“The news is moving so fast. We move week after week, from story to story, from crisis to crisis, from despair to outrage, to not knowing where to turn. Sometimes it’s important to stop and step back, and remember that even if the story at the front of the news has moved forward, the thing that we were talking about one month ago. . . is still very active and still requires our attention,” Lynette Clemetson, director of the Wallace House at the University of Michigan, opened.

On Tuesday evening, Wallace House, an organization focused on encouraging civic engagement through journalism and the free press, hosted a panel of journalists at the Ford School of Public Policy to discuss the crisis at the United States-Mexican border. Though it may not be at the forefront of recent headlines, the problem is still affecting thousands of immigrants daily.

This panel coincided with the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit, a week-long event to reflect on and evaluate the initiatives Michigan has taken to improve its racial composition and climate.  

Social Work student Joanna Jaimes said she came to the event interested in the intersection of social work and politics, having grown up listening to journalist Maria Elena Salinas, who spoke at the event.

“Latino students on campus and our representation is important at events like this,” Jaimes said.

Salinas is the host of her own news-magazine show, “The Real Story with Maria Elena Salinas,” and has received numerous awards recognizing her work in investigative journalism and the awareness she has brought to the implications of the United States’ immigration policies.

Public Policy graduate student Jose Javier Lujano introduced Salinas, praising the fundamental trust she has been able to build with the people she is interviewing.

“(Salinas) knew her audience’s stories as if they were her own,” Lujano said.

Salinas moderated a panel composed of Ann Lin, associate professor in the Ford School of Public Policy, Aaron Nelsen, 2019 Knight-Wallace Fellow, and Ginger Thompson, a senior reporter at ProPublica. The panelists discussed the trajectory of current American policies and the political discourse over what immigration laws actually state versus how they are being enforced.

Lin claimed the current immigration crisis is a result of the disconnect between the actual policies and a consideration of their implications. The 1997 Florez v. Reno settlement set restrictions on how long children can be separated from their families while their parents are undergoing court proceedings, whether that be in the process of applying for asylum, or in the process of being prosecuted for re-entering the United States after originally being deported.

Thompson explained the Obama administration was previously sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for detaining families for too long, violating the Florez settlement. This violation is the reasoning behind the Trump administration separating children from their families; so that the families as a whole are not detained unlawfully.

The Trump administration is also separating children from their families in attempt to deter immigrants from coming to the United States or spending years in the United States while applying for asylum. Nelsen said these immigration policies are harsh and often inhumane by nature, but emphasized that the current hardline policies have done very little to stop the flow of immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, that we saw during the Obama administration.

Nelsen also discussed the shift in how U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials have interacted with the media, and the implications this has on the current political conversation. He claimed under the Obama administration, Border Patrol was very straightforward and clear about their intentions. Now, he claims, they are intentionally vague to hide the fact that they are denying interviews to immigrants trying to enter legally.

Thompson explained she was able to investigate what was really happening inside these camps, through a confidential source that risked their job to garner attention. Thompson obtained a tape of a young girl crying to call her aunt inside of a detention center, which caught the attention of the nation and the White House.

“Those children and their voices drowned out all the political noise and the only thing anybody could hear anymore were those cries. Even people who thought they might support the idea of cracking down at the border, and more security at the border, didn’t think it should look like that,” Thompson said.

The panelists explained their personal experiences with the success of giving a face to the statistics, and of simply portraying humans as humans.  

Lin explained those coming to the U.S. seeking asylum know that once they get here, things won’t necessarily be easy; they will just be easier than the turmoil of their home country.  People are immigrating to escape cultures of crime and violence to gain the ability to work and provide for their families. None of these fears satisfy the requirements to be granted asylum.

The Obama administration was relatively lenient on deporting people that had legitimate reasons to come to the U.S., even if those reasons may not have qualified them legally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has historically delayed deportation for immigrants that have led successful lives in the U.S. for decades, but recently, these same people have been deported immediately upon their arrival to their court dates.

Thompson argued the high deportation rates in the U.S. violate the international laws the U.S. government signed, and the U.S. should be accepting more people, even if we are not comfortable doing so. Lin explained that in 1980, the U.S. accepted more than 200,000 immigrants, taking responsibility for the wars and civil unrest the U.S. contributed to in Southeast Asia. The Trump administration recently stated that they are implementing a ceiling for 30,000 immigrants this year.

Nelson argued U.S. policies are a major contributor to the influx of immigrants trying to come to the U.S.  He explained that Americans are exporting gang culture to Central America and enjoying recreational drug use from the illegal drugs imported from Mexico. These drug cartels are terrorizing citizens, with the money we are handing to them, he argued.

In terms of solutions, Lin proposed the U.S. needs to reinstate previous policies to the forefront of our actions.  She explained that many people are trying to enter the states legally, citing that 90 percent of people asked to come to asylum hearings show up, and suggested that the government simply give them a chance to enter legally.

Clemetson concluded the conversation reiterating the goal of this panel, which wasn’t to identify one clear solution, but rather to simply start the conversation.

“In a conversation like this the goal cannot be to provide answers . . . the goal we decided on is to provide context, to provide true, on the ground experience, to provide different points of view, and to provide connections with the audience,” Clemetson said.

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