Faculty Spotlight

April Faculty Spotlight with Professor and Ackerman Lecture Series on Equality and Justice Chair, Robert C. Smith

apr 18 faculty spotlight

With unprecedented levels of worldwide migration and the future of DACA at risk, immigration is a more divisive topic than ever in an increasingly partisan U.S. We discuss Trump’s wall, how to make immigrant communities safer, and more with Professor, Robert C. Smith in this month’s faculty spotlight.

Tell us about your Master of International Affairs course: PAF 9430 Diaspora, Migration and Transnational Life in the Western Hemisphere and Beyond. Why is it so important for a student of international affairs to understand migration and immigration?
New York, like America, was built by immigrants and their children. We all have an immigrant story somewhere in our past. Immigrants today face many of the same challenges as prior immigrants in terms of integrating into a new society, and, like prior immigrants, have also often kept links with their countries of origin, creating transnational life, or with others in a widely dispersed community, like a religious community, creating a diaspora. For students getting an MIA or MPA or MSEd, understanding that history and those dynamics will help them in their work with immigrants and their children.

Immigration has become a particularly divisive issue in the U.S. and Europe over the last few years, contributing to the rise of populist and nationalist movements and leaders. How is migration seen in other countries around the world? How is it seen in Latin America? What is the reaction in Latin America to President Trump's vows to build a wall?
Many Latin American countries are countries of both immigration and emigration. That is, they both send migrants to other countries, and receive them from other countries. Mexico is both a destination country and a pass through country for Central Americans. Central Americans moving through Mexico confront grave risks, and cannot count on their basic human rights being respected. There are efforts to improve the situation, but it is still extremely dangerous.  

The vow to build a wall puzzles and alarms many leaders in Mexico, as it does many people in the U.S. At a time when net new migration from Mexico has decreased, and when the U.S. faces many expensive challenges, why spend the money on a wall that will not accomplish its goal in any case?  How many programs to help those with opioid addiction, how many schools or teachers, or how many medical services for wounded veterans, could be paid for with the money we would have to spend on such a wall?

Last year at a Marxe Issues breakfast discussion on recent immigration policy changes and its effects on higher education you made the case that undocumented immigrants make their communities safer when they have a “free pass” to engage with law enforcement. Can you speak a bit about this?
The key issue is trust. The police cannot simultaneously act as deputy ICE agents (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that deports people) and protect all the people in the community, because the former role undermines the latter.  If immigrants believe that calling the police for protection will result in their being asked about status and deported, they will not call.  This dynamic was one factor leading to the death of Marcelo Lucero in 2008, when he was attacked by a group of local young men who believed they could attack immigrants with impunity.  In another case, a woman who had called the police for protection from domestic violence was delivered to ICE and deported. Imagine the chilling effect that would have on others who are victims of crime? Or the encouraging effect it would have on those who want to exploit the vulnerability of people who lack legal status?  

Trust is undermined when the police act as immigration agents when dealing with victims of crime, or in ordinary interaction with the public. But this position is not absolute, and legal sanction must be proportionate to the crime. If the person is convicted, for example, of a violent crime, then it is their status as the perpetrator of such a crime, and not their legal status, that drives their relationship with the law. Such violent criminals should be jailed, and then deported.  But in many places, immigrant drivers are routinely stopped by police, and delivered to ICE if found to lack papers, even if no crime was committed. A routine traffic stop should not cause the undocumented father of U.S. citizen children to be deported. It breaks a family apart, leaves children without their father, and will likely cause the family to fall into poverty. It also teaches those U.S. citizen children to fear and distrust the police. It makes no one safer, and makes many people’s lives harder, and erodes trust.

You have done a great deal of work with the Mexican community in New York, including a large project promoting applications for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in New York City and State, and Baruch’s Mexican Consulate Leadership Program. Why is the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs a great place to do the kind of work you do?
The Marxe School of Public and International Affairs supports this work in ways that embody what is best about CUNY, and upholds America’s best values. First, the Marxe School’s degree programs offer training that helps an emerging generation of leaders -- some immigrant themselves, some U.S. born children of immigrants -- to promote the full, fair, integration of newcomers into New York and America. Many of these young people lead organizations or movements -- the Marxe School gives them the skills to do this more effectively. 

Second, the Marxe School is an intellectually lively place that supports academically rigorous research that is engaged with the world, trying to make it better. The DACA project is a case in point -- we screened over 1,700 persons for DACA across New York State, helping many to apply for DACA, but are also doing basic research on how having, lacking or gaining legal status affects one’s own life and the lives of one’s children. It is rare for a place to support cutting edge research and applied work helping those being studied. This makes Marxe special.

The Marxe School of Public and International Affairs now has a MacArthur Genius grant winner -- Cristina Jimenez, who works in immigrant’s rights. Did you know her? 
Cristina’s recognition as a MacArthur Award winner is well deserved. She has been a driving voice in the immigrant’s rights movement over the last decade, and her voice is more needed now than ever. I have known her since she was an undergraduate; she took class with me as an MPA student at Baruch.

But I would also add, as she would, that she is one of many young leaders working to integrate immigrants and their children fully and fairly into American life. Others include Walter Barrientos (her husband), who is a lead organizer for Make the Road NY; Manuel Castro, the Executive Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE); and Angelo Cabrera, who founded an educational nonprofit (Masa) and now works as a researcher on immigration issues. I remember Cristina and Walter calling me to apologize for missing a class because they were in Washington lobbying for the Dream Act. I was delighted, too, that they were using things they learned in the class in their work.

The Marxe School is rightly proud of these young Americans helping newcomers to achieve the American Dream and to participate fully in and contribute to American life.