NYU Law Forum probes the challenges facing the US immigration system

Is the US immigration system in crisis? On November 15, panelists at an NYU Law Forum sponsored by Latham & Watkins agreed that the system badly needs an overhaul, during a discussion that explored complexities often overlooked in the national debate on immigration policy.

Adam Cox
Adam Cox

The panel’s experts included Ahilan Arulanantham, professor and faculty co-director of the Center for Immigration Law & Policy at UCLA School of Law; Andrea Flores, the former director for border management of the National Security Council, now vice president for immigration policy and campaigns at FWD.us, an advocacy organization for immigration and criminal justice reform; and Maria Sacchetti, a reporter covering immigration for the Washington Post. Adam Cox, Robert A. Kindler Professor of Law, moderated the conversation.

The discussion highlighted the extreme risks that migrants face in traveling to the southern US border, including passing through mountainous jungles of the Darién Gap, and the US government’s logistical failures in processing immigrants. “You have asylum seekers, you have people seeking protection, people seeking to reunite with family, people seeking to come for economic reasons. And we don’t have a system that can very humanely sort through the different motivations that people [have for] migrating,” Flores said.

“What for me has been really fascinating is that this system [of settling undocumented immigrants in the United States] generally has been self-run by migrants for many, many years,” Sacchetti said, noting that many new arrivals quickly find support and work in existing communities of people from their countries of origin. She mentioned that immigrants from some countries lack an established community in the US, which makes settling more challenging. “The Venezuelans coming and others… really don’t have those kinds of contacts yet,” she said. “That will change probably in the coming years, and [in the meantime] that’s why you’re seeing people backed up in the shelters.”

Arulanantham emphasized that 11 million undocumented people living and working in the US currently do not have a pathway to legalize their status. For decades, he said, Congress has failed to adopt meaningful immigration reform. “There’s always been people coming here to this country—different kinds of pathways in which they came—and there were periodic ways in which those people were then allowed to obtain lawful status,” he said. “The political support for continuing those kinds of mechanisms has eroded.” 

Flores said that across the political spectrum, US officials have pursued immigration policies aimed at lowering the number of people crossing the border, rather than addressing larger systemic problems. “It’s a horrible way to set policy because you are just chasing the next thing to get the temporary dip [in the number of migrants at the border],” she said. “Those of us who have been working in the space for a long time know that that’s not at all indicative of the health of your immigration system.”

Posted December 13, 2023