WASHINGTON, D.C. — Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, could not get a word out.
He was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the 16th annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference at Georgetown University Law Center the morning of Oct. 7, but he’d barely said, “Thank you,” before chanting protesters drowned him out for several minutes.
Finally, after the protesters had been shushed for the sixth time, he said: “We’ll give it one more shot. We’ll give it one more try, otherwise I’m going back to work and trying to secure this country.”
“There’s lots to cover today. There are some very serious issues we can discuss today,” McAleenan began.
A chant about the “jailing” of immigrant children resumed. “OK, thank you, have a good day!” he snapped before turning on his heel and walking out of the lecture room.
The panel discussion that followed didn’t draw any similar audience reactions, but it was seemingly impossible for the bitterness of partisan politics and President Donald Trump’s harsh comments about immigrants not to seep in.
“I see some continuities between Trump and the previous administration,” said Julia Preston, a writer for the Marshall Project and a former New York Times reporter. She thought Trump’s rhetoric about a porous Southwestern border and “big beautiful wall” distracted from the reality of more immigration enforcement since the 1990s, particularly since the end of the President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama administrations.
“In terms of interior enforcement,” she added, “Obama deported almost 3 million people. So the history of permanent, punitive family separation is not new with this administration.”
The main problem, Preston concluded, is that “Congress has failed, spectacularly, to take on its responsibilities to address … the increasingly damaging dysfunction in our immigration system.”
Of Trump, Preston said, he’s “trying to change the core narrative that has animated our immigration policy for more than a century.”
“At minimum,” she continued, “we can say he regards immigrants and refugees with suspicion. You could take it further than that, but I think at minimum, we can say that.”
“This,” Preston concluded, “is a kind of unabashed nativism reinforced by the full authority of the White House. I’ve tried to go back in history and tried to remember when we’ve had this particular set of principles governing our immigration policy.”
Use of executive power to “tinker with the immigration system” by creating more deportations had “led to a cascade of unintended consequences and chaos in the system.”
Lomi Kriel, who covers immigration issues for the Houston Chronicle, criticized immigration officials for “releasing families en masse at border cities without coordinating with nonprofits,” which created the impression of an invading horde. Trump’s border wall, she pointed out, “does nothing. Money spent on the wall could be better used on immigration judges and asylum officers.”
“Why did it take them so long to move basic humanitarian assistance?” asked Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action. “I think it started as a manufactured crisis, precisely because we’ve got to go back and look at the zero tolerance policy. This was of the administration’s own doing, and I think that the goal was chaos.”
Consequences “were not unintended,” she added. “I believe that the administration or a camp in the administration felt very strongly that what they wanted to create at the border was a sense of chaos and these large numbers.”
Immigration officials are “constantly crying poverty when they’re talking about baby diapers, but if there’s a need for an extra 400-bed contract, the always find the money. They want to create a political problem … so the laws are changed in their favor.”
“Fixing the immigration system will help pressure on the border, said Casey Higgins, a former aide to Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. But bipartisan conversations are now impossible, she complained. “Both sides have retreated so far into our corners.”
Praeli asked Higgins, “How do you see race as part of your analysis? It is Trump’s mobilizing issue.”
Higgins’s response drew derisive audience laughter: “I don’t think race is a factor. I just don’t. I think for the majority of the party, they don’t look at it through that lens.”
“You can’t have a conversation if you’re saying all Republicans are racists. We need to find the members of both of those parties if we ever expect to move forward. It’s unacceptable for us to say that as long as Donald Trump is president, as long as these things are happening, we cannot have a conversation.”
“President Trump launched his (2016) campaign by calling Mexicans rapists,” Praeli observed. “If that is not racist, if that is not suggesting a particular ideology and way of looking at the world, then. …”
“This president is not a fact-based president, as we know,” said Preston. “And this wall has been such a powerful symbol for him, and he’s going to have plenty of photo opportunities in front of some big black structure down there, that I’m sure he’s going to be using as the centerpiece of his campaign”
Praeli added, “His ability to manipulate the news … is unmatched on the other side.”
Afternoon sessions included discussions on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status for immigrants, and changes that have made arriving in the United States far more difficult for asylum-seekers.
The daylong conference was organized by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., the Georgetown University Law Center and the Migration Policy Institute.
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