This week’s blog post is by OCH Fellow Betsy McCormick, Associate Clinical Professor and Associate Dean for Experiential Learning at the TU College of Law. In addition to teaching students in the Immigrant Rights Project Clinical Program, she also teaches Immigration Law and International Refugee and Asylum Law.
What do you think of when you hear the word homeland? If you are an immigrant or an immigrant advocate, you might think of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the federal department responsible for enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. Created in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, DHS combined the work of more than twenty different federal departments and agencies into a single department “whose primary mission is to protect our homeland.” Not surprisingly, post-September 11th, a critical part of the new DHS’s protective mission was the control of immigration to and non-citizens within the United States. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 created three new federal immigration agencies within DHS – Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). While national security concerns have long played a role in shaping U.S. immigration law and policy, after September 11, and increasingly since then, the debate around immigration and immigrants has been framed as an issue of national or homeland security first and foremost. Indeed, in the context of this debate, immigration is very often viewed as a threat to national security and the relationship between immigrants and the idea of homeland has become more fraught than ever.
Most dictionaries define homeland as “native land” or the country where a person is born. Consequently, to the extent that homeland refers to the place from which a person originates, their native place, then immigrants will always be outsiders and can never be “at home” in their new countries. On the other hand, if homeland is instead seen as a place where one has a sense of belonging, comfort and security, then the possibility that an immigrant could make a new home exists, though is far from certain, especially in our current political climate.
Immigrants to the United States abandon their homelands for a variety of reasons, including flight from persecution and other life-threatening conditions, the pull of family ties, and aspirations for better opportunities for themselves and their families. But for many immigrants, especially those who enter or remain in the United States without legal authorization, the dream of establishing a home in the United States remains elusive. This is true because of a legal regime that creates significant, if not insurmountable, barriers to immigration. There are very limited avenues for legal migration to the United States and these are narrowed further by quotas and substantial backlogs that can delay entry to the United States by years or even decades. Those without legal immigration status live in the shadows, the antithesis of the protection and belonging represented by homeland.
In addition to an outmoded and overstressed legal regime, immigrants are often unable to feel at home in the United States because of hostility and other barriers they encounter in the communities in which they settle. Undocumented immigrants are unable to work legally so are vulnerable to exploitation. They may be afraid of interaction with law enforcement so don’t come forward when they are victims of crimes and, as a result, are frequently targeted by criminals. Language barriers leave them isolated and without access to critical information about health care or education services for their families.
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, efforts by his administration to enlist the cooperation of state and local law enforcement in immigrant policing have further undermined the sense of security and safety in immigrant communities. Many local governments and law enforcement agencies are refusing to cooperate, arguing that doing so creates mistrust in the immigrant community and has a negative impact on public safety and overall well-being.
In response to such resistance, the Trump administration has pursued an aggressive “anti-sanctuary” agenda seeking to punish state and local governments and agencies for implementing policies that are welcoming to or inclusive of immigrants, or resisting involvement in immigration enforcement. Federal courts have so far blocked the administration’s attempts to deny federal funding to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions. However, during four days in late September, ICE carried out raids in ten locations around the country identified as sanctuary jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Denver and Portland, Oregon.  Operation Safe City led to a total of 498 arrests and was designed to send a clear message to these jurisdictions that their refusal to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts will have consequences.
The battle between the Trump administration and the sanctuary cities and states offering protection and welcome to their undocumented immigrant residents is a struggle over who gets to make a home in our communities and, ultimately, who gets to be a part of the American homeland. It is a struggle that will not be resolved without thoughtful, meaningful reforms that focus limited enforcement resources on serious threats to public safety and national security, while providing some solution for those millions of unauthorized immigrants living in and contributing to our communities who pose no threat.