As of Sept. 25, 2022, over 25,000 immigrants were being detained in the United States by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and 66.3% of those detained had no criminal record, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC database. Despite these high numbers, U.S. immigration law is an unpopular topic among national news outlets and within pop culture at large.
Annie Bright, a master’s student studying international law and humanitarian action at The Fletcher School as well as a licensed immigration attorney, noted that immigration policy has never truly been given enough media attention during the Trump administration or the Biden administration.
“Even during the Trump administration, actual immigration policy was not really in the news either, more just fear-mongering around immigrants themselves,” Bright said.
Bright shared her view that the Trump Administration and its supporters have exploited immigrants in the national media.
“During the Trump administration, immigrants were used as scapegoats for a lot of stress, like economic stress and cultural, social stress, and that’s obviously more of a tactic of the right right now than the left,” Bright said.
Bright explained that the current injustices within the U.S. immigration system have also led Democrats to avoid garnering media attention surrounding immigration law.
“Especially if the Democratic Party is trying to hold themselves out as a human rights party, I think it’s difficult to talk about the U.S. immigration policies and advocate for human rights at the same time, so it’s not really in their political interest,” Bright said.
Despite the lack of attention given to immigration policy in both the media and national government, there are currently small changes happening to address immigration-related issues, according to Kim Wilson, senior lecturer at The Fletcher School and director of The Journeys Project, a program focused on collecting the narratives of migrants.
“I don’t think we have a political climate right now that’s conducive to changing policy and law that is going to be more suitable for the kinds of people that want to come and be in this country,” Wilson said. “But you can see little shifts happening that they’re saying has nothing to do with immigration, but it kind of does.”
Wilson deems Referendum Question 4, which will appear on Massachusetts ballots this Election Day, as one of these “little shifts” toward governmental attention being focused on immigration issues. Question 4 asks if Massachusetts residents approve of a law passed this past May, which allows any Massachusetts resident to solicit a driver’s license without needing to show immigration status or proof of citizenship.
Wilson elaborated on the context and significance of the referendum.
“I think it’s a really positive step, because there’s all that untapped energy that people have, and if they can’t drive, then they can’t participate,” Wilson said. “But the government of Massachusetts would not say this is an immigration law. They would say, ‘No, it’s a driver’s license law. It has nothing to do with immigration,’ but actually, it does, so you can see things changing around the edges.”
With this context in mind, Bright explained that even as local measures and policy changes can be significant, they are insufficient solutions to the overarching downfalls of the U.S. immigration system as a whole.
In this regard, Bright highlighted that only a complete revamp of the immigration system can succeed in providing immigrants with the legal rights that they deserve.
“It’s a pretty broken system, so I think until somebody is willing to have a pretty important and holistic overhaul of the system, it’s difficult for any party to tweak the way they’re dealing with the existing system to make it more productive,” Bright said.
From Bright’s perspective, the failure of the United States to address its broken immigration system is a form of self-denial that continues to weaken the nation as a whole.
“You see the worst sides of people when they’re trying to be something [that] they aren’t, … and I think that in the United States, that is what we’re doing with immigration,” Bright said. “We are a nation of immigrants, uniquely so, more than any country in the entire world, and that’s such a huge opportunity. That’s what makes us such a dynamic, resilient country, and we’re just in this phase where we’re trying to pretend that’s not who we are, and it is showing the ugliest side of who we can be.”
Bright added that universities can contribute to reasserting the importance of the United States’ identity as a nation of immigrants.
“The role of universities is to continue to emphasize that this is who we are and emphasize the resiliency and the potential in that because I think, for example, that has the impact to change the discourse around migrants working in the United States,” Bright said.
Echoing Bright’s sentiment, Wilson emphasized that universities such as Tufts can address immigration challenges most effectively through research and education.
“I think our best role is really research and spreading the word and [to that end,] supporting students who are activists,” Wilson said. “We have tried to take action and actually do stuff, and universities aren’t equipped to do that because getting stuff done … requires a full-time sustained commitment. You can’t do that while you’re teaching and doing this and that — those don’t really go together,” Wilson said.
The Journeys Project, an initiative Wilson started through The Fletcher School in 2016, demonstrates the role academic institutions can play in humanizing the narratives of migrants. Wilson and her research team, which formerly included Bright as project manager, have interviewed hundreds of migrants from around the world, inviting them to share their journeys through a financial lens.
While these accounts are later used to make immigration policy recommendations, the program is centered around storytelling at its core, according to Wilson.
“We have the financial lens mainly because that differentiates us. But also, there’s a second reason, which we learned that people don’t mind talking about money. … When you’re taking these epic journeys, money is almost the most neutral thing you can talk about,” Wilson said. “Now, our research has shifted, mostly to help people manage their financial lives when they’re in limbo.”
Wilson added that The Journeys Project provides a meaningful platform for its participants to share their stories, which she said are a point of pride for many of the folks interviewed, as well as access to the internet and information.
“They often are super proud of their accomplishments, and they want … somebody to bear witness,” Wilson said. “The other thing — which is unique to migration — is, if they’re really still on their journey, they’re looking for information.”
During a Journeys Project trip to Costa Rica, Wilson noted that her team informed migrants about what to expect and how to legally declare asylum at the U.S. border. The team also brings a free Wi-Fi hotspot with them for anyone to use in the communities they visit.
Along with conducting humanizing research through programs such as The Journeys Project at Tufts, some universities also help allay immigration-related issues by providing free legal services to immigrants. Immigration attorney Hemanth Gundavaram serves as director of Northeastern University School of Law’s Immigrant Justice Clinic where law students represent immigrants — mainly those seeking asylum or refugee status — at no cost.
“These law schools are providing clinics, which is a way to train the next generation of immigration lawyers to help both on the representation end, like direct representation, but also teaching people the skills so they can go out in the world and also make policy changes to the current situation,” Gundavaram said. “Universities are training and teaching students who are interested in doing this work how to do that work, to give them the tools to be able to help.”
Gundavaram highlighted the increased interest of young people in immigration issues as essential to the future of reform.
“Even though maybe you don’t see immigration as much in the news these days, I do think something started with the Trump administration where younger people became interested in that, … so I think there’s some long-lasting interest in immigrants’ rights,” Gundavaram said.
Bright also touched on the nuanced nature of individual advocacy for immigration-related issues, highlighting the importance of humanizing immigrants and their stories.
“If you’re interested in migration, getting into talking to people and researching and asking questions [is an action you can take],” Bright said. “If you’re not interested in migration policy, understanding that migrants are humans and protecting and advocating for human rights and voting is probably the way to go. It’s hard because it’s a huge issue.”