AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – At a fundraiser in San Antonio Wednesday, President Donald Trump said that building his border wall would prevent “good” people from dying while trying to cross into the U.S. and keep “dangerous” people from entering the country.
Meanwhile, in Austin, immigration experts at the Summit on Race in America discussed how futile and unnecessary such a wall would be, while offering other solutions to address the country’s immigration issues.
Ruth Wassem, an immigration policy specialist and professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas said during a panel discussion on immigration Wednesday that she considers the wall to be a “symbol of failure.”
“The idea that we would build a wall is a failure of our foreign policy, of not being good neighbors and nurturing of other countries in our hemisphere,” Wassem said.
She said that the wall is also a symbol of the failure of the U.S. government to uphold its own laws regarding refugees and asylum seekers.
“The law is very clear on this,” Wassem said. “Individuals who are seeking asylum here deserve a hearing… border agents are supposed to allow someone to get a credible fear hearing. This is the law of the United States of America and we are not following it right now. That’s deeply disturbing.”
Mexican American Legal Defense Fund President Thomas Saenz agreed, saying that a wall on the southern border is as necessary as a wall on the northern border, which is “not at all.”
“We don’t need the wall,” Saenz said. “We need a more sophisticated approach to immigration that recognizes it as both an international and a domestic issue and that looks to invest, not cut off aid, but invest in countries that we want to bolster to reduce the push factors.”
Those “push factors,” including violence and poverty, prompted panelist Javier Zamora and his parents to flee El Salvador, a country torn apart during a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. Today, El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Zamora, an award-winning poet, lived in the U.S. for 19 years before he had to “self-deport” from the U.S. back to El Salvador two years ago in order to apply for his green card.
Zamora described his experience at a crowded U.S. embassy in El Salvador, where people spent hundreds of dollars, much more than the average Salvadoran can afford, in order to get one meeting with a U.S. embassy official – a meeting that was no guarantee to entry.
The panelists explained that immigrants must overcome extraordinary barriers in order to gain a work permit or visa, and that these barriers sometimes push people to enter the U.S. illegally.
Saenz said he hates it when he hears people say that immigrants should “wait in line,” because there is not “one line” that applies to all immigrants. The system as it is set up now assumes that the demand to emigrate from one country in the world is equal to the demand for emigration from every other country.
“So we set the same quota, equal quotas, for every country in the world,” Saenz said. “Which means that when there’s a higher demand to immigrate, whether because of proximity or historical connection or cultural connection, where there is a higher demand to immigrate you’re going to wait longer, in a longer line from that country.”
Would-be immigrants from Mexico, Saenz said, have to wait 14 years after fully qualifying for a visa to actually get one, while immigrants in countries that have a lower demand for immigration may wait two to four years.
“And so the question I would like political leaders to pose when they talk about the line … is what would you do if you had to wait 14 years to reunite with your family but you knew that others were only waiting two to four years for the same opportunity … would you wait? Or would you cross the border?”
Wassem explained that it is very difficult to qualify for an immigration visa. She said the U.S. admits around 1 million people a year, half of whom are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Employment-based visas are available to around 140,000 people a year, while the rest are chosen from lotteries.
She also said that immigration from Mexico has actually declined over the last decade, and that most immigrants today are coming from Asia.
Many people, she said, come to the U.S. for educational opportunities and often stay when they get work visas. However, new enrollments of foreign students are down 6.5% in the past two years.
“The place that the best and brightest go may not always be the United States of America, and we should be concerned about that,” Wassem said.
The U.S. is often referred to as a nation of immigrants, but Saenz said that this more than just a historical description of the country.
“It is a forward-looking responsibility to be a nation of immigrants,” Saenz said.
“It is our responsibility to have immigration policies today and in the future that reflect that we are a nation of immigrants that believe in justice for all,” he added.