Social Justice Webinar: U.S. Immigration and Repatriation

Thursday, January 26, 2023
Jose Luis Gonzalez/REUTERS

Director of Policy, National Immigrant Justice Center

Director, Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, American University


Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, and Ernesto Castañeda, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and associate professor of sociology at American University, discuss policies and laws pertaining to immigration, integration, and repatriation in the United States. Edward Alden, CFR’s Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Social Justice Webinar Series. This series explores social justice issues and how they shape policy at home and abroad through discourse with members of the faith community. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and the transcript will be made available on CFR’s website,, and on the iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

I am pleased to have Ted Alden with us to moderate today’s discussion. Ted Alden is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at CFR, specializing in U.S. economic competitiveness, trade, and immigration policy. He is also the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University. He is the coauthor of the forthcoming book, When the World Closed its Doors: The COVID Pandemic and the Future of Border Control. And he has served as a project director for several CFR-sponsored independent task force reports, including one on U.S. immigration policy.

So, Ted, thank you very much for doing this. I’m going to turn it over to you to introduce our distinguished panelists.

ALDEN: Thank you very much, Irina. It’s great to be here with you. It’s great to be with all of you here on the call. I’m Zooming in from the West Coast, so I apologize if I take an occasional sip of coffee. It’s still reasonably early here.

So I am really pleased and privileged to have two superb guests with us today to talk about the many complexities surrounding current immigration issues in the United States. And particularly questions of asylum and access for people fleeing violence and persecution. First, we have with us Heidi Altman. Welcome, Heidi. Heidi is the director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center. Previously, she was the legal director for the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. She has worked extensively on providing services to those in immigration detention dealing with deportation and removal cases, and a whole other range of rights issues with respect to immigrants here in the country. So welcome, Heidi. It’s great to have you here.

I am also pleased to introduce Ernesto Castañeda. Ernesto is the director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. He’s the founding director of the Immigration Lab, and a graduate program director of the MA program in sociology, research, and practice at American University. He has written extensively—I tried to review some of the literature. I didn’t even get close. But he’s written books and papers on a wide array of immigration issues, including immigrant integration, ethnic political mobilization, urban issues, health disparities, and marginalized populations. Their full bios are in your material, and I encourage you to have a look at the many things they have done in this area.

Ernesto, I’d like to start with you to frame this set of issues a bit. We have all been reading the paper, heard a lot about the record number of what they today call encounters at the southern border, with people arriving across the border from Mexico. You’ve written an excellent piece on some of the challenges in counting these numbers accurately. We hear numbers like two million and three million. I worked on this about a decade ago at CFR, to try to come up with a system for measuring entry between the legal ports of entry, but it was a different time back then. It was mostly Mexican citizens crossing. We have a very different situation today. So frame this a little bit. What’s going on at the southern border? How does it compare/differ from what was happening in the late 1990s and early 2000s? So over to you, Ernesto, to get us started here.

CASTAÑEDA: Excellent. Thank you very much, Ted. Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us today and talking about this important topic. And kind of answering this great question, we have an immigration situation happening in the U.S., like it has always happened. Since the first people arrived with the Mayflower, there’s been always people coming to the U.S. So I’d like to start with that historical context, that there is not a particular crisis that we’re facing in a security or national security sense, as the United States. There is indeed a humanitarian crisis. And religious groups, churches, nonprofits, government offices have been helping a lot of immigrants that are new arrivals. And there’s an issue of asylum seekers, refugees.

So that’s a pressing issue that we see in the streets in many of our cities. And that’s the pressure. And that’s why it’s great to have so many people in the audience that know people in this situation. So it’s a human phenomenon. It’s a people phenomenon. And it’s something we can do a lot to help through nonprofits, through churches, through universities, organizations. And it’s also that governments can improve or make worse. So it’s good to have this conversation today.

In terms of numbers, that’s a great way to start because in the media there’s a lot of emphasis on these record numbers. And whenever somebody says that about immigration, let’s—you always have to remember that for the most part of history, the human population has kept growing. That may change in the near future, and that’s not the case necessarily for the U.S. and other countries. But there’s always more people in the world. So by definition, there will always be more people on the move. What is interesting is that since World War II it’s only around 3.5 percent, 3 to 4 percent of the global population who actually live in a country different from the one that they are born. And that is constant. So, again, there’s no crisis in terms of numbers.

We see such high number of people counted because the state said now—very recently, starting with the pandemic and the beginning of Title 42—rather than measuring apprehensions and then deportations, so putting people in prison with their numbers and their names and all that. And the government, because of the pandemic, was allowed for public health reasons to send people back to Mexico. And often they are not keeping track of who they even were. So all the numbers that we have been reported since the pandemic, so with Trump and with Biden, are for apprehensions, which are very different. So we know for a fact that it’s the same individuals encountered over and over and over again. How many times this person? Nobody knows.

So we cannot say, OK, the real number is this or that, because that is almost impossible to do. But we know for a fact—and that’s the reason I brought it in the conversation—is that the official figures of two million or two million and a half since Biden became president, it’s an over count because it includes people coming legally from Afghanistan, from Ukraine, and we can talk about later, but it’s also including a lot of people from Central America and Mexico that are repeatedly trying to turn themselves into us for asylum, and they are saying: “No, thank you. Go back and wait until we reopen the door.”

So those numbers are not true. Probably we are at numbers similar to what we saw at the beginning of the Trump administration and what we saw with Obama, and even Bush. So that’s a fact. The numbers are not out of control. But it is true that the immigration system doesn’t work. That’s a bipartisan agreement, that the immigration system that we have in the U.S. is broken. So a couple more things about that, and I’ll wrap it up.

So it’s an issue that we don’t have a lot of legal pathways to welcome people. And that’s something that the Biden administration is working on, and we’ll talk about later. But to conclude this opening answer, this is an issue pretty much of international relations. So I’m glad the Council on Foreign Relations is hosting this, because a lot of the movement that we’ve seen lastly has to do with the return to the Taliban from Afghanistan and people coming that were our allies and helping us. The situation in Ukraine, the invasion by Russia of Ukraine, has moved a lot of people that are escaping for their lives. So that’s a new phenomenon, and Europe and America are helping in that effort.

But also, we have situations that are not that different, because of internal political issues and economic pressures, that are pulling a lot of people from Venezuela, from Haiti, from Cuba on the move. And they are arriving to the border. And those are the numbers that we are seeing. The people coming for economic reasons from Mexico actually are lower. They are not zero, but they are much lower than historically. So, again, it’s good that we’re going to have today the conversation. It’s all about other issues happening around the world and how the U.S. can engage constructively to help the people and address the situations in those countries, and how this becomes part of geopolitics and international relations of the U.S. Thank you.

ALDEN: Fabulous. Thank you very much, Ernesto. That was a superb framing of some of the dynamics at the southern border.

Heidi, I want to turn to you. I mean, most of these people who are arriving at the southern border are requesting asylum, protection in the United States. Very clear obligation for the United States under international law, clear obligation under our domestic laws to have a due process that’s carried out for people who arrive to determine their eligibility for asylum. But what we’re seeing today, the way you’ve described it, is a real erosion of the norms around asylum.

You were on a press conference listening to Democrats this morning. The Republicans in the House have introduced a bill that would effectively block all asylum claims at the border. Ernesto mentioned Title 42 during COVID, which was put in place during the Trump administration but continued under Biden, which blocks many, many of the claims that would otherwise have been sought by those arriving. So what’s going on here? Why have we seen this erosion in what are really quite longstanding laws and norms surrounding those seeking asylum here in the country?

ALTMAN: Thanks, Ted. And it’s such a pleasure to be here with you, and with you, Ernesto. And thanks to everyone who joined.

It is a moment that I think the word “inflection point” seems to be one that is tossed around a lot, and I think is correct. I think having to get here is such an interesting question. My career started in practice. I was in deportation defense. And I can say that since the first day I set foot in immigration court, it’s always been clear that the United States immigration policy is oriented around enforcement. That’s the center. And that’s a problem that we should talk about today.

But there were certain norms that were sort of still respected at the heart of that. And certainly, the right to ask for asylum when arriving at a border was one of them. How did we sort of move astray from that? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of dehumanization. During the Trump administration we saw for the first time language that was explicitly and emphatically dehumanizing about immigrants coming from not just the mouths of elected officials, but the mouth of the president of the United States.

And so there’s so much social science out there about what happens when groups of people are referred to in nonhuman ways. And so that’s an invasion of migrants at the border, a flood of migrants at the border, or referring, as the former president did, to migrants as criminals, as rapists. What happens is that people start to feel that they cannot have empathy for that group of people, and it becomes easier to commit violence or to support policies that are inherently violent.

When the Biden administration came in, we really felt that there were two paths available to them. I think there still are. (Laughs.) The first path would have been to really sort of carry forth the commitments that were made in those first few weeks and on the campaign trail, and to just get out there and to really embrace the United States history and values as a place that welcomes asylum seekers, a commitment to due process, and to a true sort of revamp, rehaul of this immigration system that for too long has been punitive. The other path was to take a look at these policies that the Trump administration instituted and allow them to become normalized. And I think, in short, the answer to your question is that we are at real risk of anti-asylum, inherently violent policies on the border and in the interior of the United States towards migrants becoming normalized in U.S. policy.

ALDEN: I’m going to ask you both, actually, to expand on that a little bit. Maybe I’ll go to Ernesto and then back to Heidi. I mean, the approach I think predates Trump, honestly. I’ve been paying pretty close attention to this stuff since 9/11, and even before. I think can take it all the way back at least to the 1990s in California and Texas. I mean, the approach has been, do you call it, Heidi, prevention through deterrence. I’ll start with you, Ernesto, and then the same question for Heidi. Do we have any evidence that deterrence is at all effective when we’re dealing with the sort of people who are arriving at the border? And there’s a sort of secondary question, is deterrence appropriate when you’re talking about asylum seekers, right? Because they are pursuing a right that’s actually protected under our laws. I hate two-part questions, but that’s a two-part question. (Laughs.) So let’s start with effectiveness and then, since this is a Social Justice Webinar, the rights question of it. Go ahead.

CASTAÑEDA: Yes. On the moral aspect, it is their right. It violates international law and it goes against a lot of religious principles of helping people in need, helping the other. But also, in terms of practice, and in terms of policy, in terms of budgeting, in terms of governing, research time and time again in different countries and places shows that this forced deterrence doesn’t work. If people need to migrate to live again with their mother or with their children, they’ll find a way. If people have to escape genocide or war to save their lives, they will find a way to get out of the dangerous place.

And, again, we see examples throughout history and throughout places. And the data for the U.S. is just very clear. Building the wall, all the policies that Bush did, Obama, you name it—this has been going on for decades—they cannot stop immigration, undocumented immigration. It’s just a fool’s errand. You just put people at risk. They’re going to come anyway, and you make it harder for them to get settled, to get established. They have to pay $10,000 to a coyote to get from Central America, a smuggler, to get to the U.S. It’s a lot of money that they spend instead of on housing and all that. So if they get deported, they have nothing back home.

So if, instead, they could come with a visa and they could use their first $10,000 to rent an apartment for a few months, to get them settled while they get a job, it would be better for America. It would be better for them. It would be better for small businesses. It would be better for renters. So many resources are wasted and so many people’s lives are at risk, so many people die attempting to cross the border or in the ocean coming to Cuba. And, again, the same issue with Africa coming to Europe. Many people die every year in the Mediterranean.

And that’s almost a policy by design. That’s one of the internal goals by some people who design these policies to say that an immigrant who realize that by leaving their countries and going to the global north they could die, that they wouldn’t do it. But that is not true. The people that are leaving are not leaving for fun. They are not leaving—most people are not leaving. Most people cannot leave. But the people that have the resources and the networks and the bravery to leave, they’re going to leave anyway. So deterrence doesn’t work.

So we’re wasting time and we’re violating the right of asylum, which was already very restricted. It was very hard to prove that you have probable cause, that you were escaping political persecution. It existed, and it was useful for Cubans, for people from Eastern Europe and other cases. But some—coming from Mexico, for example, unless you had a recorded history in the media of being a journalist persecuted for your political views, it was very hard to get asylum. But it was possible. Now even that right to apply for asylum is being denied in the border, when otherwise we act like the pandemic is over but we still pretend that it’s happening at the border. So it is a big issue. I mean, that is the new what is getting worse, as Heidi was saying.

ALDEN: Heidi, same question for you. And I have a quick follow up as well. So, the whole prevention through deterrence approach. What is your take on it? Go ahead.

ALTMAN: Ernesto, you said it all so beautifully. I’ll try to maybe zero in on a few specifics. One thing that I was reading recently about looking back at some of the early papers, when prevention through deterrence, as they call it, sort of first became formalized, which was in ’94. What you find is that the government and CBP, Customs and Border Protection, and its predecessor Border Control, at that time was very aware of the fact that prevention through deterrence meant that people would die on their way to the United States. And that’s actually written and recorded, this was not something that people discovered later. Government officials didn’t sort of come to realize that if they put these really cruel, harsh border policies in place it would mean that people would be harmed and killed. It’s sort of baked in.

And so it is, as Ernesto has said to both of your questions, it’s wrong and it doesn’t work towards its stated purpose. So first, it doesn’t work towards its stated purpose, I just wanted to note specifically under the Biden administration one of the central prevention through deterrence policies is migrant prosecutions. And sometimes you’ll hear the secretary refer to that as a consequence delivery, which is sort of another version of prevention through deterrence.

So migrant prosecutions is when someone arrives at the border, and they attempt to enter without permission—usually because they’re going to seek asylum—in addition to going through the civil immigration detention and deportation process, they also face a prosecution under federal law, and can face sometimes months or years in criminal custody before then they just go back to the immigration system. We did a survey at our organization, my colleague Jesse Franzblau went down to the border and talked to about 150 people who were facing prosecution.

Most of them didn’t know if they were in criminal or immigration custody. They just knew that they were sort of in this system, and that it was miserable and depriving them of their rights, and their liberty, and their ability to see their family. But they were sticking it out because they needed to be here because they had fled. So I think it’s this idea that people who were forced to flee violence have this very specific idea of what the policies are on the border is just wrong.

The other thing I’m just going to say is that it shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter if it decreases the numbers. And this is a question of metrics. How do we measure success? And so yesterday you may have seen the Department of Homeland Security put out a statement sort of lauding the success of some of the new limited pathway programs that we’ll talk about that they have put out. And the basis for this celebration is that in a short period, some of the numbers on the border, the government claims, have decreased.

Another way that you could frame that same announcement is that these policies have resulted in more people who are in need of refuge and asylum in the United States being turned away at the border, without any ability to express that here, and sent back to harm, right? And so why does our government look at it from that first lens rather than the latter? And that’s the fundamental disconnect and where we’re sort of fundamentally at risk of back to the sort of erosion of norms question that we began with.

ALDEN: Why don’t we turn—and, Heidi, I’m going to stick with you for a minute. You raised the Biden administration’s limited pathways initiative. We’ve been talking here—this is a short conversation, so we’ll go back in some more detail, I’m sure, when we get questions from the audience. But talk a little bit first about what the Biden administration is doing, and your assessment of what sort of legal pathways might be necessary to actually deal with this problem in a more thorough and human way than we have been able to do as a country.

ALTMAN: Sure. And for those who have been following the incredibly complicated web of policies that are now in place at the border, the limited pathways we’re talking about are a series of parole programs—parole, being a method for people to enter the United States with, essentially, permission to remain for a limited period of time—one or two years, usually. It’s not asylum. It does not offer a pathway to citizenship. It doesn’t offer stability, in that sense.

So, I mean, to answer your question, I think these programs are limited in numbers. They’re limited in the permanence that they provide. They leave people in the United States in a very vulnerable spot. And then the eligibility requirements that the administration has put in place for these programs are further restricting and sort of make the programs inaccessible for those who need it most. You must be able to get a passport. You must be able to seek—to apply for the program from the country you need to flee.

So to answer your question, the biggest overall answer to your question is that asylum access needs to be restored at ports of entry. When someone arrives at the southern border having fled, making the decision that Ernesto says, any of us can think about. What would it take you actually get you to leave, right? To pack up real fast and leave your loved ones, your school, your job, your community? It’s not a win.

So when people arrive, there needs to be the ability to go to a port of entry and say, I’m here because I need to seek asylum, and be processed through. Right now it’s a crapshoot whether you’re going to actually get access. And so that’s what forces people into these very dangerous pathways. And that’s why last year had the highest number of reported deaths of migrants at the border. So obviously access to asylum.

There are other executive actions that the administration can and should have already taken. Temporary Protected Status, for example, is a way to provide more meaningful and lasting status for people from countries where it’s not safe to return, for any of a number of reasons. There are other parole programs that would lead to more permanent stability. And there’s a number of other sort of executive actions that could be taken that would allow some protection short of what Congress should be providing, of course, which is a pathway to citizenship.

ALDEN: OK. Excellent. Ernesto, I’m going to ask you the same question, but maybe with a slight twist before we go to questions. Which is, are there things going on, either at the governmental level or the community level, that you find hopeful with respect to this issue? I’ll throw out one on my own. I was very heartened to see the Biden administration’s announcement of the creation of this Welcome Corps. Now, that’s a somewhat different population. You’re talking more about traditional refugees. I grew up in Canada. I’ve paid close attention for many years to the Canadian private refugee sponsorship program. My sister’s church has sponsored five Syrian families, I think. I was very encouraged to see the administration embrace that model, if initially on a fairly small scale. But do you see things out there that you find hopeful in dealing with this set of challenges?

CASTAÑEDA: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the American people want to help. Churches are helping the people that manage to get here, across the border. For example, in Washington, DC, where many of us are at, it was very heartwarming to see how people were, largely through churches, organizing to get furniture, clothing and stuff for the Afghan families coming from Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal. Same thing, a lot of mobilization in schools and everything to help students from Ukraine, and things like that.

And then, yes, the welcoming program, where citizens, families, groups, churches can sponsor newcomers from Venezuela, from Cuba now, from Afghanistan, from Ukraine, following the successful model from Canada with Syrians. It’s a good way for civil society, that has always been very strong in America—or very well-organized, very well-funded, which you don’t have in France, for example—to actively participate in immigration, integration, and welcoming. Unfortunately, these groups don’t set policy. And it’s still—for somebody to get to the border, it depends on the council of people, on the people at the border, people doing the interview on the access to legal services, et cetera, for people to be successful in their arrival to then be welcomed.

So it’s a good move in the right direction. People want to help. Also, we have the need for employers. And Laura mentions that in the question, or I peeked at it. The American population is getting older. We have deaths with COVID. We are growing fast in the recovery. As you see over and over, construction, restaurants, et cetera, agricultural workers, there’s not enough people. We need people. And we’re not talking about millions. We’re talking about half a million every year. That would be great for the economy. So employers are ready to welcome them, neighbors are ready to help, churches are ready to help. So some conservatives would say we just need the government to get out of the way and let people take care of business.

ALDEN: Yeah, I mean, just to mention Canada, this is the overall immigration stream. This is not just refugees and asylum seekers. But they’re planning to take half a million a year in Canada, which has about one-tenth of our population, about the size of California. But they’re looking at demographics and they say, look, we have no growth in our labor force from births here in the country. And we need a large immigrant stream. But that’s a broader debate.

Irina, Rivka, I want to turn it over to you and see what sorts of questions, comments we have from our audience.

OPERATOR: Thank you, Ted.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question is from John Chane.

CHANE: Thank you, very, very much. My name is John Chane. I’m the retired Episcopal bishop of Washington, DC.

So I know some of the stories, Ernesto and Heidi, about life there. I also come from an immigrant family. I live in Southern California now, retired, and it’s a wonderful experience because you can speak Spanish here and we have a wonderful culture, which is very, very ethnic-centered and much, I think, embraced. The issue for me is, how do we change the political narrative? I mean, churches, temples, mosques, even, are very much engaged in this process.

But how do you change the rhetoric? I can talk about immigration and embrace it, even though we’re going to build a thirty-foot high wall here at Friendship Park, right here along the ocean and along the Mexican border. When I go to other parts of this country to speak and I talk about immigration, literally I get hammered about all those people that are coming into this country and taking jobs from Americans. It’s crazy. It’s a lousy narrative. How do you move the political needle to make a difference? Because the politicians are the ones who are being—using it as a way of moving forward in their own careers?

ALDEN: Heidi, it’s not an easy one. But why don’t you start us off on that one?

ALTMAN: Yeah, thank you. Thank you, John, for being with us.

Right, this is the question. (Laughs.) It really requires political courage. And I think I just this morning was at the press conference that Ted referenced. And I tweeted it. I tweeted out the different beautiful statements that we heard from Senator Booker’s soaring rhetoric about welcoming and the faith-based commitment to asylum in the United States. And I just before we started speaking looked at my Twitter thread and saw that I had a mention where someone had written back: “Asylum? Obscenity, this is an invasion.”

And people are hearing that from governors. They’re hearing it from elected officials. And the thing is that there’s not a strong enough counter narrative coming from the party that is in power right now. So there may be small policies that are being announced so that we can embrace—I think that the sponsorship policy is really exciting, I agree. The private sponsorship policy. But we need the president—we need Democratic leadership in the Senate and the House getting behind the microphone and talking about the values—the values of asylum, the values of welcome, how this is—has a tradition in so many faiths.

And that’s not what we have, right? So when we have the president—when Secretary Mayorkas goes out on the Sunday talk shows, they’re using the language of deterrence. They don’t use the word “invasion,” but they’re, again, looking to these metrics of decreasing numbers as the outcomes that they want. And we really need that counter narrative at a leadership level. And from where we sit, we need to be demanding that of our leadership. We need to be demanding the positive policies and the change in rhetoric urgently. Because we don’t know who’s going to be in office in two years. We try not to make this too political, so maybe Ernesto will help. (Laughs.)

ALDEN: Ernesto, do you want to add anything to that, quickly?

CASTAÑEDA: It’s an important question. Yeah. I mean, this is a disinformation campaign that has been going on for decades. We had historical precedents, but since the last immigration reform of Reagan in 1986, there was this, “OK, we’re going to recognize these people, but we don’t want more people to come, and we’re going to penalize, we’re going to have punishment for the people that employ them or the people that come.” And that hasn’t worked. But we had that rhetoric that has been used time and time again, first in California by a candidate for governor and then nationwide.

Because people like Trump think, and it does work on the short term to get elected, to get attention, to get there. But also want we have to remind politicians that want to be opportunists, is that in the long term, people catch up and it doesn’t work forever. So even for the congressional elections, when Trump was president, it wasn’t as successful for the candidates to use that as a main platform. And even Trump—(inaudible)—to Black Lives Matter and other topics in the reelection campaign because immigration wasn’t as successful to get him beyond the base. Most Americans, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, or independents, are in favor of DREAMers, in favor of immigration reform.

So it’s something that politicians have used for their own purposes on the right. And it’s something that, as Heidi was saying, a lot of centrists and even Democrats are afraid that they cannot touch immigration, they cannot be seen openly as pro-immigrant because they are going to be destroyed and they’re going to lose. But that is not true. Most of the American population have a more nuanced and more moderate view on immigration. So this is just a culture that immigrants have been terrified by very loud voices that are anti-immigrant, that have demonstrated, and are very vocal and very loud.

So it’s important for the Council on Foreign Relations and all of your churches and places that we change the rhetoric. That’s a big homework that we can do. And I think we can do it little by little, change the way we think about these issues. Because all these facts that we hear often about immigrants are just not true.

ALDEN: Thanks very much. I’m going to use the moderator’s prerogative to add one small thing. I was in the—I was a reporter for a long time, in the media thinking a lot about public opinion. And I’ve been outside of DC for four years now. And I think some of this has got to come from a grassroots level. And that’s partly why I’m excited by these private refugee sponsorship programs. They’re very small at this moment, but I think part of what needs to happen is when people know immigrants, when they know asylum seekers, when they know refugees, when they’re in their communities a lot of the dehumanization that Heidi talks about, that stuff goes away. And I think there are ways in which we need to make the reality of an immigrant society here much more accessible to people. And so it’s not just coming from the top down; it’s coming from the bottom up. And it has to happen at both directions.

Riki, let’s go to the next question here.

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Laura Alexander from the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

She writes: Groups in my home state of Nebraska have recently been holding conversations about the possibility of a more robust welcome for immigrants at the statewide level. This initiative includes business and agricultural leaders, as well as religious and community leaders, because we’re in such dire need of workers in our state. There’s a limit to what this coalition can do, since immigration policy is largely a federal matter. But have you see individual U.S. states crafting policies or advocating with the federal government in a way that could lead to a more humane, a more effective, and more sane immigration policy?

ALDEN: Great question. Thank you. And shout out to Nebraska. I was just there a couple of months ago for a wonderful conference at the university in Lincoln.

Ernesto, do you want to start us off there? I know you’ve done some work at the urban level, at the state level. Are there things that can happen at the state level that can make a real difference here? Or things that maybe are already happening already?

CASTAÑEDA: They should, and they can. But I think my short answer to that question will be, no. States are not doing enough to welcome. I think Utah has sometimes some good ideas about this, but in New York, for example, it’s always been an immigrant, a very diverse city. I would characterize their policies as laissez-faire. They let immigrants figure it out, but they provide very little support in reality. So I think we can do—the states and the cities, the governors could do more to welcome immigrants and try to push for better policies. Like what they are doing right now. It’s a shame that even the Mayor of New York and democratic governors are complaining about the new arrivals of people coming in buses, and that they cannot offer them any help or resources.

And because governors and mayors are used to letting immigrants take care of themselves—which they do. They are coming here to work and their families are going to support them. Or civil society, churches to support and provide that welfare in the beginning. There’s very little support compared to Canada or Europe. So to ask for them to do that, it’s a big stretch, but we should keep pushing that.

ALDEN: Heidi, do you want to add anything on that one?

ALTMAN: I think what I’ll just add is that there’s this whole—there’s a whole roster of welcome policies as Ernesto is referencing. Access to benefits, shelter, services. But there’s a flipside too that I think we have to not lose sight of. Chicago, where my organization, National Immigrant Justice Center, is headquartered, has a really robust sanctuary policy at the city level. And I think that you just have to remember that once immigrants are in our communities, and a robust part of our communities. And that it is equally as important for cities and localities to say that they will not work in collaboration or cooperation with the federal government on enforcement issues.

Because when that entanglement happens what it does is it erodes trust at a very general level among immigrant communities who then become afraid to—who lose trust in all public institutions, not just the police, and become afraid to send their kids to school, become afraid to go to the DMV. So I think that having that real clear red line, or wall, whatever you want to call it, between federal enforcement and the work of state and local law enforcement agencies is equally critical.

ALDEN: Excellent. Thanks very much.

Riki, next question, please.

OPERATOR: I’m going to combine two questions.

The first is from Christina Kilby from James Madison University. She writes: What risks or fragilities do you see with the new Welcome Corps, or private sponsorship program for refugees? For example, will religious groups only sponsor refugees who share their religion? Or will refugees feel pressure to convert in order to be attractive to private sponsors? How can we welcome more refugees while mitigating potential downsides of this new program?

Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty asks a question: Are there examples of religious support for immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in other countries that have made a difference in public opinion and policy that those of us in the U.S. could learn from?

ALDEN: Which of you wants to start off with that one?

ALTMAN: (Laughs.) Go ahead, Ernesto.

CASTAÑEDA: OK. (Laughs.) So I think Christina raises important issues. And that will be for the audience to help the stranger, whatever religion they have and whatever tradition, which we saw with Afghans. It wasn’t only mosques helping them, or it wasn’t only helping Christians or other religions, Afghans. It was helping across the board. And that was important. And I think it will be important for people here to not see this as a direct opportunity to proselytize or to evangelize, and more of an opportunity for the congregation or the church to do a service to other human beings.

Because, talking about other countries, I’ve also have done work in Spain and in France. And in France, the churches are not allowed to do all this work. And they don’t, or a large part. There are exemptions, but it’s not as active as in the U.S. But in Spain, I saw many examples of nonprofits and churches that had a Christian or Catholic brand. And a lot of Moroccan immigrants that were Muslim felt that tension and that pressure to convert to apply for asylum or to receive services. It wasn’t a direct thing. But, for example, something as basic as giving thanks or having a prayer before having a meal in a soup kitchen, that was a tough issue for some of the immigrants and the refugees.

So I would invite all of you that are helping to try to create that wall between the religious and the service sector, so that people choose to become part of the church later once they are settled in your city, rather than making that as a mechanism to attract them. And unfortunately, the welcome package it has to be—I mean, civil society have to keep alert so that small churches don’t take this as an opportunity to increase their numbers. It’s good that you raised that up, thank you.

ALDEN: Thank you. That’s a very thoughtful answer. Heidi, did you want to add anything, or should we  move on? The only thing I would just add quickly on the Welcome Corps initiative, which I’ve been looking at, the potential for community sponsorship is much broader than the churches. The churches, obviously, have historically played a key role here, but any group of five people, and they’re encouraging workplaces, and universities, and schools, and civic organizations. So the potential here I think is to go well beyond the churches, even though the churches, of course, have historically played a really big role in this area.

Riki, back to you.

OPERATOR: Our next written question is from Holly Atkinson from CUNY School of Medicine.

She writes: Physicians, psychologists, social workers, and other health care workers are involved in conducting forensic exams for asylees and submitting affidavits to immigration officials, which we know statistically increases the odds of asylum being granted. But besides doing these exams, how can the medical profession specifically partner with the legal community to advocate for more human immigration policies?

ALDEN: Heidi was this something you—oh, go ahead, Ernesto. I was thinking Heidi might have encountered this directly in some of the work she’s done in DC. But either of you, go ahead.

CASTAÑEDA: Heidi, please, yeah.

ALTMAN: No, no, go ahead. Get started, I’ll follow you.

CASTAÑEDA: No, no, I was going to say that I’m going to let you answer that. (Laughter.)

ALDEN: Well, I think you’ve worked on the ground at that level maybe more than Ernesto, so I was going to throw it to you, yeah.

ALTMAN: I just have to say that it is—the gratitude, as legal practitioners, that we feel to the doctors and the therapists who are willing to give of their time to do these forensic evaluations. And this goes to the point that you made earlier, Ernesto, we’re talking about access to asylum, but then actually getting asylum is a whole other story. It’s incredibly difficult. The law is so complex. And we are still living in a system where if you’re seeking asylum on the basis of torture, you have to prove that you have scars from that torture. And that’s re-traumatizing, and it often involves a medical examination that can be re-traumatizing. And so working with doctors who come to that work from a place of having been trained on how to deal with people who are experiencing trauma, who come from a place of compassion, it just makes all the difference in the world.

One thing I’ll say is that if you’re looking for a place to contribute, it is often very difficult for people to find practitioners who are willing to do those examinations in detention, for people who are in ICE detention. And that’s where the need is even greater. And so it’s an experience, getting to go to immigration detention. I would just say, if that’s something you’re interested in doing and you want to be connected with an organization in your area, reach out to me. I’m happy to make that connection.

But then the other thing I would say is that there are such rich partnerships and advocacy at the federal level. Physicians for Human Rights I think is a great example of an organization that is looking at what is happening on the border with Title 42, with—they looked a return to Mexico, all these policies, and talking about it as a public health issue. That when you have the equivalent of essentially refugee camps on the Mexico side of the border because of these policies, that’s a public health issue. There’s no access to health care. There’s no access to certainly mental health care.

So there’s just a lot of work that can be done there. And at least I can say from the immigrant advocacy community we’re always looking to partner with associations and organizations that are looking at this issue from that lens.

ALDEN: Thank you. That was a very rich answer, with a lot of good, actionable items there. I actually just want to spin this out into a slightly broader question, you talked about this in this answer and I think we talked about it in other places. The categories under our asylum law, the sort of persecution or violence that you need to be fleeing and that you need to prove in order to be eligible for asylum, these categories essentially came out in the wake of World War II.

Are they at all appropriate anymore? Even the sort of stark division we have between asylum seekers and economic migrants, which I think is often not clear cut at all. I realize this is not on the political agenda at the moment, but do we need to be thinking more broadly about whether these categories that we’ve been locked into for a long time are really an appropriate way of understanding and responding to this set of migration challenges?

Ernesto, maybe I’ll throw that to you first, because Heidi was just on the spot, but.

CASTAÑEDA: Exactly. So part of the challenge, and the solution, is to get away from these very strict categories that are legal. Meaning, they’re created by bureaucrats. They’re created by the state for their own purposes, and they don’t often reflect the reality on the ground. So to continue answering that question, I see also that Don asks, why do asylum-seekers often cross several countries to get to the U.S. rather than stopping in another country along the way? And that’s why we have to keep—both things at the same time.

So people escaping Venezuela, let’s say right now, or Cuba, they may dislike the government. They may disagree with the policies of the government. They may have gone to a protest to show discontent. And because of that, they may be having threats from local police or local authorities as dissidents. And then they may have a political reason to leave. But also because of the dire economic situation, partly because of economic sanctions of the U.S. that are affecting the population and, again, on the foreign relations aspect we can also do a lot to help or make the situation in Latin American or other countries worse.

But if the situation is really bad and there’s political discontent and the family is suffering economically, they have to move for security reasons and for economic reasons. So this is already a mixed thing. And then once somebody leaves their country, they have to look for safety. That can be in the country next door, but the reality is also they have to really have safety, which is not the case if you’re in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala. And if you are Haitian, for example, and you are Black, or if you don’t speak Spanish because you are from the Middle East, you will have people extorting you, trying to kidnap you, police trying to bribe you every five minutes. It’s not safe, unfortunately. It’s a reality. It should be different, but it is the case.

And they also need to get a job. And it’s very hard for an economic—for Nicaragua, also with a lot of issues, a Venezuelan, it’s going to be very hard for them to go to Nicaragua along the way to the U.S. and say: “I’m going to stop here because I got a job and I’m safe.” The people that do, do. And that happens. But many of them are trying to meet somebody already that they have—a brother, a sibling, a family member—somebody they know that is going to offer them a job as soon as they come here.

So they not only are going to be safe, but they also have to be economically safe. They have to have a source of income so they can feed themselves and they don’t have to depend on charity forever, and also a lot of the times they cannot bring everybody back. So they have to make enough money to send remittances, to send money to support the grandma who’s too sick to travel but needs to buy medicines. So they need to have a job. And the U.S., Canada, Europe, they are the economies that have this need for labor, and paying hard currency that goes a long way in Cuba and El Salvador.

So it’s always an economic and a political issue, and an issue of safety. And for example, Mexico has a very small percentage of immigrants. It would do better as a country if it had more immigrants, but it’s very bad at providing asylum papers and refugee status to as many people as they should, and to provide jobs. There’s a community, but it could be bigger. But arriving to Mexico is not enough for somebody from many of these countries to say I’m safe, and I have a job, and I don’t need to go to the U.S. They need to keep traveling further to accomplish their goals of being no longer persecuted by any state actor and to have access to their family and to economic resources.

ALDEN: Thank you, Ernesto.

Heidi, do you want to add a little bit to that?

ALTMAN: Yeah. I’m so glad you asked this question, because the grounds for asylum and then the evidentiary standards that have to be met. I wish that when we encounter clients at NIJC we could say: “You have a strong claim. We feel confident.” Often there is very little correlation between the strength of your asylum claim and whether you’ll actually win in court. And so you have to meet the definition of a refugee to win asylum. In order to do so, you have to show you’ll be persecuted on the basis of your race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or being a member of a particular social group. That’s where we fit things like a woman who fled domestic violence and her husband is a member of the security forces, right? She’s going to have to show that she’s a member of a particular social group, because the police won’t protect her from domestic violence.

 I sometimes wish I had a picture of the hundreds of pages of evidence that our attorneys file for one asylum case. Literally hundreds of papers. And remember that more than half of people seeking asylum in immigration court don’t have a lawyer. So how are they doing that, in their second, third language? Very quick anecdote. I remember right before the pandemic, I was visiting an immigration detention facility in New Mexico. It’s a private prison, as many of them are—huge, private prison. And I was volunteering basically helping out with the local organization that provides a know your rights orientation to people detained there.

And I ended up sitting with a group of men who were all from western Africa. One of them in particular spoke an indigenous language. So I was trying to communicate with him sort of through French, and he was looking—he was trying to understand the actual asylum application. And he pointed to a particular social group. And he said what is this? And I’ve done a lot of KYRs, know your rights presentations in my time. And just in that moment it really struck me that I’m trying to explain in French to a man who doesn’t speak French, or English, what is a particular social group.

How can I communicate this clearly enough that he can then go to the immigration judge, this young, sweet, twenty-year-old guy, and say: “My tribe is a particular social group, and because of my membership in that particular social group, I’m going to be persecuted if I go back, and it’s connected to my political opinion?” It’s impossible. We are really setting people up to fail. And so we really hoped to see a lot of regulatory change under this administration to simplify and also clarify the ways that categories can be fit more cleanly into those groups. And we haven’t seen that yet.

ALDEN: Excellent. Thank you both very much.

Riki, back to you. Are there additional questions?

OPERATOR: Yes. We have a question from Thomas Walsh from the Universal Peace Federation.

Who writes: Are there nations you can point to that have managed immigration more effectively and compassionately with better policies and best practices than the USA?

ALDEN: Who wants to start off with that one?

CASTAÑEDA: Unfortunately, in many ways in practice on the ground, in terms of acceptance of religious diversity or freedom of religion and all that, the U.S. is a leader. And we have a proved history of making Americans out of people from around the world. Our policies leave a lot to be desired, though. I like a lot the practical and the policies on the ground of Barcelona, for example. They are more likely to approve somebody for asylum in Spain overall. They have a tradition of human rights. They’ve been growing a lot in the economy because of people coming from other parts of Spain and internationally, so they know that their economy requires that.

They have been very successful in making sure that all the children of immigrants that are in their schools learn Catalan. And soon enough, they become Catalan, because they have also this issue between Spain and Catalonia, that immigrants could be a tricky issue. I interviewed hundreds of immigrants living in Barcelona from different parts of the world, and they feel that they belong to the city, to Catalonia, and therefore to Spain and Europe. So it’s very, very successful in people getting access to jobs, to rights, and to this sense of belonging I think that is key.

And the way that they do that is that they, first and foremost, protect the rights of the people. Welcome them actively. For example, there was this program where they have staffing and funds for that. For example, there will be kids doing family reunification. So the mother from Peru has been living in Spain, working legally for a while. Now she’s asking for her kid to come from Peru legally. The kid, a teenager fourteen years old, is going to now live in Barcelona. So the kid will be invited with other youth to the opera. They mayor will welcome them, give them a speech, give them a little letter that say now you’re a citizen of Barcelona.

So it’s a small thing that costs very little, but then the reunified youth feels literally welcomed by the mayor to their new city. So that goes a long, long way. And, again, it’s not tons of resources. But it does a lot. So we can do a lot of things like that at the local level. And the other thing that Barcelona does really right is that they start by respecting the language, the religion, and the culture of that person coming. They say, “OK, you identify as Bolivian. OK, you want to organize the group as Bolivian immigrants in Barcelona? Here’s some funds to do cultural activities. OK, you’re a Muslim? Here’s money so that you can do stuff around religion openly with no persecution,” et cetera.

So that’s a very good way to do what America does, but with intention, with government support, and with resources, and with the staffing, and less fear of being stopped by the police and deported than we have in some places here.

ALDEN: Excellent. Thanks very much, Ernesto.

Heidi, do you have other countries or jurisdictions that you look at and say maybe they understand some things that we don’t, and do this better?

ALTMAN: Yeah. One place I would look specifically, where the United States is sort of egregiously out of step with international norms, is the reliance on incarceration and immigration detention for processing. So we use private prisons and county jails to manage immigration, asylum seekers. The way they are greeted in the United States is often through detention. So I think that there are a lot of examples around the world of countries that have developed, in partnership with civil society, case management programs that are really community based that allow for a phase out entirely of the use of detention. And these programs have really high efficacy rates. They’re obviously much less expensive than detention.

Colombia is a country that recently has been held up as actually doing this quite well. And they are, of course, receiving significant numbers of refugees from Venezuela. They are not using detention for that population. They are instead using a case management-type approach, combined—and this is probably the key—paired with regularization. They are providing status for these refugees when they arrive. And that assists with integration which Ernesto has spoken to beautifully. There are many other examples. But it’s an important place to look for models.

ALDEN: Yeah. I think that’s a really important one. I mean, two areas where I find it quite depressing that the evidence seems very clear that there are better, of course, alternatives to detention is one. There’s been a lot of good research on that in the United States. Much more effective than keeping people incarcerated. And the second, which you hinted at, Heidi, providing legal counsel to asylum seekers, which we don’t do. Again, I think the evidence is pretty clear, would make the process much more effective and efficient and controlled than it is. I think one of the reasons you get the public reaction that you do in this country is just the sense that the system is not in control. So those were both excellent examples.

We just have a couple of minutes left before I turn it back to Irina. Any last words? You’ve got a one-minute quick closer for each of you. Ernesto, any last thoughts you want to leave us with?

CASTAÑEDA: Yes. I’m so glad that Heidi brought up Colombia. They’ve been doing a terrific job with a neighbor going through a lot of turmoil, accepting large numbers of people, and regularizing them. Giving them papers so they can work there legally has gone a long way. And because of that, those people are not coming here. They are staying in Colombia. They will become Colombians, and their children will too. We can support through foreign policy that more consciously, and we can start policies like that, and make it reality on the ground.

And just to close, along that to remember the promise of immigration reform, which will be that to provide amnesty to people in the U.S., DREAMers and others, that have been living here often for more than ten years. And they live with us, they go to our churches, they pay taxes, they have a job, they feel at home. But they don’t have papers to travel and visit family members, and all that. We’re always fighting Title 42 and the parole and all these issues that are at hand and are emergencies. So I think it will be important for advocates, like many of you here, to keep the pressure to take care of the people that are already here, to go the Colombia way. If we make them citizens, everybody benefits. And I stay away from this how can we stop people from coming, how can we push people away. That’s not going to work. And if it worked, it would be bad news for the U.S.

ALDEN: Thank you very much, Ernesto.

Heidi, I’m afraid you’ve got thirty seconds. So go, last thought here.

ALTMAN: We just have to keep doing what we’re doing here today. We have to talk about this issue even around the dinner table, Thanksgiving table, and in a nuanced way, and in a way that acknowledges humanity. And check our friends and our colleagues when they use terms like “flood,” or “wave,” or “invasion,” and remember that we’re talking about moms, dads, kids, loved ones, people who have left communities behind and are seeking safety. And I am so glad that we were able to really do that, I think, in a nuanced way today. So thanks, Ted.

ALDEN: Wonderful. Thanks to both of you for an incredibly rich conversation.

Back over to you, Irina, for a closing note here.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. This was a wonderful conversation. And we will be sharing with you all a link to the video and the transcript. I hope that you will share it widely with your community, because there was a lot of important information discussed today.

You can follow Heidi Altman on Twitter at @heidiraltman, Ernesto Castañeda at @drernestocast, and Ted Alden at @edwardalden. And of course, you can continue to follow us on Twitter at @CFR_religion. Please do share any feedback with us on topics or speakers for further Social Justice Webinar sessions and for the Religion and Foreign Policy Program more broadly at [email protected]. Our next webinar will be on Lula’s presidency and the future of Brazil on Thursday, February 2, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. So you should be receiving that invitation momentarily if you haven’t already.

So, again, thank you all for today’s conversation and we hope you have a wonderful day.

Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*