On Tuesday evening, Rep. Adam Smith (9th district) and Mozhdeh Oskouian, directing attorney of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Seattle office, joined two UW professors and a graduate student to discuss current issues of immigration. The forum was organized by J. Paul Blake of the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and revolved around balancing legitimate concerns about immigration with irrational fear and prejudice.
“Because this is an academic institution, we should get to the facts,” moderator Jill Dougherty said in her introduction.
The event could not have been more timely. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump issued memos to the Department of Homeland Security outlining enforcement methods for the administration’s new deportation policies. Oskouian described the influx of cold calls that her office has received in the past month as a panic rising even among immigrants who have legal status in the United States.
Smith also alluded to the instability that the President’s actions bring, and referenced the fact that his district, Washington’s 9th district, is one of the most diverse districts in the country.
“That diversity is what I represent,” Smith said. “Uncertainty is extremely harmful to my constituents.”
Also on the panel was sociology and Evans School professor Charles Hirschman. Hirschman began his career studying race and ethnicity in the United States and transitioned to focusing on immigration as it became a central issue in American consciousness.
Hirschman has served on several national committees that produced studies on the integration of immigrants and their economic impact. Both Hirschman and the other panelists cited key statistics from these studies that showed the huge economic contribution of immigrants.
Sociology graduate student Thiago Marques conducts research on urban sociology and migration, and discussed the increasing diversity in the group of immigrants that are currently in the country, both ethnically and socioeconomically.
In light of a persistent national dialogue that connects violence with both Mexican and Arab immigrants, the panelists were quick to reference data showing immigrants are among the demographics least likely to commit violent acts. Smith expressed frustration that perpetrators of terrorism who are white are condemned less harshly than minorities who commit similar violent acts.
The panelists were also asked to address Trump’s recent threat to defund sanctuary cities, something that many Seattleites are particularly interested in since Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has spoken of his commitment to the immigrant and refugee community in Seattle.
Professor Christine Cimini of the UW School of Law said that refusal to detain immigrants and the provision of services for people regardless of legal status are among the actions associated with the designation of “sanctuary city.” However, since there is no legal definition of a “sanctuary city,” Trump’s policy would be difficult to enforce.
At the conclusion of the panel, audience members had the opportunity to ask the panelists questions.
“So what does a 21st century immigration policy look like?” asked one man, eliciting a round of applause. Although this question was the title of the forum, it had largely gone unanswered during the discussion.
The difficulties of confronting this question are apparent. As Smith said, this is due at least in part to the fact that Trump’s recent executive orders have made it difficult to tell even what current immigration policy looks like.
Oskouian and Cimini expressed similar sentiments. Both highlighted the need for open channels of communication and tangible interactions between people in order to dispel stereotypes and understand differences.
Hirschman also addressed the ingrained fear and distrust of immigrants that Trump’s administration has translated into executive action. He discussed historical periods like the 1920s, when the United States closed its borders to almost all immigrants. Forty years later, laws were liberalized through the civil rights movement, triggering a wave of immigration.
“So the country once again is going to have to decide whether we’re going to continue to do what we have historically done, which is to welcome the dispossessed, or whether we’re going to stop them coming, and you know we’ve done both before,” Hirschman said. “History is made by the people who live it.”
Reach contributing writer Sasha Jenkins at email@example.com.