Immigration Law Panel

October, 2017

“Does a nation have the right to control who comes in and who goes out?” Maria Echaveste asked around 50 attendees at a forum on immigration law held Tuesday night at the University of California, Berkeley. “Under the UN [United Nations] charter, you have the right to move as a human being, but that does not mean you have the same rights when you go into one country from another country.”

A co-ed pre-law fraternity, Kappa Alpha Pi, hosted the panel discussion on immigration law in the United States. Hoping to reach people who are targeted by recent policy changes as well as  prospective immigration lawyers, the organizers invited three panelists working in public policy, law practices, and legal aid.

Echaveste, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Law School and served as adviser to former President Bill Clinton, gave an overview of U.S. immigration law. As she explained, the current immigration system is largely the result of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which replaced a quota system based on national origin established by the Immigration Act of 1924. The 1965 law makes it easier for family members of U.S. citizens to immigrate and limits avenues for people who come into the country seeking work. By the early 1980s, there were three to four million undocumented immigrants in the country. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act gave them legal status but also penalized employers for hiring unauthorized immigrants, which created a market for fraudulent documents. “It really is a push and pull: Who gets to be an American and who do we exclude,” Echaveste said. “We may be a nation of immigrants, but there has never been a group that has been welcomed with open arms in this country.”

Kathy Brady, an immigration rights attorney at the Immigration Legal Resource Center, said she approaches immigration law by drawing a distinction between the law and reality. “We bring in a bunch of workers, and when depression hits, push them out,” she said. “This is how reality works and we use laws to get what we want.” Having spent three decades working on immigration issues, Brady said of her day-to-day work, “Sometimes I love doing immigration law. Sometimes I feel like I’m rearranging the deck chairs on the civil-rights Titanic.”

For Mélody Saint-Saëns, a regional immigration coordinator at Bay Area Legal Aid, working with undocumented immigrants who are also survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault is like solving a puzzle. “How can I get this person access in the immigration system in a way that doesn’t jeopardize them further and brings them some sort of stability? Everything is connected,” she said.

California recently became a “sanctuary state” by limiting state and local collaboration with federal agencies in enforcing immigration policies, but the fight between the state and the federal government over immigration enforcement started more than a decade ago. As Echaveste explained, after 9/11, the Bush administration asserted that state and local law enforcement have “inherent legal authority” to enforce immigration policies. Congress subsequently authorized Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) program, which allows the agency to partner with state and local law enforcement agencies.

The Obama administration prioritized deporting people with criminal records. The Trump administration has undone this policy, making all undocumented immigrants deportable. Brady said the federal government was inflicting fear on people nationally. “This is a mental health crisis. In Alameda county, a lot of mental health workers described it as an epidemic. Not only the undocumented people, but the relatives and the public school teachers who felt they were going to lose these children.”

The panelists described efforts to protect undocumented immigrants on the state level. “Now some of the people who are at the top of the legislature are children of immigrants,” said Brady. “In the last 40 years, we’ve probably passed 20 state bills to help immigrants.” California, Nevada, and Washington have changed their laws to prevent people who have committed a misdemeanor from being deported and losing their green cards. “When the federal government is either hostile or paralyzed, or both,” Brady said, “all these state governments are like, We don’t want to screw up our state by fracturing enormous communities.”

If a country gets to determine who gets to immigrate and under what terms, Echaveste said, “it’s got to balance the needs of its citizens with what its values are.” Human spirit is what motivates people to move, she said. “No matter what law, no matter what wall, there will be people who will risk everything for a chance either to flee violence and death, or because they want a future for themselves and their kids.”