Over 200 students, faculty members and community members attended the Transforming Migrations symposium last Friday. The conference was led by panels of scholars, journalists, historians and lawyers from around the country who discussed US immigration policy from 1965 to present-day.
The symposium was the first in a series of symposia held in honor of UCI’s 50th anniversary, celebrating UCI’s academic research and innovation in various fields and illustrating how the campus will continue to contribute to these fields over the next 50 years.
“President Johnson signed the Immigration Act into law fifty years ago last Saturday, and UCI admitted its first students fifty years ago last Sunday, so we seized the opportunities to celebrate a couple fifties,” said UCI professor Louis DeSipio, one of the event’s organizers. “Imagining what UCI would be like today if there hadn’t been any Immigration Act of 1965 is just impossible.”
The two-day conference took nearly a year of planning and hosted speakers from around the country. The first day, held at Beckmann Center, was led by journalists who presented how they framed discussions about immigration for a public often resistant to them. The second day, held at the Student Center, featured several panels which discussed immigration issues faced in the past, their relevance today and how they can be overcome in the near future.
The speakers discussed immigration from various perspectives, from depicting obstacles faced by immigrants today through personal stories to challenges in the broader law and government.
University of Minnesota professor Erika Lee spoke about the discrimination and exclusion Asian Americans faced before the 1965 Immigration Act. The act caused the population of Asian Americans to rise rapidly, and Lee discussed that they faced many concerns, from poverty and constant surveillance to growing numbers of undocumented immigrants.
“Even though the public discourse would have us think that the undocumented and unauthorized population is only a Latino issue, the Asian undocumented immigration population is actually the fastest growing group,” said Lee.
UCI Associate Professor Ana E. Rosas discussed the difficulties Mexican families faced under the Bracero program from 1942 to 1964, which allowed temporary contract laborers from Mexico to work in the US. She alluded to several individual stories and especially focused on the role women played during this time and shortly after the Immigration Act was passed.
“By 1965, because of the Immigration Act, a very different effort took fold. Women were talking to each other very publicly and very collectively about what the migration act meant to them,” said Rosas.
Professor of Sociology at UC San Diego David Scott Fitzgerald argued that Western countries had the most racist policies, and that these policies were mobilized by democratic institutions, such as free press and free elections. For instance, in the late 19th century, more than 100,000 people voted in favor of excluding Chinese immigrants.
Professor FitzGerald discussed that it was the context of the Cold War that made excluding immigrants a diplomatic problem for both the U.S. and Canada, and is what eventually led to the passage of the Immigration Act.
“The Soviet Union was very active in pointing out to the rest of the world — and at the same time as there was this colossal struggle for the hearts and minds of the third world — that the US government and Canadian government were keeping people from entering. This was the defining geopolitical problem of the age,” said FitzGerald.
Keynote speaker Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Wasserman Dean & Distinguished Professor of Education at UCLA, connected immigration with the globalized context of the present-day. He especially emphasized the plight of immigrant children.
“Today, a quarter of children under the age of 18 — a total of over 18 million children — have an immigrant parent,” said Orozco. “There can’t be a bright American future without a bright future for our immigrant children.”
Several panelists discussed the repercussions of immigrant control today, such as the passage of new exclusionist laws and the constant threats of deportation and border control.
“I’ve been looking at populations of young adults who come to the U.S. as children, commonly known as DREAMers,” said Roberto G. Gonzales, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Many realities such as what it means to grow up in a low income family, what it means to have parents who don’t have legal status, what it means to see friends who are getting driver’s licenses, who are getting jobs, while you stay stuck, are often obscured.”
When discussing current immigration problems faced today, several panelists pointed to the ongoing refugee crisis, the second largest refugee crisis since WWII. Panelists offered that, with the prevalence of Islamophobia, many Americans do not believe Middle Eastern immigration will benefit the country. They also discussed the unprecedence of such a crisis, with catastrophic migrations, frequent violence, collapsed states, food insecurity and growing economic inequality.
With the ongoing political debate on immigration, attendees found the conference to be especially relevant.
“With the 2016 presidential election coming up, this event is very important for our campus and for our students. So many of us are immigrants, or come from immigrant families, so it’s very important for the student body to be politically aware of the issues, and I think this is event is a great stepping stone for learning about them,” said Katie Romo, a fourth-year Chicano/Latino Studies and political science double major.
This was the first of a series of symposia which will be held this academic year. The UCI community can anticipate the next symposium, entitled Science & Policy of Climate Change, on Oct. 28.