Kari Hong, assistant professor at Boston College Law School, and Peter Skerry, a political science professor at BC, sat down on Thursday for a debate on whether a wall should be constructed along the United States-Mexico border. The event was hosted by the Eagle Political Society, a nonpartisan political club on campus.
Skerry opened the discussion by arguing that the construction of a wall would not be immoral and that those accusations take away from the real issues at hand.
“I don’t think a wall is immoral, I don’t think defining our national borders is inappropriate or wrong-headed, but I do think this whole debate over the wall has been a huge distraction,” Skerry said.
Hong, who has extensive legal experience in the field of immigration, countered that the wall would be both ineffective and immoral. She noted that half of unauthorized immigrants arrive in the U.S. by plane, possibly referring to a 2015 study by the Center for Migration Studies, which found that 65 percent of undocumented immigrant arrivals from 2008-2015 were the result of visa overstays.
Skerry emphasized that vast immigration issues within the U.S. are being ignored as a consequence of the wall controversy.
“We ought to legalize as many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as quickly and as soon as possible,” Skerry said. “At the same time, I don’t think they should be eligible for citizenship.”
Skerry was quick to add that anti-unauthorized-immigration sentiments by segments of the American public have to be taken into account when determining immigration policy.
“The American public has expressed its anger and its animosity and its profound animosity at illegal immigration, and I don’t think we can ignore that,” he said.
Hong countered that immigrants are a vital part of American culture and provide numerous benefits to the country.
“Not only do immigrants provide tangible benefits, but from my own experience I’ve seen the intangible benefits, the American values of hope and gratitude and hard work,” Hong said.
Conversely, Skerry argued that the U.S. doesn’t have the ability to support a large influx of immigrants, and so restrictions must be put in place.
“The distinctions [between refugees and immigrants] are getting increasingly obfuscated, I would argue, in the media,” Skerry said. “People have positive feelings about wanting to help people who are in distress, I have those feelings too, but we can’t let in all of Guatemala into the United States.”
Hong’s response centered around conceptually why she believes not building a wall is not going to lead to an avalanche of immigrants.
“To the point of ‘Well, if we do this aren’t we afraid we’ll let the whole world in?’ And to that answer, I say absolutely not,” Hong responded. “Everybody has an incredible sense of home. … The reality is that people only leave their home and leave what they know if they’re desperate.”
Many proponents of the border wall have expressed concerns over criminals freely entering the U.S. across the Mexican border. Skerry acknowledged this as a valid concern but conceded that the number of criminals entering the U.S. are “relatively few.”
To truly diminish unauthorized immigration, Skerry argued that the magnet for many of these immigrants must be addressed: jobs. He proposed stricter regulation and enforcement of laws penalizing businesses for hiring unauthorized immigrants.
In a reference to President Donald Trump’s promise to rid the U.S. of “bad hombres,” which has been met with cries of racism, Hong said that undocumented immigrants actually add to the communities in which they live. Later in the debate, she voiced support for the “Abolish ICE” campaign, which calls for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The movement became popular over the summer, following public outrage surrounding the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the border.
“I actually have a clinic, where law students argue cases to the 9th Circuit on behalf of the ‘bad hombres,’ immigrants who have clinical convictions,” Hong said. “And the reason why we represent those individuals is because they are actually not ‘bad hombres.’
“The crimes aren’t that serious and the individuals have very compelling stories of being tied to the community.”
Hong argued that the outcries against undocumented immigration are overblown, as immigrants have lower levels of crime and actually add to the American economy. She said the term “illegal immigrant” is a mischaracterization of the issue, as undocumented immigration is a civil matter akin to tax violations, and the term “illegal immigrant” has no legal meaning in the court system.
Skerry did not argue with Hong’s claim that immigrants commit less crimes than American-born citizens, but he took issue with her assertion that immigrants add to the economy. In an intense exchange, Skerry cited a study by the National Academy of Sciences, claiming that immigrants result in a net drain on resources. Hong was unaware of the study, falsely claiming that the National Academies of Sciences does not study immigration, drawing a condescending remark from Skerry.
“That’s what the National Academies of Sciences says, that’s what anybody who’s looked at the numbers has continued to say,” Skerry said. “It’s quite clear, students in my class have studied the data.”
While the study does exist and conclude that first-generation immigrants cost governments more than native-born, Skerry’s conclusion is incorrect. The study found that “the second generation are among the strongest fiscal and economic contributors in the U.S.”
Ultimately, the main difference between Hong’s and Skerry’s positions is whether immigrants add to or detract from the economy, which would determine, in their views, whether the country needs immigrants or simply cannot support them.
Hong said the proposal for a border wall and the curtailing of immigration is rife with classism, to which Skerry offered a vigorous rebuttal, arguing that immigrants divert resources and jobs away from marginalized communities in the United States, particularly the black community.
“We are debating nationally, and ought to debate more seriously, what our obligations are to one another, and who is and who is not a member of our political community,” Skerry said. “We can’t sustain a sense of obligation to one another without having some ordered process whereby we have some agreement on who’s in and who’s out. … If you want to call it classism or whatever, there are limits to our resources, and we have to choose accordingly.”
Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor