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Lunch with Mimi: Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia

by on February 27, 2017 2:29 PM

Immigration has become more of a hot topic this year, especially with some of the actions taken by President Trump, than previous ones. Penn State Law professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia believes it’s time for comprehensive immigration reform.

As an expert on immigration law and one of the nation’s leading scholars on the role of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law, her research focuses on the intersections of national security, race, and immigration.

At Penn State Law, she teaches doctrinal courses in immigration and asylum, and refugee law. She also is the founder/director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, where students work on immigration cases and projects on behalf of clients and the community. At the clinic, students also provide community outreach and education on immigration topics and legal support in individual cases of immigrants who are challenging deportation. The clinic recently joined Welcoming America, a national movement of organizations and municipal governments interested in making their communities more welcoming to immigrants and refugees.

Prior to joining Penn State, Wadhia was deputy director for legal affairs at the National Immigration Forum in Washington, DC. She has been honored by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Inspector General and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and, in 2003, she was named Pro Bono Attorney of the Year by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, to Indian parents, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree with honors from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1996. She also earned her Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law Center in 1999.

Prior to inauguration day in January, Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Wadhia at the Gardens Restaurant at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center to discuss the current immigration laws in the United States, how the Trump administration will affect the legal status of immigrants currently living here, what measures are in place to protect immigrants’ rights, and what should be done moving forward in regards to immigration.

Mimi: I am so excited about this interview because I’m the child of immigrant parents and I understand the uniqueness to that connection. I have been so troubled with the pendulum swinging negatively in terms of welcoming immigrants to this country. Could you give us a little bit of background of how that has happened? It’s not just Donald Trump.

Shoba: Sure. As a law professor and immigration lawyer, in a lot of ways I think of immigration in legal terms of a book that is a third the size of a telephone directory called the Immigration and Nationality Act that was passed by Congress in 1952. We have a history of welcoming certain newcomers and also placing restrictions. Early on, restrictions were made for quantitative and qualitative reasons. Individuals who were epileptic or lunatics were kept out of the United States. Later in history, Congress changed and added quantitative restrictions so that only a certain number of people would be allowed into the US.

Mimi: Can you give us some examples?

Shoba: One of the largest forms of immigration is through family in the US. Our family-based immigration system is designed in such a way that the most number of visas for people who are coming permanently is through family. There are preferences, ceilings, quotas, and let me just say that for someone who wants a green card there are four ways to get one — through family, an employer, as a refugee, or through the diversity lottery program. Within the family-based system, if you are an immediate relative of a US citizen — a spouse, parent, or child — there’s always a visa available. 

Mimi: That’s good news.

Shoba: That’s good news for those who are in a qualifying relationship and also those who are admissible to the United States. There are other family relationships that are recognized by US law. I’ll take my father for example, who was a green card holder who sponsored my mother under the family-based preference system. There are fewer visas available, and there’s a longer line because of the numbers that are allotted each year for the spouses of green card holders. Some of these waiting periods are very long. A US citizen brother looking to sponsor a brother who lives overseas, that sponsored sibling might be waiting years, sometimes even 20 years before a visa becomes available. Our quotas have not been updated by Congress in more than 25 years.

Mimi: Is that because they don’t care?

Shoba: I don’t believe so. I think when you hear that we have a broken immigration system, part of what we’re talking about is our legal immigration system, not only what are we going to do with the 11.3 million people living in the US without papers. How are we going to deal with the future flow or people coming to fill in much needed job opportunities?

We have a lot of rhetoric that’s short on details when we look at the President. For certain immigrant populations, there’s a reason to feel vulnerable. He has more than once on the campaign trail suggested that a so-called criminal alien will be deported. He later reformed that to say 2 to 3 million criminal aliens. We don’t have 2 to 3 million people living in the US undocumented with criminal convictions. We have something closer to 820,000. Another target of the President, which again we need to see the details for, include so called “dreamers,” or young people who came to the US before the age of 16 who are in school or have graduated and are not an enforcement priority and are contributing to the universities, economy, and communities in meaningful ways. More than 700,000 young people in the US have received a form of protection called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA is a program that was announced by President Obama in 2012 that was meant to be a temporary form of protection for “dreamers.” They’re at the bottom of the barrel when you think about who should be targeted for enforcement. More than once we have a President that’s said he will remove DACA. Whether or not that would apply retroactively to those who are protected by DACA, we don’t know.

Mimi: What defense do they have in terms of being told to leave this country? Do they have any options?

Shoba: The majority of the dreamer population who have received DACA cannot be automatically put on a plane. Potentially, if the President chose to prioritize DACA recipients for enforcement, many would need to be apprehended or arrested and then served with a charging document, and then placed in removal proceeding and see an immigration judge.

Mimi: How much influence do people like you have?

Shoba: Well, on an individualized basis, I might first look at the charge, so let’s assume that you’re my client or a potential client that has made an appointment with me. You hand me your passport, driver’s license, and charging document that was just sent to you in the mail by immigration saying you overstayed your visa here. I need to get all background information on you, and if the only charge you have is overstaying your visa, I might try and get the charges thrown out before you’re even scheduled for a court hearing. ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) is one arm of the Department of Homeland Security. After 9/11, the old immigration agency, Immigration Naturalization Service, was abolished by statute, and a new Department of Homeland Security was created. Attorneys within ICE represent the government when a noncitizen is being charged with removal and going before a judge that is in the Department of Justice. It’s possible for someone to interact with multiple agencies before they go before a judge, and if you add to that someone who is limited in English, education, or has cultural barriers, there are a lot of challenges that go well beyond the law with our immigration system when we think of the people who are affected by it.

Mimi: Tell me a little bit about your clinic. How did that come about?

Shoba: I was living in Washington, DC, working as a legal director for a nonprofit called the National Immigration Forum. I was teaching immigration law at Howard University School of Law and was teaching asylum and refugee Law at American University. I went on the teaching market and found the job at Penn State immediately appealing. The law school was looking for someone to start an immigration clinic and teach related courses. The idea of writing my own mission statement and starting a clinic here was highly appealing. I started an Immigrants Rights Clinic in 2008. We became operational less than six weeks after I arrived. I had always had this idea that my students would be involved in policy work and, as a lawyer, impact work is also important. Legislative lawyering is an active way to be an advocate to change policy and law and maybe even use your own client’s stories as a way to move Congress. The mission of the clinic is really to prepare students to be effective immigration lawyers and advocates, to understand and appreciate the relationship between immigration law, policy, and politics. The clinic started as a 100 percent policy clinic, and all of our clients were organizations across the country. We do a lot of work in our community. In 2014, there was a pretty publicized raid that took place in State College at several Asian restaurants, and that really opened the eyes of our community about how immigration can impact a local community. I feel not only a responsibility to provide accurate information to our community but also to help those who are vulnerable and in need and educate the community as much as possible. Since that time, we have worked closely with the municipality. The current mayor of State College has been a client of the clinics on more than one occasion. Last year, I had another student research the role of local police in immigration enforcement and held a Q&A with the former police chief Tom King. It was highly informative. Local police are far more concerned with keeping our community safe and ensuring victims and witnesses feel safe reporting crimes regardless of what their status is. Enforcing the immigration law really belongs to the federal government.

Mimi: Do you see any possibility of things getting easier for the people who deserve to have consideration?

Shoba: The reality is that we have scores of families and it’s critical for the government to look at each individual separately. A great move by Congress would be to restore discretion that our judges used to have when they could individually assess a person’s case. If you have a US citizen child, if you are a breadwinner in your family, or have created jobs for Americans, those are all reasons I think are worthy of consideration even with a potential criminal history. I also believe that our immigration process is so broken that what we need is comprehensive immigration reform.

Mimi: How do you think we could achieve that?

Shoba: Real immigration reform requires an act of Congress that includes looking at our legal system and updating our backlogs and ceilings so that they are in line with the twenty-first century. You might hear: Why don’t they just get in line? Well, for the vast majority of people working in essentially skilled fields, there is no line to get in. Part of reform includes creating legal channels for people coming in the future to fill with jobs. In terms of the current population already residing here, I do think with an application process and background checks we want to know who is here. The best way to do that might be to develop a program or system where people have an incentive to come forward and go through the background checks, get registered with the law. These are all the pieces in my view that make up comprehensive immigration reform. I would also vastly reduce the reliance our government has on immigration detention. History has shown there’s been bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform. But immigration reform isn’t the number one agenda our current President has.

Mimi: On that note, we can look to the future and hope it works better than the past.

Shoba: Thank you so much for having me!

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