Discussion on the power of fear, historical contextualization and the importance of activism dominated the panel “What is the History, and Possible Futures, of Immigration, Deportation and Refugee Policy?” at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Wednesday.
The discussion panel, part of the “Reaffirming University Values: Campus Dialogue and Discourse” series, brought together Mae Ngai, professor of Asian American studies and history at Columbia, Adam Goodman, assistant professor of history and Latin America and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and María Cristina García, professor of American studies at Cornell. The dialogue was moderated by Robert Self, professor of history, and Monica Martinez, assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies.
Before the event, Self stressed the importance of placing today’s political climate within the history of the United States as a whole.
The panel was “an opportunity for us to come together as a community and contextualize this particular moment,” Self told The Herald. “Immigration and deportation and questions of refugees (are) so vital in a much longer and broader American history.”
During the panel, Ngai discussed the changing justifications for immigration exclusion over the years, which have transitioned from economic explanations to national security reasons. Following this shift, President Donald Trump is now using his authority to “ban anyone (he) wants.”
“He probably is within his authority to say he’s going to ban people from these countries,” Ngai said. Critics of Trump’s executive order on immigration are protesting “in terms of due process (and) religious discrimination, … but they’re not slam-dunk arguments.”
Ngai also stressed the division of opinions over the immigration ban, which is why court battles over the order are extremely relevant.
“I believe the legal challenges in the courts are really important,” Ngai said. “The court is supposed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.”
Goodman spoke next, noting that the conversation surrounding Trump’s orders has mainly been about their constitutionality, seriousness and implementation.
“Many people might be overlooking, however, what the real intention and what the real point is,” Goodman said. “That is creating fear in immigrant communities.”
Regardless of whether the orders are implemented fully, this fear will cause self-deportation, where immigrants leave the United States on their own accord, Goodman said. “The Trump administration’s actions can only be described as an all-out attack on immigrants and immigrant communities,” Goodman said. “It’s a form of psychological warfare.”
Self-deportation is not a new strategy in the United States, as scare tactics and publicity campaigns have been used on immigrants in the past, Goodman said. In recent decades, self-deportation has actually increased, he added.
“Levels of fear are high,” Goodman said. “All people of conscience will need to wake up and step up. … In doing so, we will not only reaffirm our personal convictions (and) University values, but, perhaps, our unfilled aspiration to be a nation that welcomes and embraces immigrants.”
García finished off the lecture by discussing what it means to be a refugee from a historical perspective. Though the definition of and restrictions on refugees have changed over the years, the United States’ current view on refugees has been shaped by the Cold War, García said.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the war on terror has become the new lens through which we interpret who is worthy of admission to the United States as a refugee,” García said. “As Trump’s executive order shows, there is a great fear of accepting refugees from certain parts of the world.”
Though each panelist focused on a different aspect of immigration, deportation and refugees, all stressed the importance of activism, advocacy and protest in this moment in history.
“We are looking at, I think, a very difficult period ahead,” Ngai said in reference to the control that members of the Republican party have in making decisions on immigration. “If we do our work, we can get these people out in 2018.”
The University’s Reaffirming Values series’ next discussion will be on Islamophobia April 17.