ISS Conference Confronts U.S. Immigration Policy

By Ben Hinshaw – On January 27, 2017, as President Trump signed his executive order to halt immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, ISS hosted a conference entitled "Documenting the Immigrant: U.S. Immigration Policy Past, Present, and Future." Welcoming speakers and panelists from an array of disciplines and fields, the event represented a timely opportunity to tackle a critical and controversial issue.

In her opening remarks, Interim Dean of the Division of Social Sciences Li Zhang said that “by bringing together a variety of voices, we can hope to achieve a more integrated analysis of the matter of immigration, at a time of great change and uncertainty.” She also introduced Roy, an undocumented graduate student at UC Davis, who spoke movingly of his own experiences and fears. “Despite our lack of citizenship, we’re Americans too,” he said.

The first panel of the day was entitled “Borderlines: Life, Death and Being Latina/o.” Robert Irwin of UC Davis suggested that the sheer intensity of the immigration debate means that liberals and conservatives alike tend to shy away from examples that don’t fit their preferred narrative. One
such uncomfortable fact for those in favor or stricter immigration policy was presented by the University of Iowa’s Rene Rocha, who said that proposed legislation to jail deportees caught returning to the U.S. would more than double the federal prison population. 

UC Davis graduate student Maria Del Carmen Pantoja presented research suggesting that most people grossly underestimate the number of deaths (7000 since 1998) that occur on U.S. soil among migrants attempting to cross the border on foot. Professor Brad Jones said that number
is even higher on the Mexican side, with estimates putting it somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000. While organizations like Humane Borders offer help in the form of water stations installed in the desert, such efforts are often undermined by vigilante anti-immigrant groups.

Detention and deportation

In the second panel, “Detained, Deported, and Threatened,” Margaret Regan and Anna Sampaio both read from their respective recent books. Showing photographs from Arizona detention centers, which she described as “places of sorrow and depression,” Regan said that the influence of the powerful private prison industry on immigration policy cannot be overstated. (Later, Barbara Pinto of the Centro Legal de la Raza argued that the proliferation of detention centers “goes against our country’s core values.”) Sampaio meanwhile illustrated the ways in which Latina/o migrants are positioned as terrorists while simultaneously being terrorized themselves.

To discuss “DACA, DAPA, and Deportation Threat,” a panel of attorneys, analysts, and legal experts convened, moderated by Melissa Michelson of Menlo College. Despite the uncertainty currently shrouding the fate of those protected by DACA and DAPA, the group was encouraged by the recent outpouring of support for non-profit organizations working with migrants, and by the resistance voiced by the mayors of so-called Sanctuary Cities. “Legally, we’re on solid footing,” said Melissa Keaney of the National Immigration Law Center, “but I’m not sure how much that really matters to this administration.” Regarding President Trump’s executive orders so far, she conceded, “Our heads are spinning and our hearts are breaking.”

A significant proportion of DACA and DAPA applicants reside here in California, and the UC system has led by example, welcoming undocumented students. According to Andrea Gaytan, director of the AB 540/Undocumented Student Center at UC Davis, this particular campus has seen a marked increase in such students in recent years, from 73 in 2012-13 to more than 500 today.

Imagining new possibilities

The last and largest panel of the day was “15 Years Later: Immigration Policy Post 9/11 and What’s Ahead in the Trump Administration.” Kevin Johnson of the UC Davis School of Law declared that “it is more important than ever to be involved politically as this process unfolds,” while economist Giovanni Peri laid out some salient facts that should be influencing U.S. immigration policy today.

Firstly, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. hasn’t increased since 2006. Secondly, the immigrant groups enjoying the fastest growth are international students and highly-skilled workers. Thirdly, deporting undocumented workers does not create more jobs for U.S. citizens. Fourthly, granting undocumented immigrants legitimate status is—contrary to popular belief—good for the economy as a whole.

In light of these statements, Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, stressed that “Now, more than ever, academic social scientists must be good communicators of their findings.”

Stephen A. Nuño of Northern Arizona University echoed that sentiment. Academics must become advocates for social change, he said, by going beyond empirical realities in order to imagine new possibilities.

Catch up on the Twitter conversation: #DTIcon.

Read an article about the conference in the Davis Enterprise.

This event was sponsored by ISS, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Political Science, the Migration Research Cluster, and the School of Law.


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