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Q&A: UCLA law professor evaluates U.S. immigration system

By Jeong Park

July 10, 2014 9:28 p.m.

As tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America have flooded the United States’ border in recent months, officials and activists, including those at UCLA, have called for President Barack Obama to address ongoing problems with the U.S. immigration system.

Last week, Obama asked Congress for funding to help send minors back home more quickly. Obama also said on Tuesday that he is seeking $3.7 billion from Congress to address problems at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Some members of the UCLA community, including those from Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success (IDEAS) at UCLA, participated in a rally at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles Monday to protest the recent push to send minors home faster. On the other side, the number of anti-immigrant protests has grown recently around cities such as Murrieta, where protesters have voiced concerns about diseases immigrants may bring to the community and crimes that protesters say immigrants will commit while in the U.S.

Hiroshi Motomura, a professor at the UCLA School of Law who specializes in immigration law, wrote a book published in July called “Immigration Outside the Law.” Motomura discusses undocumented immigration in the text, from its origin to ways the issues surrounding it can be solved.

Motomura spoke with Daily Bruin assistant news editor Jeong Park last week to talk about the book and Motomura’s thoughts on current political developments involving immigration.

Daily Bruin: Why did you decide to write the book?

Hiroshi Motomura: I wrote a book published in 2006 called “Americans in Waiting: (The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States),” about how immigrants to the United States have become citizens. I realized when I wrote that book that there was very little about undocumented immigrants in it, but I also realized it was a huge topic and would require another book.

The other, related reason is that there is a lot of misunderstanding today about undocumented immigration, so I wanted to clarify things. Part of my goal is to convince people of my point of view, but I also would like even people who disagree with me to have a clear understanding of what their positions are, so that debates can be constructive.

DB: You brought up a concern in your book about the difference between how immigration law is written and how it is enforced. Can you elaborate a little more on that?

HM: There is a big gap between law on the books and law in action because our economy runs in a way that relies on undocumented workers. We do not have a legal admission system for people who do not have college degrees to come to work in the United States. Basically, there’s a mismatch between the economic needs of the country and the immigration system. So what has happened is that over the 20th century the country has developed a system of tolerating millions of people without papers. This has created an opportunity for government officials to decide who should be deported on a very unpredictable basis. By operating in this way, immigration law has become a lawless system.

DB: Obama recently announced executive actions to address the government’s deportation practices. Given that there is a disparity between laws as written and the enforcement of those laws, how much can Obama do?

HM: He is in the position of deciding how to enforce deportation practices according to certain priorities. … We have 11 million people theoretically subject to deportation, but since we know we can’t deport all 11 million people, Obama can say, for example, that we are going to focus on criminals and those with national security risks. As long as he is making that kind of judgment, he is following the law. But he may run into a political limits on what he can do long before he runs into legal limits.

Some have criticized Obama for being soft on immigration, but the reality is that the system Congress created is an inherently unenforceable system, so it has produced a large undocumented population. In this kind of system, it’s unfair to say he is not enforcing the law. He has enforced the system as set up, and in fact he has deported a large number of people.

Another thing is that if you have individual officers within an agency, such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, decide who is eligible for deportation, they may discriminate against some people based on race or ethnicity, or they may apply deportation guidelines inconsistently. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has set prosecutorial guidelines, but those guidelines haven’t been followed by the field. And that’s why he has needed to exercise his authority by way of different types of executive action.

DB: There has been a large protest at Murrieta against Central American immigrants who were bussed to the holding station there. Why do you think that happened, and how do you view the conflict?

HM: Some people are frustrated by what they think is a weak federal enforcement of immigration laws. I really do understand the frustration. Undocumented immigrants help the economy in general, but the problem is that the economic gains from immigrants are not distributed evenly. There are some winners and losers, and undocumented immigration can sometimes have an adverse effect on some groups of American workers. It also must be said that some people and some communities fear newcomers who might upset their traditional way of life. In these two ways, a community can feel that the burden of immigration has been falling on them, and that can lead to frustration.

DB: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

HM: Very few people think about how all of the many issues related to immigration are connected to each other and to larger issues of globalization. I want people to think beyond simple labels like “illegal” and “undocumented” and to understand more deeply what is going on. People don’t necessarily understand why they disagree with each other, but that understanding is the start of a productive national conversation.

Every year, the focus of the immigration debate changes. What we really need to think about is how different incidents are all symptoms of deeper causes. We are going to have a better conversation if we understand the issues better.

Compiled by Jeong Park, Bruin senior staff.

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