August 05, 2018

Fear today, hope tomorrow? A discussion about immigration

President Trump’s immigration policies have created a climate of fear among Latin Americans in the United States and an imbalance in criminal justice spending.

That was the conclusion of two experts who spoke at immigration programs Aug. 4 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. And yet, one said, the shift in public attention toward immigration is also creating the possibility of broad change.

Oscar Chacon, executive director of Alianzas Americas, a network of Latin American and Caribbean immigrant organizations in the United States, said fear among Hispanics in this country is enormous.

Chacon, who is from El Salvador, said Latin Americans are “being painted to the American public as a threat” by Trump and officials in his administration. As a result, Hispanics in the United States are taking unusual defensive actions, he said.

For example, Chacon said, his parents, who are naturalized U.S. citizens and have been in the United States for 35 years, travel around the country with their passports, even though they shouldn’t have to. When he asked them why, they replied, “You don’t know. Something can happen.”

“In many ways,” Chacon said, “this is war against immigrants, but it is also a war against the very values that make many of us embrace and make us feel proud to be Americans.”

Another expert, Mark Fleming, associate director of litigation with the National Immigrant Justice Center, agreed. More than half of undocumented immigrants in the United States have been in the country for more than 10 years and have deep roots in their communities, yet they live in constant fear, he said.

“Just going about one’s daily life is a risk and threat for immigrants,” he said. That is radically different from the feeling among immigrants just a decade ago, he added. “There has been an erosion in how we treat long-term immigrants,” he said.

Fleming told the story of a recent roundup in Chicago in which immigration authorities in vans trailed Hispanics in their communities, pulled them over in traffic stops and fingerprinted and questioned them.

“You’re now seeing this administration trying to create incredible fear within the community that we are going to be outside your door,” Fleming said.

He also said that federal spending for immigration enforcement is out of control. The total budget for immigration and customs enforcement is now 25 percent more than the combined budgets for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Secret Service. “It’s shocking that we’re throwing that much money at this issue,” Fleming said.

But a third expert said the nation’s immigration problem predates the Trump administration. Mary Meg McCarthy, chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration and executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, said there has been a slow erosion of non-citizen rights in the United States since the 1990s.

“What has happened under this administration is an acceleration of this process – one that has been mean-spirited, brazen, spectacular, but not fundamentally off-trend,” McCarthy said.

Mass deportations began two decades ago, she said, created by a 1996 change to U.S. immigration law. Under President Obama, 2.8 million immigrants were deported. Under George W. Bush, 2 million were deported. “Mass deportability created the stigma of illegality. It brought detention and other punitive practices,” she said.

And yet, Fleming believes there is hope for the future.

“We are seeing a recognition of immigration as an issue in the United States that I have never seen before in the decade-plus I’ve worked on this,” Fleming said. “I’m hopeful that we can make the argument – say, a decade from now – that there needs to be radical change. And not just amnesty, but how do we create systems to recognize that immigrants are going to continue to come to the United States? How do we channel people into lawful mechanisms for coming to the United States?

“The reality is right now, for the vast majority of immigrants, we don’t have a structure, there is no right way, there is no line to stand in to come to the United States… But I’m hopeful in the long run.”

“The Trump Immigration Agenda: Redefining a Nation of Immigrants” was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Immigration.