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Policy Forum examines the laws, divisions and future of immigration in America

As rhetoric, rather than research, often seems to frame the debate on immigration, the SIEPR event put facts in the foreground.

As panelists recently gathered at SIEPR to discuss immigration issues, their dialogue — representing the voices of immigrants, advocates, law enforcement, and policy researchers — was steeped in a real-world brew of dramatic twists.

SIEPR Director Mark Duggan speaks with Fei-Fei Li, a Chinese immigrant who leads the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab.
SIEPR Director Mark Duggan speaks with Fei-Fei Li, a Chinese immigrant who leads the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab.

Photo by Steve Castillo

A caravan of asylum-seeking migrants from Central America had just crossed into California, adding fuel to the ongoing debate over border controls. Meanwhile, Texas and six other states had just sued the federal government in an attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — the latest in a series of legal maneuvers that will likely set up a showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ran Abramitzky, an associate professor of economics and SIEPR Senior Fellow, aptly framed the spring Policy Forum’s featured topic in the opening session, saying, “Immigration is increasingly a divisive issue in the United States.”

At the same time, anti-immigrant sentiment in America is nothing new, he explained, as he discussed historical patterns of migration with Jens Hainmueller. Hainmueller is a political science professor and co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab, which co-sponsored the event.

Rhetoric, rather than research, has framed the debate, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, Associate Dean of the School of Public Policy at UC Riverside. No causal links, for instance, have been found between crime and immigration; yet lawmakers are trying to create policy around a problem that doesn’t exist, he said.

Other panelists of the May 4th forum, titled “U.S. Immigration: An Uncertain Future,” provided an array of nuanced perspectives.

An attorney who is one of the DACA recipients suing President Trump spoke of how her dreams “have an expiration date” and how the California Values Act, or “sanctuary law,” provides critical hope.

The director of a refugee service provider detailed the hurdles of the resettlement process and how, amid the global refugee crisis, the number of accepted refugees in the U.S. this year will fall far short of the 45,000-person cap set by the Trump administration.

A leader of a new national initiative to increase naturalizations among eligible, lawful permanent residents discussed the growing complexities to citizenship — how, for instance, the application has doubled in length since 2012 to 20 pages and the process can now take up to two years.

A California sheriff talked about the hard lines her department must follow, giving federal immigration authorities the ability to do interrogations in jails while also trying to reassure her county’s large immigrant population that they have protections as victims of crime.

A success story came from Fei-Fei Li, an immigrant from China who is now director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and a leading advocate for AI. There’s a joke, she said, that every professor in STEM has to have a startup. Her startup was the dry-cleaning business she ran with her immigrant parents when she was 18 and attending Princeton.

In the concluding session, Jeremy Weinstein, a SIEPR Senior Fellow, professor of political science and co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab, raised the question of how research can better inform immigration policy and foster collaborations.

“Getting accurate information is really the threshold between someone taking action and not taking action,” said Shawn Morehead, the director of the Education and Human Justice Program at The New York Community Trust.

“The more that we can find good research to inform good decisions about philanthropic dollars, the less difficult the life for nonprofits, and we’ll get better outcomes for the people we are trying to serve.”

You’ll find opportunities to watch video recordings of the forum’s four sessions below.

U.S. Immigration: Past and Present, featuring Abramitzky and Hainmueller.

One Immigrant’s American Dream, featuring Li in a discussion with Mark Duggan, The Trione Director of SIEPR and The Wayne and Jodi Cooperman Professor of Economics.

At Odds: Federal and California Immigration Policies, featuring Ramakrishnan; Sheriff Margaret Mims of Fresno County; and Dulce Garcia of the Garcia Law Firm. Kate Morrissey, a reporter who covers immigration issues at the San Diego Tribune, moderated.

From Evidence to Action: Building Immigration Policies and Programs, featuring Melissa Rogers, Director of the New Americans Campaign and Director of Programs at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center; Nina Zelic, Director of Refugee Services at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service; and Morehead. Weinstein, who is also the Fisher Family Director of Stanford Global Studies and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, moderated the session.

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