Mars Hill University kicked off its new ACLU organization by inviting immigration attorney Lynn Calder from Raleigh to speak to students and the public about US immigration policies.
Around 30 people showed up to listen to Calder’s talk in the university’s Broyhill Chapel at noon on Feb. 24, which was followed with a few questions from the audience.
Calder spoke from over 25 years experience in immigration law, where she has represented clients in all areas of immigration matters, including people seeking to visit or live in the US temporarily, helping clients obtain US citizenship, working with employers seeking to hire non-US residents and also defends clients undergoing removal proceedings.
“I’m really glad to be with you today,” Calder opened. “And I feel very honored at being the kick-off for the new ACLU chapter. That’s exciting.”
Calder praised the ACLU for being an organization that protects everyone equally, whether representing a liberal or conservative cause, whenever rights liberties are threatened. She calls it one of the most objective organizations around.
She began her talk quoting Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Collosus,” found on the Statue of Liberty:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”
Many people hear these words and think that it means we have to take care of these forlorn people coming to our shores, said Calder, and that’s the “old picture” of immigration.
“It never was reality,” Calder says. “It never was the real picture of immigrants. … The immigrants who have built this country are not the hopeless, tempest-tost refuse.
“They are the courageous, looking for better. They suffered across the oceans. They walked across the deserts. They left their home countries, illegally or legally, but they always came for more — for themselves and for their families. They came to be better.”
Calder says that’s exactly what they did. Those people who left their countries to come to the US and do better are the people with “the right genes.” She says this country is made up of those genes.
“We are different than any other country in this world because of the immigrants who came here,” Calder says.
Some, or even most, countries have more restrictive immigration policies than the US, but Calder argues that our country wouldn’t be here if not for immigration and that it is important we keep that in mind when addressing immigration laws and reform.
In her presentation, Calder talked about the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which required employers to document the immigration status of their employees, as the beginning of the “broken” immigration system we see today. IRCA also contained a way for undocumented immigrants to become permanent US residents if they could prove they had not criminal pasts and could support themselves in the US. The idea being that after legalizing these immigrants it would become much less of a problem because employers would be required to document their immigrant workers now. However, congress didn’t fund enforcement for employer sanctions.
“So nobody checked,” Calder says. “Nobody did anything about employer sanctions. …These laws did not keep people from coming because we as a nation did nothing to make that happen.”
In 1996, immigration became even more difficult with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that forced immigrants to return to their home countries to apply for US citizenship through the consulate. Prior to 1996, immigrants could apply for citizenship within the US by paying fees or other workarounds, meaning most people would do that rather than return to their home countries. With fewer people applying for citizenship through other countries, staff was reduced in those consulates, according to Calder.
When the IIRIRA passed it removed the ability for immigrants, who had entered the country illegally, to apply for citizenship within the US and forced them again to return to their home countries, now understaffed, further lengthening the path to citizenship. If an immigrant had lived illegally in the US for more than one year they became subject to a 10-year bar on reentering the country, unless they could prove that their US-citizen spouse or parent would suffer extreme hardship if they didn’t remain in the US.
“The really mean part about that particular provision is, so this waiver is available if your US-citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent is going to suffer hardship, but a US citizen child, or permanent resident child does not count,” Calder says. “They don’t count for hardship.”
Though the funding was not there after IRCA to properly document illegal entry in the US, it is there now, Calder argues, saying that the foundation and infrastructure is there now – with border patrol, the department of homeland security and TSA agents who check passports every time someone enters the US by air – to start looking at ways to give the current undocumented population better steps toward legal residence.
“The numbers of removal went way, way up,” Calder says. “In fact, they’ve been higher under President Obama than they’ve ever been. There’s more money being spent on border security than has ever been spent. So, it’s there. It’s in place. That’s one thing that needs to be recognized.”
Calder notes one bandage that has been applied to immigration problems is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement have changed their enforcement priorities to shift toward people with serious criminal violations and repeated immigration violations. Peopled with children and families, who have no criminal record, are less likely to be targeted by ICE, though they are not totally safe, she says.
Calder says the US needs to pass a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for current undocumented immigrants.
“Besides losing these incredible people who make this country what this country has always been, the US loses potential revenue and an economic boost,” Calder says. “Reform would increase US gross domestic product by 3.3 percent in 2023… But it would also help reduce the federal budget deficit by about $1.2 trillion.”
Calder encouraged the audience to speak to their members of congress, no matter which side of the fence they may be on regarding immigration policies, because congress needs to hear both sides.
She ended with an anecdote about a mug she recently purchased that says on it, “There are things worth fighting for.”
“This is the thing worth fighting for, for me,” she says.