In a timely celebration of Constitution Day, Anna Law spoke to the Hamilton College community about immigration and refugee policy under the Trump administration. The lecture, titled "A Nation of Immigrants No More?: Trump, Immigration and the Constitution," touched on a number of current issues. Law holds the Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Rights at CUNY Brooklyn, so she tied the various threads to aspects of our Constitution.
Law launched into her talk with a sobering fact– no modern president has ever run on an anti-immigration platform until Trump. For context, political scientists define the modern presidency as FDR onward. The Trump presidency is also marked by a fraught relationship with truth. “Every politician lies. It’s a thing they do” said Law, but Trump differs in the volume and frequency of his lies.
The point of drawing attention to this behavior was not to score political points, but bring attention to a major problem. Namely, if a president displays a pattern of lies and a troublesome relation with the law, argued Law, “maybe we should think twice about what he says on immigration.”
There have been more than 100 proposals on immigration from the Trump administration, but Law focused on two – the border wall and immigration detention. While the wall may not technically be unconstitutional, that bar is too low. The wall, argued Law, costs the taxpayers money that could be better spent elsewhere and also does little to address the actual reality of immigration.
As for the practice of immigration detention and child separation, Law argued that it was cruel, expensive, and an ineffective deterrent. She also took care to remind the audience that immigrants are entitled to certain due process guarantees and protections afforded by the Constitution.
From Law’s perspective, the border wall and the practice immigrant detention are both failing to address the reality of immigration, which is that desperate people, fleeing the violence and terror of their home country, will find a way to safety. And, under U.S. and international law, they are allowed to go to the border and claim asylum.
Law was fair in her criticism, remarking that things were not much better under the Obama administration. President Obama earned the nickname “deporter-in-chief,” which Law said he resented but deserved. Immigrant detention was also a feature of Obama’s policies, although he started a pilot program where immigrants were not detained pending trial. Despite the success of the pilot – 80 percent showed up for their court day – Trump ended this program.
Touching on another constitutional issue, Law commented on the failure of Congress to properly hold the president accountable. The founders predicted a president like Trump, self-interested and vain. They assumed Congress would provide a check to such a president, but Congress is currently failing in this regard. They have not passed meaningful immigration reform, largely being reactive to Trump’s policies rather than proactive, she said.
Law demonstrated her expertise in the intersection of the Constitution and immigration law by delivering a relevant, engaging lecture. She answered a number of questions from the audience, ranging from the problematic nature of the term “illegal immigrants/aliens” to recent attempts to deny asylum claims based on gang or gender-based violence. But she also noted a downside to her expertise. She has been receiving a lot of calls from journalists and other professionals seeking her opinion. But when business is good for her, Law concluded, that means things are going poorly for immigrants.