Race and the Law

On a sunny Saturday morning at a Home Depot in San Diego County, the drama begins. About a dozen men and women walk in front of the store with American flags and signs that proclaim "Illegal Aliens, Go Home." They call themselves Minutemen, and they say, among other things, that illegal immigration is a threat to national security and the flow of illegal aliens is an affront to the rule of law.

The Minutemen gather at this Home Depot for a reason. Every weekend, immigrant day laborers converge at the home supply store looking for work. On this Saturday, the laborers are joined by a group of immigration activists who oppose the Minutemen and their messages, carrying signs that read "Racists Go Home."

The two groups get into minor shouting matches as they walk the streets looking for support from the passersby. Caught in the middle, the day laborers - the people who work long, hard hours cutting down trees, building fences, or digging irrigation ditches in nice suburban neighborhoods across San Diego - seem uncomfortable with the protest. They're just looking for their next job.

As she sits in her law office in downtown San Diego, Lilia Velásquez '81 shakes her head as she contemplates the politicization of immigration and immigration law. Velásquez, one of California's most prominent and respected immigration lawyers, has been dealing with the complexity of immigration law for more than 20 years. During that time, she has seen a cycle of ongoing themes and arguments.

"Mexicans and people from Central America tend to stand out more," she says. "Some people have a sense that brown people are taking over, and nobody wants to feel that they are the minority. But the browning of America has been going on for years."

Velásquez believes that a variety of factors have made immigration one of the most pressing political issues in the United States, and she thinks race is one of those factors. "We do have a problem with certain classes of people. We feel they will not blend in," she says.

Or as David Card, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been a significant participant in the national debate on immigration, puts it: "If Mexicans were taller and whiter, it would probably be a lot easier to deal with."

A Cyclical Issue

Velásquez is a pragmatist, and she wants people to transcend the politics and race that surround the immigration discussion so they can understand the real issues. She believes that immigration needs to be framed using three basic principles:

  • Every country in the world has undocumented people.
  • We need to bring those numbers down to some manageable amount.
  • We need to control the flow of undocumented people.

"Whether we have 10 or 12 million illegal immigrants, Congress has said that we can't deport all people without documents," says Velásquez.

"Do we as a civilized society want to have 10 million live underground and not have access to assimilation? What do we do now? We need to legalize a great chunk of them and control the rest from coming."

She recalls being an active participant in a huge debate about immigration law that occurred in the 1980s.

"Immigration is a cyclical issue. I remember 20 years ago we were talking about the same issues: employer sanctions, deportations en masse, jobs, the economy, and cheap labor. The compromise in the 1980s was amnesty for about three million immigrants."

From a legal perspective, Velásquez believes that amnesty provided a reasonable starting point to address immigration. But the problem has continued and indeed multiplied because of a host of other challenges, including the complexity of enforcing immigration laws through employer sanctions.

"The enforcement side of the equation has been a complete fiasco," she says. "Why doesn't the U.S. enforce employment regulations? This has to do with a range of factors. Some employers want to do the right thing and get their workers legalized. But the process to do this can take years. Other employers see undocumented workers as a benefit to their business and a key to profits. For them, it's about capitalism.

"So in the last 20 years, the lure of better jobs in the U.S. for immigrants has remained. People continue to come to this country, and a new problem has arisen - the explosion of the forfeit document business to help illegal workers get into the country and stay."

As she works in the trenches to help immigrants navigate through the maze of laws to come to this country legally, Velásquez tries to keep her perspective. Day in and day out, she works tirelessly for a desperate family of political refugees from Ethiopia, a middle class family from Iran, or an abused woman from Mexico to help them find a new life in this country.

"Representing vulnerable immigrants and refugees can result in sleepless nights. What if I lose a case and an individual is deported and sent back to an oppressive country where he could be imprisoned or killed? But I try to reconcile these issues. The immigration issue will always be part of us. And we'll have to deal with it," she says.

A full version of this story appears in the Fall 2006 Res Ipsa.