,” so adopting elements of the RAISE act that reduce the already insufficient rate of legal immigration seems counterintuitive to an effort to reduce illegal immigration. Foster pointed out that the silver lining is the legislative replacement for DACA should be an easy vote, even if it has to be paired with something that’s not too much to ask for like funding for border security.

“The immigration system is not serving the needs of our workforce, economy, security, and families, and the biggest issue about immigration reform is the fear concept of what our neighborhoods might look like and what change might bring,” Noorani explained. As a result, politicians catering to constituents that have fears about the impacts of immigration is playing a major part in the efforts resisting immigration reform. “The policy is there, and politicians could probably agree on some type of reform if no one knew what they voted for,” Noorani said. “People don’t understand the immigration system, we need to reorient ourselves on the way we engage the American public. It’s about the idea of America and how that idea changes as we move forward.”

Foster added that in many cases on legislation like that which would replace DACA, “Republicans agree but they can’t vote that way because they’ll have someone running to their right opposing them and they’ll win.”

Noorani believes that the best way to reshape fears about immigration is to use the influence of local community leaders as a platform to appeal to people more personally through the three B’s: Bibles, Badges and Businesses. “Since 2010 we’ve proposed that if you hold a bible, wear a badge, or run a business, you want immigration reform. We identify the pastor, the business man, and the police chief that have a voice to the public. Ultimately, it’s not about the political debate in D.C., it’s about the cultural debate in neighborhoods,” Noorani said. If we can have constructive conversations to show the American people that increased legal immigration will lead to economic and cultural benefits for everyone, then gainful immigration reform will follow.

Another common misconception among Americans is that all of the illegal immigrants coming in to America at points of entry are criminals fleeing border patrol agents and immigration control enforcement. It’s important to realize that “a large number of those coming over the border are not fleeing; they’re surrendering themselves to border agents saying here I am,” Foster said. Anne Chandler who is the Executive Director at the Tahirih Justice Center’s Houston office, shed some light on needs of many women and children showing up at the border seeking asylum.

“We think of the border enforcement as criminals fleeing, but there are women and children fleeing violence and persecution asking to come over,” Chandler said. “We firmly believe those fleeing violence need to have access to justice and our asylum laws. We need to make sure children that show up at the border have access to an attorney to help state their case when they appear before the immigration judge,” Chandler said. “The way our system is set up, it’s on the burden of the child to state their case, but we need to make sure they have access to a fair evaluation of their individual situations.” In many cases, women and children who have been recent victims of sexual assault in their trip across the border are expected to recount the horrific experiences that “qualify” them for asylum to a judge. If they don’t say the right thing, or the judge doesn’t believe them, they are sent right back into the harsh conditions from which they just risked life and limb to flee. “We’ve been gutting immigration enforcement in the field of judges and aid for immigrants and beefing up security,” Chandler said.

The meeting wrapped up with Noorani stressing the importance of improving legal processes of immigration while maintaining law and order. When confronting the controversial topic of immigration, “We have two poles: sovereign secure borders and open and inclusive. We have to make sure we are a nation of law and order and have pathways for people to come,” Noorani said. “Immigration is not going to go away, and we have to put an academic focus and human face on it,” Cardenas concluded.

 

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