Bill Hing is a preeminent scholar and advocate on immigration policy and race relations. Throughout his career, he has combined community work, litigation, and scholarship on American immigration policy.He founded the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco and is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of numerous articles and books on the subject of immigration reform and the place of immigration in America’s national self-conception. I spoke with him about his decades of experience working in immigration, and asked his perspective on the current politics around immigration in the United States.
—Myrna Perez Sheldon for Cosmologics
Cosmologics: What has changed for you and other immigration lawyers after the 2016 presidential election?
Bill Hing: The day after the election, besides being in a haze, I and others immediately went into a high speed work mode. What I mean by that is: for years I’ve done “know your rights” presentations for communities at churches or schools, but these have taken on a different tone than they did in the past. In previous years, people would come to these with their hopes up, thinking that a new immigration policy would be a more favorable one. But now, everyone at these meetings is terrified that they are going to be deported.
Our strategy right now is to get ready for the worst, and we hope that the Republicans in Congress don’t give Trump the resources to carry out threats he made during his presidential campaign.
Cosmologics: Do you find Donald Trump’s rhetoric to be unprecedented, or an extension of previous right-wing views? How has the immigration-rights community, or even scholars of immigration in the US, attempted to grapple with the virulence and violence of his claims?
Bill Hing: If a Republican such as Mitt Romney or John McCain had won the election, immigration lawyers would not have had the same reaction. Certainly, this community would have geared up for several years of lobbying work, and possibly very frustrating attempts at changing immigration policy. In other words, we would have been concerned about our ability to push the conversation and legal framework on immigration forward. But this is an entirely different situation. Now, we’re not quite sure how bad the situation could become. Our strategy right now is to get ready for the worst, and we hope that the Republicans in Congress don’t give Trump the resources to carry out threats he made during his presidential campaign.
Cosmologics: In other words, under another Republican president, you may have been concerned about your ability to go forward, but now you are worried about basic protections remaining in place.
Bill Hing: Exactly. Consider that one of Trump’s top advisors is Kris Kobach, who was one of the authors of the anti-immigration law Arizona SB 1070. That law required immigrants over the age of 14 to have registration documents with them at all times. Not having those documents would result in a federal misdemeanor. Importantly, the law required state law enforcement to ascertain a person’s immigration status in situations such as traffic stops. So besides Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, he has as one of his close advisors the architect of one of the strictest anti-immigrant laws in recent times.
Sacramento, has, for instance, stated that if sanctuary cities are denied federal funding, the state will make up for those losses.
Cosmologics: Are there specific places you are looking to, in this strategy of protection and preparing for the worst?
Bill Hing: In California, we’re really looking to Sacramento. Sacramento, has, for instance, stated that if sanctuary cities are denied federal funding, the state will make up for those losses.Sanctuary cities, of course, are cities that refuse to voluntarily cooperate with federal immigration enforcement officials or to actively look for deportable immigrants that live there.
This creates a somewhat unusual situation for lawyers working on issues like immigration, or environmental protection. We’re used to pushing for states to comply with federal regulations, but now we’re in a situation where we might have to look to states to resist federal policies.
Cosmologics: In your 2010 book, Ethical Borders, you argue that seeing immigration only as a “legal” question sets aside the true ethical issues, particularly human rights violations. What prompted this perspective?
Bill Hing: In the decades I’ve done this work, especially working on cases, I’ve met so many people who’ve come to the United States simply looking for an opportunity to work, to live, and to have a place for their families. And overwhelmingly, they wouldn’t have come here if they felt that they had any other choice. But the circumstances they are fleeing, whether it is economic devastation, war, or persecution, means that they are compelled to try and find something better.
Ultimately, I hope and believe that most Americans, if they met these immigrants, if they got to know them, they would empathize with them, they would come to care about the hardships that so many immigrants have faced. That’s what I think has to change in the conversation about immigration. This isn’t a question so much about what is “legal” or “illegal,” but that immigrants are people that deserve basic dignities and opportunities. I believe that most Americans, in getting to know actual people who have emigrated from their homes in the face of overwhelming hardships, would instinctively empathize and care for them.
Cosmologics: It’s astonishing that you have so much hope, even after decades of working on immigration reform, both on the level of policy, but also on so many individual cases. Can I ask, do you still have that hope, even after the 2016 presidential election?
Bill Hing: I do. I still do believe, even with the hateful rhetoric that we’ve witnessed, that most Americans would empathize with immigrants if they realized the real struggles that so many immigrants have faced. I still have that hope and belief.
Cosmologics: Finally, what should concerned people do in these times? What can we do to support immigrant communities in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities?
Bill Hing: The question itself is very encouraging—particularly because I’ve gotten this question, or one like it, a lot as I’ve spoken at various events after the election. There are lots of informal things to do; for instance, learning about the struggles and issues facing DACA students at your university. Or donating food and clothing to local organizations that already support immigrant communities and/or refugees. In terms of formal responses, I can suggest that people look to the Immigration Legal Resource Center as a resource and guide in the coming months and years, as we watch the political situation unfold.
Bill Hing is Professor, Director of the Immigration Deportation Defense Clinic, and Dean’s Circle Scholar at the University of San Francisco School of Law.
Myrna Perez Sheldon is co-editor of Cosmologics and Assistant Professor in Classics & World Religions and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Ohio University.
Image from Flickr via Wayne Hsieh