UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Immigration enforcement is often greatly impacted by the discretionary actions of policymakers and law enforcement officials. With this context as a starting point, the Symposium on the Ethics of Immigration Enforcement brought together ten experts from the fields of humanities, law, and social sciences to discuss immigration from an ethical perspective.
The two-day event, March 17 and 18, was co-sponsored by the Penn State Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, Latina/o Studies, Department of Philosophy, and Schreyer Honors College.
“I was honored that the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic could collaborate with units across campus on such an important topic that allowed us to examine questions of immigration that go beyond the law while also interrogating the philosophy that should drive law,” said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar, clinical professor of law, and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State Law in University Park.
“I would like to thank the many people at Penn State Law, including my students who supported this event in front of and behind the scenes,” Wadhia added.
A common theme of the symposium was that immigration enforcement is discretionary—that policymakers and law enforcement officials make decisions that go beyond legal mandates and often lead to unethical actions and outcomes. From there, the speakers made their cases for a more ethical and equitable immigration policy.
“Detention is Discretionary”
Immigration lawyer Bridget Cambria (left) kicked off the symposium with a conversation, moderated by Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, that focused on her work representing immigrants, particularly those detained in family detention centers. IMAGE CREDIT: Penn State Law
The symposium’s keynote speakers were immigration attorney Bridget Cambria, partner at Cambria & Kline, PC and co-founder of the nonprofit Aldea—The People’s Justice Center; and José Jorge Mendoza, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Washington.
Cambria kicked off the symposium with a conversation, moderated by Wadhia, that focused on her work representing immigrants, particularly those detained in family detention centers. Cambria described family detention and family separation as “strictly punitive” approaches to immigration that exist, she said, to discourage other families from attempting to migrate to the United States.
A frequent refrain in her conversation was that “detention is discretionary.”
“The simple answer is [family detention and separation] doesn't deter migration,” Cambria said, adding, “the consequences to families’ and children’s wellbeing are so great that it should never be accepted.”
Cambria also noted racial dynamics that often lead to unequal impacts—for example, that Black immigrants are less likely to receive legal representation and medical care in detention facilities.
José Jorge Mendoza, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Washington and the symposium's second keynote speaker, delivered a lecture on “Crimmigration and the Ethics of Migration.” IMAGE CREDIT: Penn State Law
As the second keynote, Mendoza delivered a lecture on “Crimmigration and the Ethics of Migration,” in which he evaluated immigration policies and practices from a philosophical perspective.
He described “crimmigration” as an approach with three specific aspects: criminal convictions that carry immigration consequences; violations of immigration law that lead to criminal punishments; and tactics used in criminal enforcement also being used for immigration enforcement. One of his concerns with crimmigration is that it unfairly alters the process and procedure by which a person's guilt is determined—for example, more pressure to accept a plea bargain, even if innocent, rather than go to trial and face the possibility of deportation.
“Crimmigration poses many threats to democratic society, such as undermining civil rights, human rights, and due process,” Mendoza said.
Ethics of Immigration
Clockwise from left: Amelia Wirts, José Jorge Mendoza, A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Désirée Lim, Ben Jones, and Eduardo Mendieta. IMAGE CREDIT: Penn State Law
The symposium closed with a panel discussion featuring:
- Daniel Calzadillas-Rodriguez, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Penn State, who examined the “inherited racialized protectionism” of U.S. immigration law;
- Désirée Lim, research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute and assistant professor of philosophy at Penn State, and Ben Jones, assistant director of the Rock Ethics Institute and associate research professor of philosophy, who examined the ethics of defunding the police, using U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a case study;
- Eduardo Mendieta, professor of philosophy and Latina/o studies at Penn State, who discussed immigration as a basic human right and argued that denying citizenship is a moral wrong; and
- Amelia Wirts, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Washington, who argued that oppression, racism, and discrimination are endemic to the U.S. legal system.
Kathleen Sexsmith, assistant professor of rural sociology, and Jules Wong, a Ph.D. student in philosophy, served as discussants during the panel.
Students in the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic also played an important role helping to organize the symposium. Penn State Law and clinic students Jacob Bies and Samira del pilar Vasquez Lavado, who are also working with Cambria’s nonprofit Aldea this semester, introduced Cambria preceding her keynote conversation.
“It was an honor to introduce Ms. Cambria, and I believe that she is a valuable role model for law students and an inspiration to continue advocating for children and families,” said Vasquez Lavado, who is a 2022 candidate in Penn State Law’s LL.M. program. “I must say that this symposium was enlightening, heartbreaking, inspiring, and educational.”
Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic is a nationally recognized in-house clinic focused on immigration. The clinic provides law students with hands-on clinical training in immigration law through three pillars: community outreach and education, pro bono legal support, and policy work. For more information on the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, visit its website or contact the clinic at email@example.com.