5 Questions on the Midterms with Immigration Law Expert Elora Mukherjee

October 30, 2018
Elora Mukherjee

Photo by Eileen Barroso

Elora Mukherjee is hoping the midterm elections can change what she says is the worst immigration policy she has seen in more than a decade of representing refugees, asylum seekers and immigrant families in the U.S.

“It’s appalling, heartbreaking, to see children in detention facilities. I never thought our nation would be so cruel,” said Mukherjee, the Jerome L. Greene Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and director of the School’s Immigration Rights Clinic. “This administration demonizes immigrants.”

Mukherjee came to the Law School as a fellow in 2013 and joined the faculty the following year. She previously was a staff attorney at the ACLU, where, among other things, she worked on behalf of immigrant children and their parents in Texas detention facilities. She is a founder and director of the Refugee Reunification Project, which provides grants to help refugee families purchase plane tickets to safety in the U.S., and a director of the Asylum Seekers Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York.

Q. What are the most pressing issues surrounding immigration policy?

A. There are so many issues. The big picture questions are who does the United States allow into the country and how do we treat people once they are here? Will we as a nation continue to detain asylum seekers and will we continue to separate families? A recent settlement agreement in federal district court, in a case challenging the separation of parents and children at the border, effectively said that’s no longer acceptable and gave a limited number of children and parents a second chance to apply for asylum. But this administration doesn’t have much appreciation for what courts decide. Will we continue to hold hundreds of unaccompanied children in tent cities at the border? Will the eligibility requirements for asylum and other forms of immigration relief continue to narrow so it becomes harder and harder to obtain immigration relief? In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an opinion saying that domestic violence can no longer be grounds for asylum, ignoring the fact that so many places around the world don’t treat women fairly and don’t have systems to protect them from abuse.

Q. What are you most worried about?

A. That the Democrats will lose both houses of Congress. The executive branch exercises so much control over immigration. Department of Homeland Security funding is skyrocketing while social service programs are being cut. This is one of the worst administrations in U.S. history in terms of immigration policy, in a country that is traditionally viewed as a nation of immigrants.

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Q. What will it take to make a change?

A. To create real lasting change, we need a President who values immigrants. If the Democrats are able to take back at least the House of Representatives and maybe the Senate, the legislative branch can act as a bulwark against the worst abuses. We have to continue to take a stance against the abuses of this administration.

Q. What is the immigration law clinic doing?

A. We represent dozens of asylum seekers, children and adults, those in detention and those who are not detained. In April, we represented a survivor of more than a decade of domestic violence who was detained upon arrival in the U.S. We produced documentation, testimony and medical records that led an immigration judge to grant her asylum and she walked out of the detention facility on a path to U.S. citizenship. We are now representing another survivor of violence, whose case will go to trial in November. But we are worried about her case because of the decision issued by Attorney General Sessions in June. Unlike in criminal cases, there is no right to a government-appointed lawyer in immigration proceedings. Immigration judges are appointed by, and serve at the pleasure of, the U.S. Attorney General. These are hard cases and our students can play a transformative role in people’s lives. We only represent people who are indigent, including members of the Columbia community.

Q. Is there any good news for immigrants?

A. In early October, a federal judge in California, Edward Chen, blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to end temporary protected status for 300,000-plus immigrants who fled violence and natural disasters in Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Sudan. In his ruling, the judge raised serious questions about whether the administration’s plan to return these people to their home countries was “based on animus against nonwhite, non-European immigrants in violation of equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution.” The decision will be appealed, but this was extraordinary recognition by the judicial branch of the racism and xenophobia motivating this administration.

—by Georgette Jasen