Students filled a crowded lecture hall on the evening before Election Day 2016 to attend the Geneseo Campus Activities Board event, “Immigration Law & Policy Post Election & Trumpism, viewed in the historical context.” During this presentation, Karen Yau—former workers’ rights lawyer and current immigration advocate—discussed the history and modern-day implications of immigration law in America.
Serving as the director of outreach and capacity building at the New York Immigration Coalition, Yau addressed her topics of nativism and xenophobia with two main theses: that the American immigration system has always had a foundation based on racial and class assumptions and that this broken system has deep rooted, fundamental flaws.
Before allowing the audience to ask questions, Yau delivered a presentation outlining an abridged history of the United States immigration law and policy. This provided a snapshot of today’s immigrant population—nationally and statewide—and touched on the possible effects that both major party presidential candidates could have on the system.
Beginning her presentation with a photo of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, Yau implored the audience to consider the flaws of even America’s earliest vehicle for immigration; on the docks of Ellis Island, inspections for health and public charges only applied to third class passengers.
“It was—and still is—a symbol of liberty and freedom around the world,” Yau said of the photo capturing the Statue of Liberty, which is an icon of independence synonymous with the American Dream for many immigrants.
Condensing hundreds of years of complex policy and reform surrounding immigration, Yau provided an overview that spanned from the 1790 Nationality Act to President Obama’s proposed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and for Parents of Americans.
To shift our focus from historical information to the present-day implications of such policies, Yao presented a photo of a sculpture titled “The Immigrants,” which was featured in New York’s Battery Park. The inscription at the statue’s base reads, “Dedicated to the people of all nations/who entered America through Castle Garden/In memory of Samuel Rudin/1896-1975/whose parents arrived in America in 1883.”
Explaining the demographics of modern-day immigrant populations, Yau zeroed in on New York State. Twenty-two percent of all people have immigrated here, most commonly from China, Jamaica and Mexico. Of the New York State immigrant population, 20 percent have arrived without documentation, most popularly from Mexico, Ecuador and China, but 15 percent of the undocumented population speaks English as their primary language. This figure indicates that they grew up in the country as Americans.
Supporting her second thesis that our broken immigration system presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles for prospective immigrants, Yau detailed three key grievances: the difficulty or near impossibility of obtaining legal immigration status, the issue that non-naturalized immigrants do not have a guarantee to legal representation and the problem with the long period that immigrants must wait to legally reunite with their families.
Within the framework of this year’s election, Yau defines “Trumpism” as the product of nativism and political expediency, but Yau also points to the earlier Brexit decision as evidence for demonstrations of nativism throughout the modern Western world. This reiterates that the problem is neither new nor isolated to America.
Describing how students could assist in the fight for immigration advocacy, Yau made several suggestions: vote, encourage lawful and eligible permanent residents to apply for citizenship, volunteer at voter registration drives and engage in the civic and political process as an educated electorate.
In her concluding remark, Yau gave her audience some food for thought, mentioning her own children to portray a very realistic notion. “What does it mean to nine or 11-year-olds, who watch television every night, and see the current political conversations?” Yau asked.