Fight over foreigners: visas & immigration in the Trump era

  • Spring 2017
Justin Steil

Justin Steil, assistant professor of law and urban planning at MIT

May 4, 2017

Justin Steil, assistant professor of law and urban planning at MIT, moderated the CIS Starr Forum: The Fight Over Foreigners: Visas & Immigration in the Trump Era. The talk was held on MIT campus on February 28, 2017. Steil was joined by three panelists: Baher Azmy (Legal director, Center for Constitutional Rights), Laura Rótolo (Attorney and advocate, American Civil Liberties Union), and Jia Lynn Yang (Deputy national security editor, Washington Post). Steil's introduction, followed by an excerpt of his questions to the panelists, is featured here.

CURRENTLY THERE ARE more than 40 million foreign born residents of the United States, or comprising roughly 13% of the US population. That share is just less than the 15% of the US population that was foreign born a century ago, in 1910. When you add in the second generation, roughly one out of every four US residents today was either born abroad or is the child of a parent born abroad.

Of the 40 million foreign-born residents of the US, it is estimated that roughly 11 million are undocumented. Nearly two-thirds of the undocumented have lived in the US for more than a decade and almost half are the parents of children under 18. At least 9 million people are estimated to live in mixed status families, with at least one family member who is undocumented and one who is a citizen.

Like the United States, MIT gains strength from being a global institution. More than 40% of our faculty, 40% of our graduate students, and 10% of our undergraduates have come here from other countries. Faculty, students, post-docs and staff from 134 other nations are part of MIT.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has passed three executive orders and issued two Department of Homeland Security memos directly related to immigration.

On January 25, the White House released the first two immigration related executive orders:

The first, Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements, ordered the construction of a physical wall on the southern border, expanded the number of immigrants arrested who will be held in detention, and ordered the hiring of 5,000 additional border patrol agents, among other things.

The second, Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, expands the categories of removable aliens, orders the hiring of 10,000 more immigration officers, encourages local law enforcement to sign agreements to enforce federal immigration laws, reinstates the Secure Communities program, seeks to punish sanctuary cities, and orders Immigration and Customs Enforcement to publicize information about crimes committed by immigrants.

On January 27, the White House released another executive order, Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, ordering the suspension for 120 days of the US Refugee Admissions Program and the suspension for 90 days of entry into the United States of persons from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya. It also proclaimed that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and suspended those entries indefinitely, and capped the number of refugees admitted through the US Refugee Program at 50,000. Many provisions of this executive order, including the seven country migration ban and the refugee ban have been enjoined by federal courts and are not being enforced.

The Department of Homeland Security also released two memoranda implementing the executive orders.

The first, Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest, instructed immigration agents to prioritize enforcement against a broad number of categories, including those who in the judgment of the officer have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense even without having been charged or convicted and those who in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security. The order gives agents broad discretion, and removes the exceptions that had been in place.

The second, Implementing the President's Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvement Policies, dealt with the wall, expanded expedited removal, and expanded immigrant detention.

That is a quick overview of the recent policies, which seem directed at expanding dramatically the deportation of unauthorized immigrants, reducing migration of Muslim immigrants, reducing immigration to the US overall, and associating immigrants with crime and threats to national security.

This is not the first time that we have seen anti-immigrant sentiments surge in the US. Despite the fact that most US residents are descended from either voluntary or involuntary migrants, all the way back to Benjamin Franklin there has been skepticism about the effects of migration. Franklin, for instance said “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” And in 1924, Congress enacted immigration quotas explicitly designed to return the US to the racial and cultural composition it had in 1890, to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain of our people” and “keep[…] American stock up to the highest standard—that is, the people who were born here” by excluding immigrants from Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This tension between the identity of the US as a nation of immigrants and a gatekeeping nation is not new, but is again in stark relief and we look forward to hearing the insights of our three guests about where these policies are coming from, where they are likely headed, and how lawyers and organizations are responding.

Baher Azmy, Laura Rotolo, Jia Lynn Yang

The Starr Forum event included the following panelists: (l-r) Baher Azmy, Laura Rótolo, and Jia Lynn Yang. Watch video

Our guest speakers are:

Baher Azmy, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He directs CCR’s litigation and advocacy around issues related to the promotion of civil and human rights. At CCR, he has litigated cases related to discriminatory policing practices such as the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy, government surveillance, the rights of Guantanamo detainees, and accountability for victims of torture.

Laura Rótolo, is a lawyer and advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. She focuses on immigrant rights, freedom of information and outreach to the Latino community. She authored the ACLU report Detention and Deportation in the Age of ICE, and was part of the legal team that challenged the government’s actions in one of the largest immigration raids in history in New Bedford.

Jia Lynn Yang, the deputy national security editor at the Washington Post. She worked from Hong Kong on the Edward Snowden story after he was identified as the leaker of NSA documents to The Post and The Guardian and worked as an editor with the Post’s Wonkblog before becoming Deputy National Security editor.

Justin Steil: Could you tell us what one or two policy changes you are most concerned about and what your strategies are for addressing them?

Baher Azmy:  Thanks for having me in this important conversation. For me, the most concerning policy changes are the ban on Muslims and the ramping up of deportations.

 I’d like to focus on why these policies seem so menacing to me, what the underlying motivation is, and why it feels different as compared to immigration and domestic policy in the past 50 years.

I call it the racialization of immigration policy first and then the attempted consolidation of power. The Obama administration undertook a near record number of deportations. And the George W. Bush administration wasn’t far behind. The Obama administration was prioritizing the removal of criminal aliens, which wasn’t always the reality. And then the Bush administration created a narrative around economic scarcity and kind of rule of law. Those certainly have racialized elements to them. But what’s really stark about the Trump policy, with respect to controlling the border and the Muslim ban, is how overtly racialized the narrative has been. For example, the Southern threat requires a wall and the full militarization of the border, because immigrants are depicted as a menace and dangerous. The overwhelming majority of these immigrants are hardworking members of the community. Unfortunately, there’s this deep sort of inculcation of terror, and threat, of migrants. It’s striking not least because there’s no evidence to support any of this. Criminality associated with immigrants is lower than crime committed by residents and citizens, lawful residents and citizens. As a result of that kind of narrative, the means of enforcement is amped up and justified, such as the use of militarized police forces to storm places of employment or homes, to build a border wall, to treat this as a national security threat. In contrast, previous administrations treated this as a more discrete problem.

And similarly, with the Muslim ban, this is cast in terms of terrorism and a unique terrorist threat, again, even lacking any evidence that there’s an incidence of terrorism, domestic terrorism coming from these countries, let alone by lawful permanent residents, like student-visa holders, and those who have deep connections to the United States. It’s further emboldened by the Islamophobic ecosystem that Trump has brought to the White House. The Trump administration has the ears of notorious Islamophobes, like Frank Gaffney and Steve Emerson, whose worldview is one that does not treat Islam as a religion like any others but as an existential, political, ideological threat, that has to be met through military means, and that doesn’t distinguish one Muslim from another. And there’s, of course, all of this rhetoric, about Sharia law and the Muslim Brotherhood, that are depicted as deep existential threats to our Nation’s purity.

Justin Steil: One of the consistent themes in the administration’s representations of its immigration policies has been the representation of immigrants as posing a threat to national security. The social science research is very clear that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native born. Research has also established that white supremacist, right-wing, and Christian fundamentalist terrorism is as or more common in the US than terrorism inspired by Islamic religious fanaticism, but this narrative about the criminality and threat of the foreign born is one that has been brought up again and again through US history. What’s the role of the press in addressing these misrepresentations?

Jian Lynn: My role is to edit stories and I’m always trying to offer context. For example, on every story we have on the seven Muslim-majority nations, we try to have language about how this ban does not address Saudi Arabia, for instance, which actually did send 9/11 hijackers to the US! But it’s hard, in this environment, because Trump is a constant firehose of disinformation, at this point. So again, it comes down to giving people the right context for stories, just understanding the history of this too, which I try to do with my work. For instance, the Kansas attack. I don’t know if any of you have followed this but a legal Indian-born visa holder was shot and killed at a bar by someone with clear racial animosity. It’s an open question regarding how much coverage that act would have received if the assailant were Muslim. News organizations have to be incredibly vigilant about thinking about that. We also need to make sure we’re covering what the Trump administration’s going to do about white supremacist extremist groups. They are considered domestic terrorists. The FBI is technically supposed to be overseeing them as well, making sure that we are keeping tabs on that.

Still, it’s been really gratifying to see people subscribing and supporting the press but it’s obviously very difficult, when the president uses Twitter to speak directly and offer bad information. Everyone’s choosing what facts they want to hear. That’s one thing I do worry about.

Justin Steil: A group that has been on the forefront of the immigrants’ rights struggle and who are scholars and leaders here at MIT and at universities all over the nation are the Dreamers. The president has sent different messages on his approach to these young people. Could you share any insights you have on what may happen with regard to DACA recipients?

Laura Rótolo: DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It was an Executive order issued by the Obama administration after Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It basically allowed people who came here as children and who didn’t have a criminal record, who fit certain categories and requirements to get a temporary reprieve from deportation. It was a three-year status that allowed them to work legally in the country and to not fear deportation. It doesn’t lead to permanent residence. It doesn’t lead to citizenship. It is a temporary status, that has to be renewed every three years. The work permit, I believe, has to be renewed every two years. But it did allow people to go to college and pay in-state tuition, in many places. It allowed people to work. There’s been research that shows the tremendous value that this has had. This is basically just a perfect group of people, that are going to contribute to the United States, who really just want to be here and work hard. The study has shown that it has had a really positive impact.

Trump had said that he was going to end DACA on day one. We were all afraid that was going to happen. Because it was an Executive Order, it could have been undone with the stroke of a pen. But it hasn’t happened. Now he’s saying that it’s not going to happen. I’m unclear what is going to happen and everyone is scared. Lawyers have been saying not to apply after January 20 because you have to give over your own information, your address, your name, your biometrics, everything. If you are underage and live at home, you have to give the information of your parents, as well, who may be undocumented. It’s a real risk. A lot of people stopped applying.

That said, the DREAMers are an incredibly powerful and inspiring group. There’s our local group, the Student Immigrant Movement, which is here in Boston. If you’d like to get involved with them, I really encourage you to do that. They have created self-protection networks and allied protection networks and asked people to sign up. If you’re an undocumented person, they put you into a team with two or three undocumented people, just to be in touch with constantly; if one of you gets detained, others will know, and there’ll be a phone tree. There are other allies who join small networks, that will share their skills. For example, lawyers, journalists, doctors, who can be on call for this group of three people. They are really turning inward, right now, and protecting themselves, in addition to doing the strong advocacy that they’ve been doing all along.