Walls and Golden Doors

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“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” – Emma Lazarus

Despite being a nation of immigrants, most Americans are taught very little about the history of U.S. immigration, even at the law school level. In my immigration law course, students are always surprised to learn about the racist history of our immigration laws. For example, The Chinese Exclusion Act, established May 6, 1882, was the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. Additionally, many students are unaware that during the Depression, an estimated one million persons of Mexican decent were repatriated to Mexico without due process of law and that an estimated 60 percent of those repatriated are thought to have been U.S. citizens. During various times in our history, immigrants have been brought in to do work when our country needed labor and then expelled and blamed during periods of economic insecurity.

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My immigration clinical students and I recently visited a Geo Group prison where we interviewed detained immigrants. Every prisoner we interviewed was working in the prison, however, no one we interviewed was lawfully authorized to work in the United States. The irony was not lost on my students. This is just one of the many complexities of our dysfunctional immigration system. No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, most agree that our immigration laws are broken.

Today’s concerns about the impact of immigration on the economy and our nation’s cultural integrity and security is not a new development. Central to that debate is the wall that is integral to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s immigration plan. Trump’s plan for immigration reform starts with the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico, paid for by Mexico. Trump has said his wall will cost between $8 billion and $12 billion. Trump argues that he will bring Mexico to the negotiating table on payment for the wall with the threat of restricting access to remittances. Only immigrants who can prove their lawful presence in the United States will be able to send money home. Mexico receives an estimated $24 billion in remittances from the United States each year.

A major flaw in this approach is that many of those sending money to Mexico are in lawful status in the United States and those who are not would find their way around such a restriction.

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It is important to note that a portion of the border wall has already been built. President Bush signed The Secure Fence Act, Pub.L. 109–367, into law in 2006. The goal of The Secure Fence Act was to secure America’s borders to decrease illegal entry, drug trafficking and security threats by building 700 miles of physical barriers along the Mexico-United States border. Critics of The Secure Fence Act say it did not go far enough and was underfunded. In 2009, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that it had approximately 652 miles of barriers in place. Trump’s border wall proposal would increase that to 1,970 miles with openings for 46 official crossings.

Trump supposes that a wall would curtail unlawful immigration to the United States and cross-border trafficking of illegal drugs that originate in Mexico, especially methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl. It is estimated that much of the drug traffic to the United States through Mexico occurs in trucks passing through lawful points of entry. The North American Free Trade Agreement’s expedited shipping procedures are viewed to be part of the problem. Additionally, the cartels are now using extensive tunnel passages across an international border into the United States. Unless the fence was to go deep underground, it seems that dedicated smugglers will find a way around, or under, the wall.

One of the major flaws of the wall is that it fails to address the push and pull factors of unlawful migration and drug smuggling. Americans are still facing an epidemic of addiction, which drives the demand for these drugs. In 2014, thousands of immigrant children and women began coming to the United States from Central America and Mexico seeking protection from gender and gang-based violence. We represent many of these women and children in our clinic at Coastal Law and all of them say the same thing: they are willing to risk everything to come here for a safer life. The same huddled masses seeking to pass the golden door. Ericka Curran

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