USA TODAY US Edition

Im­mi­gra­tion lawyer: Why a wall won’t work

- Laura Peña Laura Peña, a busi­ness im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney, is a for­mer as­sis­tant chief coun­sel at ICE. She was direc­tor of Latino out­reach for Clin­ton’s 2008 cam­paign.

In early 2015, I en­tered a stuffy, packed fed­eral court­room in Los An­ge­les. I was the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment (ICE) trial at­tor­ney, do­ing my best to fol­low the pri­or­i­ties set by Pres­i­dent Obama: to de­port felons, not fam­i­lies, and iden­tify peo­ple who pose a threat to so­ci­ety.

I took a deep breath as the judge called the first case — a cry­ing baby, no more than eight months old, one of the thou­sands of un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors in im­mi­gra­tion court dur­ing the Cen­tral Amer­ica bor­der surge. The judge glared at me while try­ing to fig­ure out how to get an in­fant on the of­fi­cial court record.

Be­fore then, as a se­nior ad­viser at the State De­part­ment un­der Sec­re­tary Hil­lary Clin­ton, I lis­tened to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Cen­tral Amer­ica ex­press frus­tra­tion about our mass de­por­ta­tion of hard­ened crim­i­nals, many of whom spoke lit­tle Span­ish. These na­tive sons and daugh­ters had learned vi­o­lence on the streets of L.A., and con­tin­ued the cy­cle of vi­o­lence on their re­turn.

Don­ald Trump por­trays Amer­ica un­der Obama and Clin­ton as a law­less na­tion that al­lows all crim­i­nal im­mi­grants to stay in the coun­try. But his fear tac­tics dis­tort the re­al­ity. I worked along­side or­di­nary civil ser­vants look­ing for hu­mane ways to fo­cus our de­por­ta­tion ef­forts on na­tional se­cu­rity threats, known gang mem­bers, vi­o­lent crim­i­nals and re­cent ar­rivals to the U.S.

Trump’s hall­mark pol­icy is a bor­der wall that he in­sists Mex­ico will fi­nance. It would fail mis­er­ably. As an ICE of­fi­cer, I vis­ited the wall along the San Diego and Ti­juana bor­der, and saw por­tions blasted by smug­glers only to be re­built over and over on the tax­pay­ers’ dime. How many times would Trump try to re­build his multi­bil­lion dol­lar wall? Once? Ten times?

The steps we re­ally need are in the di­rec­tion of im­proved tech­nol­ogy, in­creased re­sources and reliance on old-fash­ioned Amer­i­can in­ge­nu­ity.

In con­trast to Trump’s wall-cen­tered pol­icy, Clin­ton prom­ises to push for com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form in her first 100 days in of­fice. She has also vowed to de­fend Obama’s ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions to keep fam­i­lies to­gether, and en­sure that vi­o­lent crim­i­nals are de­tained and de­ported.

Af­ter be­ing part of ICE, I de­cided that no­body “wins” or “loses” in im­mi­gra­tion court — but ev­ery­one leaves feel­ing scarred. Our sys­tem has been overly politi­cized and our laws are inad­e­quate, forc­ing cer­tain im­mi­grants into court be­cause there is no abil­ity to seek re­lief else­where. Peo­ple can lan­guish for years on sim­ple ad­min­is­tra­tive is­sues that could be solved if only they had the right to an at­tor­ney. Fi­nally, our im­mi­gra­tion judges are do­ing Her­culean work that re­mains un­der­funded and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated.

If we are go­ing to fix our im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem, we need a pres­i­dent who un­der­stands the grav­ity and com­plex­ity of the prob­lem. For this for­mer ICE of­fi­cial, the choice is clear.

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