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Legal historian and immigration law scholar speaks as part of UTEP’s Centennial Lecture series

by Alberto Tomas Halpern // February 5, 2014 // Education

Legal historian and immigration law scholar speaks as part of UTEP’s Centennial Lecture series

Allison Brownell Tirres delivered a lecture at UTEP on Monday detailing historical legal reforms to immigration policy. (Alberto Tomas Halpern/Newspaper Tree)

On Monday, Allison Brownell Tirres, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and an expert on immigration law, spoke at as part of UTEP’s Centennial Lectures series, saying legal reforms to immigration policy have created an environment that has increased deportations, while leaving migrants with limited legal rights.

Tirres said that changes to immigration law in 1996 “radically changed the procedures for deportation,” while expanding the categories of people who could be deported. She added that the punitive environment has resulted in an increase in human rights violations.

Tirres also said that comprehensive immigration reform must be based on a clear understanding of the legal history underlying today’s immigration policies.

Immigration law in the U.S. has undergone dramatic shifts in the past 100 years. From 1925 to 1975, the US deported about 16,000 per year on average. In 2012, the US removed more than 400,000 immigrants from the country and detained a record 478,000.

“What we realize is that in recent years, we have close to quadrupled the number of deportations,” Tirres said, adding that the reasons are complex and involve economic, political and demographic shifts.

What is clear, she said, is that the legal reforms passed in the mid-1990s emphasized enforcement, which has led to the rise in cases of abuse of immigrants.

“The emphasis on enforcement at all costs encourages such abuses. And speaking of costs, this regime is costly. We spent close to $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012 alone,” Tirres said.

Tirres further explained that federal courts have little authority over immigration matters. She said a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 19th Century gave Congress and the executive branch of government almost absolute power over regulating immigration.

“The court held that Congress could decide to bar any migrants or all migrants based on whatever criteria they chose, even something like race,” she said.

In addition, immigration laws are one of the few areas of law where statutes of limitation do not exist.

But there is a silver lining, she added. While historically, immigration laws have focused on enforcement and punitive action, there is also precedent for humane and pragmatic policy.

Tirres notes that in the 1930s and 1940s, Congress allowed for the legalization of tens of thousands of Canadian and European citizens who were contributing greatly to the U.S. economy.

“Legalization has historically had an important role to play in providing a way to allow the law to align with reality,” Tirres said.

Referring to the current debate over immigration reform, Tirres added, “We can choose a different path, one that would align our immigration law with our commitments to democracy and equality.”

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