By Joanna Im
Six years old at the time, Paula* felt overwhelmed by emotions as she walked off of the plane and stepped foot onto U.S. soil. It was the first time she would live away from war-torn refugee camps in Myanmar, and the first time she would no longer feel the constant sense of fear for her family's safety, she said.
Simultaneously, however, Paula was afraid of the new world that would eventually become her home. Without any grasp of the English language or culture, everything seemed foreign and confusing to her. Shackled with the trauma of escaping genocide at such an early age, Paula said it was even harder to trust American life.
"When I first came [to the U.S.], I was just as scared as when I lived in Myanmar," Paula said. "As a young child, I was not too informed in terms about what is happening in Myanmar or American society. All I knew was that I was always in the face of death from ever since I could remember."
The overall immigration process started with an interview by immigration agents, to whom Paula said she had to explain her reasons for moving to America.
"Mae La Refugee camp was supposed to be a temporary place, but my family had lived there for years," Paula said. "We were like guinea pigs and were not allowed to live in the country as normal citizens."
In contrast to Paula's immigration to the U.S., immigration has become more difficult due to a stricter cap on the process as well as a slower green card process under the current administration. By the end of 2017, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, green card backlogs in the immigration system increased by 37 percent, and in 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration will make additional cuts to the limit on immigration, capping the number at 30,000 by 2019.
Sophia Nuñez ’20, who identifies as liberal, said that she believes the process should be easier for immigrants to move to America and become naturalized.
“Our country was colonized by immigrants,” Nuñez said. “I have always believed that immigration should be open to all who wish to live in America permanently without an unnecessarily difficult process.”
Many other citizens feel the same way. According to a study done by Gallup News conducted in 2016, an all-time high of 75 percent of citizens believed that increased immigration would be beneficial to the U.S. The study also noted that the majority opinion from both political parties reached this consensus, showing that the opinion was objectively bipartisan.
Despite public opinion, the Trump administration's limitation on asylum and crackdown on temporary protected status has resulted in a decrease of over 50,000 immigrations from 2016 to 2017, according to a study conducted by the Migration Policy Institute in 2017.
As one of the first policies after the recent election, the Trump administration enacted a policy commonly known as the ‘Muslim Travel Ban,’ which banned nationals of eight countries, including Somalia, Libya, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Venezuela and North Korea from entering the United States. According to the Migration Policy Institute, this marked the lowest refugee admission rate since the beginning of the resettlement policy, which was enacted in 1980. The same study concluded that the new policies reversed the decline of arrests regarding refugee immigration that was present in the Obama administration.
Despite these recent decreases, immigration law attorney Edward Mangalon said he has still noticed an overall increase of visa applications throughout his career, regardless of specific presidential administrations.
"Since becoming an immigration attorney, I noticed a significant surge of individuals applying for immigration benefits that have caused processing backlogs," Mangalon said. "Applications and petitions for immigration benefits have never slowed down."
Nuñez said that she believes policies restricting immigration are founded upon a false, criminalized notion of refugees.
“I have friends who have had family members deported,” Nuñez said. “Those members who were forced back to Mexico were then brutally murdered or disappeared. There was a reason they were in America. It wasn’t to steal jobs or to do anything illegal, but instead, they wanted to be safe. Being an immigrant is not a crime.”
Max* said that he believes that the decrease in immigration is selectively applied to certain ethnicities.
“The Muslim Travel Ban, even if it was repealed, shows the system’s motive to take in fewer immigrants from certain countries, particularly around the Middle East,” Max said. “As an Asian model minority, I think that I probably had a large advantage in entering the country as quickly going through the visa process and would have had an even larger advantage had I immigrated under the current political climate.”
Like Max, University of California, Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh said that he also had positive experiences when he immigrated to the United States as a political refugee. However, he said he does not think that the difficulties of immigration have worsened within the past few decades.
“I immigrated to America when I was 6 with my parents in 1975, under the U.S. Political Refugee program to escape Soviet Union communism,” Volokh said. “I don’t think that it’s harder [in recent times] to immigrate legally. There are still the same standards one has to meet to qualify as a political refugee.”
Volokh said that he felt fortunate to have immigrated to the U.S. successfully and that the question of policy shifts regarding immigration heavily depends on the specific circumstances.
“We were fortunate enough to have political refugee status,” Volokh said. “We were leaving the Soviet Union and that was very good for us – a lot of people trying to come to the U.S. right now aren’t political refugees. For example, the Trump administration speaks quite sharply about illegal aliens. It’s not quite the case for legal immigrants. I don’t think it is any harder to immigrate legally, with a few exceptions.”
Ginebra Ferrera ’20, who moved to the United States in the sixth grade from Spain, said that her and her family also had a positive experience with immigration.
“I had a very different experience with immigration [than most immigrants]since everything was taken care of by my dad’s company," Ferrera said. "I wasn’t facing any challenges at home or wanted to leave but couldn’t. The immigration was to increase opportunities for my dad. I didn’t have to apply for visas or anything like that. The difficulties were definitely due to having to learn a new language so quickly and adapting to the culture in America.”
In contrast to her relatively easy experience, Ferrera said that she believes the process of immigration has changed due to the current political climate.
“Things definitely would have changed if I had to go through the process of immigration under the current political climate,” Ferrera said. “I understand the Republican point of view that regulation on immigration is good, but on the other hand, it seems like it’s coming from a corrupt place. The Trump administration is very corrupt in terms of who they’re letting in and not. So the intention behind regulation is fine, but it also indicates a lack of respect for human rights.”
In addition to his policies earlier in his term, President Trump declared the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border as a national emergency early Feb. of this year, which led to a wave of media backlash that criticized Trump’s prioritization of the wall.
Jonah* ’19, who identifies as liberal but leans right on immigration issues, said that he believes that Trump’s national emergency will not actually result in the building of a wall.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that Trump made up a national emergency to get the wall and that even he knows there’s no emergency, and it’s just something to rally up his base and make it look like he’s fulfilling campaign promises when he’s actually doing nothing,” Jonah said. “The wall probably won’t get built because of legal issues like jurisdiction, licensing and physical infrastructure problems, so I think people are overreacting to him calling the national emergency. No matter how hard he pushes, he’ll face a lot of local resistance even among red states that don’t want the burden of building or overseeing a giant wall project.”
Jonah also said that he believes that the national emergency may even help Democrats in terms of political capital.
“I think we should see the national emergency as something that’s gonna make him look even weaker on campaign promises when he fails and make a lot of red seats wary of his wielding of executive power, which will be a net good for Democrats over the long run,” Jonah said.
On the other hand, Andrew Gong ’19, who identifies as socially liberal, said that the national emergency specifically is concerning because it shows the strength of presidential powers that may be misused.
“The fact that the government declared illegal immigration to be a literal national emergency really worries me,” Gong said. “Being able to use executive powers that were meant to be deployed only in wartime or in situations of desperation willy-nilly sets a dangerous precedent and gives the president virtually unbridled executive authority. With Trump in office, who has consistently proven himself to be prejudiced and intolerant of difference, it's even more concerning that the executive branch is abusing its powers so readily.”
The national emergency of building the wall may also be barred due to legal issues, Anna Tarkov, Media and Communications Director of Immigrant Justice Now, a social and legal advocacy group for U.S. Immigrants, said.
“What the president is doing sets a dangerous precedent and might be unconstitutional,” Tarkov said. “We believe the wall is a horrible idea – there are already many physical barriers along the border, most drugs come through legal points of entry, et cetera.”
However, Mangalon said that Trump's national emergency was within executive power and that constitutionality is for the Supreme Court to decide.
"The President has an inherent power to declare national emergency. This power is enshrined by the Constitution," Mangalon said. "The question of whether it is legally or factually viable is left to be determined by the court should it be challenged. If it survives a constitutional challenge, a chunk of Federal budget will be used which may affect some other designated projects."
Ultimately, Jonah said that he thinks that polarizing issues such as immigration is counterproductive to finding a solution and that having concrete policy proposals is a better alternative.
“I think that as usual people are way too divided and polarized over immigration, preventing good political solutions,” Jonah said. “I do think we need better border security, like more fencing and patrols because even if immigration is a net good for the economy and the well being of immigrants, illegal immigration both reflects poorly on the US as a nation and has a negative impact on the US in terms of security orfinances.”
Additionally, the media may be presenting a biased side of immigration to sway others’ opinions on the issue, he said.
“The current moralizing that the news does about the struggles of immigrants fleeing their country is both often exaggerated, like when the famous picture of the immigrant family in a storm that was on all the magazines turned out to be completely faked, and is not Trump’s fault. He is enforcing previous laws that Obama didn’t, not creating new laws, so if anything needs to be criticized it’s the current immigration statutes,” Jonah said.
Ferrera, however, said that this exaggerated view on immigration from the media is necessary for social change.
“The media’s portrayal of immigration is not very [accurate] – there are lots of people still entering the country completely legally, and the process has been just as easy, while the media makes it seem that immigration is heavily restricted in current times,” Ferrera said. “But it’s good that the media’s portrayal is a bit exaggerated because it’s needed for social change.”
In order to create this social change and combat current problems in the immigration process, Jonah said that the government should increase budgets allocated towards immigration courts.
“The best solution I can think of is to allocate a lot more money to courts that deal with deportation cases to alleviate current mass deportations and incentive appeals, as well as making it much easier to immigrate legally so that people can come in, get registered in the US legal system, and still be able to avoid turmoil in their home countries,” Jonah said.
*names have been changed