It wasn’t that long ago that George W. Bush was a champion for the legalization of undocumented workers and Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) worked together on bipartisan immigration reform. Fast-forward to today’s political landscape and immigration has become a major division between Republicans and Democrats, a central issue in the upcoming presidential election and the topic of a pending Supreme Court case.
But understanding the history of the U.S. immigration system, argues law professor Hiroshi Motomura, allows people to view the current political polarization in context, as well as dispel myths surrounding the subject.
“One big myth is people don’t understand how we got 11 million people who are undocumented,” Motomura says. “The other big myth is people don’t understand how hard it is to come to the country even if the economy has jobs for you.”
From an immigrant family who moved to San Francisco from Japan when he was 3 years old, Motomura is deeply rooted in the American immigration story. He also has a long career practicing and teaching immigration law for more than 30 years, first with his own practice in Washington D.C., then as a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and currently at UCLA. He has authored two books, Americans in Waiting and Immigration Outside the Law, which explain the history, issues and possible solutions surrounding modern immigration in the U.S. from the early 20th century until the present.
“The most important thing is to try and figure out why there are 11 million people in the United States who are undocumented,” Motomura says. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that. A lot of people think they just all of a sudden broke the law and invaded this country.”
On the contrary, Motomura says the economic system in the U.S. relies on a flexible, disposable workforce, while at the same time creating government policies that make it increasingly difficult for immigrants to legally obtain permission to work.
“So the system the United States has is to restrict the legal avenues to come, but, in fact, [it has] a system that tolerates them coming anyway,” Motomura says. “We count on their labor but we don’t want to give them the dignity of making them legal. … I think they’ve come here at the invitation of employers with the acquiescence of the federal government.”
This system creates a gap between immigration law in theory and immigration law in practice, which results in both legal and political controversy. The most current example of which is President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) programs.
DACA, first announced in 2012, already functions around the country, giving immigrant youth permission to be in the U.S. for two years at a time without fear of deportation. When President Obama expanded the program in 2014 to three years and opened it up to 4 million adults with U.S. children through DAPA, both political and legal challenges ensued.
But the deferred action programs are shrouded in myths as well, Motomura says. First of all, the federal programs don’t provide any path to citizenship or legal status and are therefore a temporary fix to a problem that begs for long-term solutions. Secondly, the programs are less of a fight between Congress and the executive office and more about internal policies at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“The real reason for DACA is that the president really tried to get all the rank and file immigration officers to respect central office guidelines about who was a low priority for enforcement and who was high priority,” Motomura says. “I think it’s less of a struggle between Congress and the president and more of a struggle between the president and the DHS central office in Washington D.C., and field agents who were disregarding what they were supposed to be doing.”
In his estimation, the president implemented these programs legally, given the discretion the executive office has regarding immigration policies. However, the state of Texas challenged the executive authority to implement DACA and DAPA in court. District judges sided with Texas so the Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a decision this year.
The arguments on both sides of the case as well as the possible outcomes will be the topic of Motomura’s public lecture in Denver on March 24, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network (RMIAN), of which the professor is a founding board member.
But while DACA and DAPA are at the forefront of the current immigration discussion, in reality these programs are simply the first step — or half of a step — toward meaningful solutions, Motomura says. And, he believes, there are solutions that don’t require mass deportation or closing our borders.
“I think the economic studies are pretty clear, it’s not that immigrants displace American workers,” he says. “Actually, they allow businesses to grow and more Americans to get hired on the whole. But to the extent that people get displaced, I think the solution is not to cut off immigration but to provide them with opportunities through the educational system too.”
But again, any discussion of solutions boils down to dispelling the myths surrounding immigration so the conversations about how to move forward can be had; so the needs of the U.S. economy and the immigration system work together to create lasting solutions.
In his conversations, Motomura says even the people who appear most hard-lined against legalization still know immigrants who are in the country illegally, calling them good people and ideal neighbors. And this bodes well moving forward.
“My pessimistic side sees that there is a lot of polarization,” Motomura says. “But my optimistic side feels like there’s always room for those who oppose legalization to understand that there are some people who deserve it.”
The Future of a Dream Deferred: What’s Next for DACA and the Fight for DAPA by Hiroshi Motomura. 12 p.m. Thursday, March 24, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, 410 17th St., Suite 2200, Denver.