The Annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference, co-sponsored by CLINIC, typically focuses on nonpartisan policy discussion with an academic focus. This year it offered an electorally timely twist: not just policy, but politics as well. Here is what stuck with me.
The fate of asylum-seeking families from Central America languishing in detention facilities and the record number of deportations in the last few years has the immigration community on edge. The legal limbo of DACA and DAPA -- the two leading executive action programs established by President Obama– which ended up being blocked in court, contribute to the frustration and uncertainty of immigrants and advocates. Add to the mix the fierce, often partisan, criticism some have directed toward the administration for what they describe as “overreach” of executive power, the atmosphere of fear and suspicions of Syrian refugees that have led scores of governors to boycott their resettlement in the U.S., and the shockingly xenophobic rhetoric of the presidential campaign and you have, in a nutshell, the juiciest topics discussed at the conference.
Thoughtful exchanges between the panelists and the audience managed to produce a sometimes feisty but always civil atmosphere typically absent elsewhere that Democrats and Republicans gather in the same place. The opening speech by Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas set the tone when, while conceding that the statutory framework for immigration was an awful mess, he hinted at our identity as Americans as the foundational approach to grappling with the issue.
“It is the answer to who we are as a country and who we should be,” Mayorkas said.
Mayorkas recognized that the immigration system demands an urgent fix and that the three pillars of its policy -- humanitarian relief, family reunification and economic considerations -- needed a fourth: security. He acknowledged the current emphasis on enforcement could lead to righteous indignation when such an approach doesn’t mirror our national identity.
“Are we detaining the right people and are we proud of the conditions in which we house them?” asked Mayorkas.
It was encouraging for CLINIC staff to hear Mayorkas acknowledge a letter that CLINIC sent to the Department of Homeland Security requesting the president consider Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Such questions echoed through the panel moderated by Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and current director of Immigration Policy at the Migration Policy Institute, which cosponsored the conference. Noting the tone of the presidential campaign has been extremely disrespectful to immigrants and their contributions, Rosalind Gold of the NALEO Educational Fund warned that history could repeat itself. She recalled how anti-immigrant politicians and their policies, such as former Gov. Pete Wilson’s Prop. 187 in California, led to record numbers of naturalizations and voter registrations among immigrants that ultimately contributed to major and permanent power shifts.
America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry, on the other hand, slammed the congressional stalemate -- at odds with public opinion -- over comprehensive immigration reform. He said such change is not some "leftist fantasy” but a centrist, bipartisan win-win for all Americans that wouldn’t even require legislation.
In a keynote address, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., traced the bipartisan genesis of the DREAM Act before the 9/11 attacks until it became the orphan adopted child of the Obama administration in the shape of DACA.
Other sessions touched on the dilemma facing many conservatives. Several suggested that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s statements that swing from outright bigotry to ambiguity, has left Republicans, including some members of Trump’s Latino Advisory Committee -- to withdraw their support for their party’s nominee.
Later panelists Alfonso Aguilar, president of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, Linda Chavez, president of Becoming American Institute, and Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, pushed back at what they called the binary stereotype. This idea paints Democrats as the undisputed champions on immigration and Republicans as the bad guys. They said not only conservative Hispanics, but also many Republicans support immigrants and recognize their contribution to their communities. They denounced the use of immigration policy for electoral gain or for the benefit of unscrupulous employers. They said there is blame on both sides of the political aisle and that the only way forward is through consensus and legislation, not executive action.
Members of the audience, challenged the panelists on the notion of bipartisan camaraderie on immigration, saying Republicans will be called to task for the deep emotional scars left by Trump’s rhetoric that demonizes Latinos.
And a panel on refugee resettlement raised questions for soul searching. More than half of governors oppose resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states and many have sued the federal government over the issue. Yet there is overwhelming support for welcoming refugees at the local level. Countries such as Australia and Canada were held out as providing a private sponsorship model for resettlement.
The annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference is a joint effort of CLINIC, Georgetown University’s Law Center and the Migration Policy Institute. Your contribution helps us to continue organizing this exceptional gathering and to keep all of the programs and services we provide to vulnerable immigrants throughout the country. We welcome any donations you are able to provide.
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Andrés Abella is a development officer and grants administrator with CLINIC.