Immigration has increasingly become a hot topic in U.S. politics, but healthy discussion and debate doesn’t need to come with drama or division. That’s exactly what a diverse group of experts proved as they recently gathered at FIU for a discussion about migration, immigration and refugee flows in the United States.
Public policy experts — representing backgrounds and philosophies from across the aisle — shared their thoughts on the current state of immigration in the U.S., some of the complexities of immigration policy and possible ways forward.
The discussion was moderated by Enrique Gonzalez, a corporate immigration lawyer who is the co-chair of Fragomen, a global firm dedicated to immigration services, and former special counsel on immigration to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. Panelists included Erik Bethel, former U.S. representative at the World Bank; Cecilia Esterline, immigration research analyst at the Niskanen Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank; Shalyn Fluharty, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice; and Anne C. Richard, distinguished fellow at Freedom House, who served as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration under President Barack Obama.
The event was hosted by FIU’s new Office of Public Policy Events and is the first in a series that will bring speakers with differing perspectives and viewpoints together on campus to discuss a wide range of topics.
“Our aim is to promote education and encourage civic engagement by organizing open discussions and debate forums about public policy issues,” said Mireya Mayor, the office’s director. “In organizing our public events, our purpose is to create a space for the open discussion of ideas in a respectful and safe environment.”
Provost, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Elizabeth M. Béjar said the series reflects FIU’s commitment to academic inquiry.
“Higher education institutions have a responsibility to promote dialogue and diverse viewpoints. Our students' learning benefits from open-minded, tolerant and respectful discourse among campus and community members. We are proud to have hosted this debate and look forward to the university's future events.”
The audience included students, faculty, staff, and community members, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants.
“As an international student from Peru,” said freshman Jeremy Cabanillas, “I appreciate every perspective the speakers shared. It was very enriching.”
Mayumi Takahashi, a fellow international student who also attended the event, agreed. “It’s a topic that really interests us,” she said, adding that the event gave her a deeper sense of the immigration landscape and what that could mean for her years from now. “For example, in the future perhaps I can bring my family to the U.S.”
Kwame Nimoh, a Ph.D. student in political science, praised the event’s breadth and depth.
“I’ve been following the immigration debate, and when I heard about this event, I knew I needed to be there and hear from the experts,” he says. “It was worth my time. They were not shy in terms of indicating where they stood. I appreciated that they all agreed to disagree.”
So, what topics did the experts discuss in relation to immigration?
One theme that ran through the entire debate was just how important it is to approach immigration as a nonpartisan issue.
“You shouldn’t identify yourself as a Republican or a Democrat,” Gonzalez said during introductory remarks. “You should identify as a human being, and that we care about people.”
According to various panelists, one of the key aspects behind immigration is balancing national security and humanitarian considerations.
Two speakers shared real-life anecdotes: the harrowing journey of a would-be Cuban refugee who, after being turned away from legal resources at the southern border, crossed into the U.S. illegally and was eventually deported; and the story of a little girl who together with her mother survived a dangerous journey through the Darién Gap and yet was hopeful about her future and proud to greet observers at the border with “Good afternoon," the only words she knew in English.
Panelists debated whether one part of the equation should be emphasized: Aid or protection? Can that happen, and what would it look like? What needs to happen moving forward? Therein lies the debate.
“The integrity of our system relies on people having a real, meaningful chance for refuge,” Fluharty said, noting that she has worked with immigrants who have faced systematic procedures that worked against them and impeded their chances of presenting their cases fairly.
According to Bethel, it comes down to, “How do you balance the equation of having a heart and doing good for others while at the same time [safeguarding] national security?”
“It’s a very complex issue,” he added. “I think all of us need to take stock and really understand how to do this. I think if we all get together as Americans, we can solve the issue, as long as we are able to talk to each other.”
Among other topics, panelists shared their perspectives on which criteria should carry greater weight when determining immigration status and citizenship — the traditional priority of family reunification (folks joining their family members in the U.S.) or the more recently valued individual merit (people with specialized skills or professional qualifications).
Esterline said that even though family reunification has been an important component of the U.S. immigration system, she believes it’s time to also emphasize merit.
“We need to look around at what our allies and competitors are doing, and a lot of them are creating these points-based, merit-based systems that attract and reward individuals with certain educational credentials or certain work histories,” she said. “The U.S. immigration system has remained frozen in time. We have a situation in this country where we are educating top talent [such as international students] at our universities, and we have no real reliable way to keep them here afterwards.”
Fluharty said the question presented an either-or answer, but she didn’t believe that needed to be the case.
“Why would we choose?” Fluharty asked. “We have to move away from the brain versus blood dichotomy. If you are a brilliant scientist and you are going to move to contribute in another country, would you rather go to a country where you could bring your family? Are you going to pick a country where your family can’t join you at all? We have to think about both of these things collectively, at the same time. Family reunification is one of our deepest American values.”
For her part, Richard said that neither family ties nor professional talent was the perfect criteria.
“My experience has been that some very deprived people also make great citizens,” Richard said. “Something about our society allows a lot of immigrant families to jump up by leaps and bounds in terms of economic ladder. I see so many people who come here with nothing and end up being those scientists and being those people who make the contributions.”
If one thing was clear during the conversation, it’s that immigration policy is highly complex — and finding solutions demands collaboration and discussion from people of all walks of life, representing a variety of viewpoints.
“I do think that these are all very fair questions,” Richard said, noting the importance of conversation centered on what the U.S. should prioritize regarding immigration. “That’s the way we should be having a discussion.”
The next event in the series is called "Foreign Policy Debate: Why Should Americans Care about Foreign Affairs?" and will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 28 at 11 a.m. in FIU's Management and Advanced Research Center Pavilion.