December 13, 2016

A recent forum at SIPA brought together activists and practitioners to discuss the future of U.S. immigration policy and strategies for organizing around the issue.

Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia who is now the David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice at SIPA, moderated a panel of five speakers. Participating were Albert Fox Cahn, director of strategic litigation for the New York Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations; Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition; Aracelis Lucero MIA ’12, executive director of the Mexican American Students’ Alliance; Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School; and Domenic Powell, advocacy and policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The event, part of the Dean’s Seminar Series on Race and Policy, was co-sponsored by SIPA Students of Color (SSOC) and the SIPA Diversity Task Force.

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Nutter began the discussion by asking panelists what they would like to see implemented or removed from current immigration policy.

Mukherjee called for a removal of the immigration detention bed mandate, a policy that requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to maintain 34,000 detention beds daily. If this quota is not met, she said, the Department of Homeland Security will lose funding.

Mukherjee criticized the fixed quota number because it leads to the holding of a large number of immigrants with no criminal record simply for lack of paperwork.

Choi commented on the need for a reform of the U.S. immigration system as a whole.

“It can take over 20 years for people to be reunited with their families,” he said. “One of the big drivers of immigration without papers is that the avenues for legal immigration are so difficult.”

Mixed-status families (in which only some are citizens or documented immigrants) need to be better considered, said Lucero.

She discussed the policy known as DACA, which defers the deportation of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors.

“DACA may help children but not their parents,” she said, and “restrict[s] young people from reaching their full potential because they still have to worry about their families and their immigration process.”

Lucero emphasized that policies need to aim to improve the quality of life of all family members.

Mukherjee shared some of the advice she has been giving to immigrants since the election. She recommended that immigrants prepare a list of contacts on paper and give copies of important personal paperwork to others in case there is an immigration raid.

But even if new policy decisions are extreme, she said, there will be ways to work through it.

“Many DACA students are eligible for other forms of relief,” said Mukherjee. “We need to keep engaging, applying pressure, and pushing back against these scenarios.”

Nutter said that cities across America should prepare as well, citing possible pressure on local governments to cooperate with immigration policies.

Powell said that 36 bills have already gone through various state legislatures this year with an eye to thwarting sanctuary cities, a term used to describe municipalities that decline to prosecute residents solely for violating immigration law. He added that states with single-party control “may not face much political opposition in trying to do this.”

The conversation turned to potential effects on the U.S. resettlement program and the threat of a possible Muslim registry. Cahn considered a worst-case scenario in which attempts to register American citizens who are Muslims converge with intelligence data that has already been collected on Muslims in the country.

Regarding resettlement, the panel was divided. Choi warned that the new administration could call for a complete de-funding of the Office of Refugee Resettlement with little pushback due to the power of the executive. Powell disagreed, emphasizing that U.S. resettlement encourages other countries to also resettle refugees, something that the Trump administration will want to maintain as a matter of security.

When students in attendance asked what they should do to support immigrants most effectively, panelists recommended they stay “local and vocal” and apply their skills to support small, community-based organizations.

Overall, panelists encouraged all to be prepared in the case that the next administration implements the most hard-line version of its immigration policy proposals. Each of the organizations represented at the forum displayed an unrelenting commitment to protecting and improving the quality of life of American immigrants.

“The task before us looks extremely daunting,” said Powell. “Yet these are the times when our purpose is the most clear.”

— Kasumi Takahashi MPA ’17

Pictured (from left): Michael Nutter, Elora Mukherjee, Albert Fox Cahn, Steven Choi, Aracelis Lucero, Domenic Powell // photo by Barbara Alper

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