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Justice for All? A Conversation with UNLV’s Michael Kagan and Mayra Salinas-Menjivar on Immigration in the Trump Era

Long before President Donald Trump took office, the American immigration system was already quite complex. Since Trump began implementing his deportation regime, it’s become a lightning rod of controversy and confusion. How on earth can we make any sense of it?

Fortunately, I was able to speak with a couple experts right here in Nevada. We sifted through the weeds of immigration law, discussed how it affects people in this state, and what they’re doing to help Nevada immigrants in their time of need.

“A program that’s premised on discretion is always going to have difficulty surviving when the administration is hostile.”
– Michael Kagan, UNLV Immigration Clinic, on DACA
Photo by Andrew Davey

Professor Michael Kagan not only teaches at UNLV Boyd Law School, but he also serves as Director of UNLV’s Immigration Clinic. Mayra Salinas-Menjivar graduated from Boyd Law last year, and now serves as an attorney at the clinic. They both joined me yesterday on campus to talk about how the immigration system works, how it’s changed since President Donald Trump took office, and how these changes are affecting our own communities here in Nevada.

We kicked things off with DACA, and Kagan explained why it’s remarkable that it exists in any form today: “A program that’s premised on discretion is always going to have difficulty surviving when the administration is hostile.” Or in other words, an executive action will always be vulnerable to the whims of the executive branch.

So why are immigrant rights advocates fearing the DACA lawsuit in Texas? As Kagan explained, “The judge in the Texas case [Andrew Hanen] is known to have an anti-immigrant orientation, and he’s previously ruled on similar issues with DAPA [the Obama administration’s attempt to expand DACA to provide deportation relief to additional immigrants].” He continued, “It’s likely to produce a very muddled landscape [for DREAMers].”

“They’re going to jobs, they’re trying to do everything right, but their basic ability to even pay their bills in six months is in doubt because of the way the government is treating them.”
– Michael Kagan

So what happens next? Despite other courts ruling in favor of DACA, an unfavorable ruling from Hanen will probably lead to a messy legal brawl that the Supreme Court will ultimately have to resolve. And it will likely be the courts that settle the fate of DACA, as Congress remains deadlocked on immigration reform.

For Kagan, this legal fight comes with a very high humanitarian cost: “We’ve got a lot of people who are just trying to survive and are trying to make their way in the world.” He added, “They’re going to jobs, they’re trying to do everything right, but their basic ability to even pay their bills in six months is in doubt because of the way the government is treating them. And it’s not just [their ability to] pay the bills, but they could also become deportable.”

Kagan then pointed out the larger issue within America’s immigration system: “It’s so incredibly destructive. A lot of people don’t realize that being a good person doesn’t count much in the immigration system. If your paperwork isn’t in order […], it doesn’t matter what you’ve done with your life, for the most part.”

“Whether you have a liberal judge or a conservative judge, that [federal court] judge has strong independence. Immigration courts don’t.”
– Michael Kagan
Photo by Andrew Davey

When I covered Cecilia Gomez’s journey through the Las Vegas Immigration Court, I had a very rude awakening on how this system works. Unlike standard federal courts, immigration courts are run by the U.S. Department by Justice. And unlike past Attorneys General, Jeff Sessions has shown anything but restraint with his meddling in the courts.

As Michael Kagan put it, “In this immigration court system, the judges work for [Sessions]. What has kept them mostly independent in the past has been the discretion of Attorneys General.”

So when Sessions demands that immigration judges expedite their cases and restricts refugees’ ability to gain asylum, these courts are under heavy pressure to follow Sessions’ orders. As Kagan explained, “Whether you have a liberal judge or a conservative judge, that judge has strong independence. Immigration courts don’t. As more and more pressure is applied, that matters.”

“[T]he administration is trying to punish immigrants for something that is a legal right they have. They have the right to public assistance if they are eligible for it, but the administration is trying to punish them for [exercising] that right.”
– Mayra Salinas-Menjivar, UNLV Immigration Clinic
Photo by Andrew Davey

Back in May, we examined how the Trump administration might change something called the “public charge” rule to penalize immigrants with legal status who use various social services, from SNAP to CHIP and HUD housing assistance. Thus far no rule change has been announced, though The New York Times has reported that such a change may come later this year.

For Mayra Salinas-Menjivar, “That is a great example of how the administration is trying to punish immigrants for something that is a legal right they have. They have the right to public assistance if they are eligible for it, but the administration is trying to punish them for [exercising] that right.”

Salinas-Menjivar then explained why this kind of rule change might result in more hurdles for immigrants with legal status: “Immigration is a system that doesn’t forget anything. They will look at your life entirely from the moment you got here, and even before that if they can.” She continued, “That’s something that makes this system far different from the criminal justice system, where there are statutes of limitation for all but the most heinous crimes. In immigration, that doesn’t exist.”

“They’re succeeding in generating a lot of fear without even producing a policy. […] It’s psychological warfare.”
– Michael Kagan, on Trump’s immigration rhetoric
Photo by Andrew Davey

During our conversation, Michael Kagan stressed that no “public charge” rule change has (yet?) been announced, and that there are concrete examples of immigrants being harmed by current Trump administration actions, such as the DACA fight, the new restrictions on protection for refugees, and the family separation crisis. On top of that, he noted, “They’re succeeding in generating a lot of fear without even producing a policy. […] It’s psychological warfare.”

Kagan then pointed out how this is playing out for many families here in Southern Nevada: “It’s not people who are leaving [by their own choice]. Their roots are too deep, and there’s nowhere else to go. It’s more that people live with high levels of fear and anxiety. It’s terrible.”

“We’re providing a service that provides a little breathing room to students. At least they know what their situation looks like.”
– Mayra Salinas-Menjivar
Photo by Andrew Davey

As UNLV prepares to get back to school, this is normally the time for students to buy their textbooks, load up on supplies, and get a head start on their fall classes. But as Kagan pointed out, “[…C]lasses are starting in two weeks, and we don’t know what the situation will be when it comes to this lifeline for so many students here at UNLV. We don’t know what will be two weeks from now, much less when they’ll take midterms later this semester.”

This is where the UNLV Immigration Clinic steps in. Not only are they continuing to provide assistance to refugees fighting deportation (including children), but they’re also offering free legal services to UNLV students, staff, and their family members. As Salinas-Menjivar described it, “We’re providing a service that provides a little breathing room to students. At least they know what their situation looks like.”

Salinas-Menjivar expressed hope that this will at least provide some answers for students who fear their future. She offered these words of wisdom for students who are wondering what to do next: “No one can take your education away. […] That’s why it’s really important for students to be able to focus on their education, finish their degrees, and not have the added stress of fearing they might get detained by ICE tomorrow.”

If you or someone you know is seeking assistance with an immigration case, you can check with the UNLV Immigration Clinic, the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, and the Culinary Union to see if they can help.

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