Ming H. Chen, associate professor at Colorado Law, directs the CU Immigration Law & Policy Program and serves on the Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
You’re working on a book titled Constructing Citizenship for Noncitizens. What’s it about, in a nutshell?
For the last decade, U.S. immigration policy has focused nearly exclusively on enforcement: Stopping unlawful entry, stopping criminal aliens and stopping foreign terrorists. My book argues that this is a mistake, and that immigration lawyers, scholars and policymakers concede too much when they focus all their energies on responding to immigration enforcement. Instead, I argue that they need to advance a conversation about immigration and citizenship that includes integrative goals alongside enforcement and moves away from the fixation on formal status to the exclusion of other forms of membership.
How did you decide to focus your career on immigration law and civil rights?
I attended a California public high school in the 1990s. California is thought of as a refuge for immigrants, with inclusionary immigration policies, but voters there have approved ballot initiatives to restrict public benefits for undocumented immigrants, affirmative action for racial minorities and bilingual education in public schools. My first political experiences were community organizing and voter registration to oppose those initiatives.
Although some of those initiatives would later be overturned in court, essentially, we lost. That left me feeling two things that continue to shape my career: One, there is a lot of important work still to be done, and, two, non-majoritarian institutions like courts or agencies play an important role in shaping public policy. We cannot rely on the principle of ‘whoever gets the most votes, wins’ to achieve just results, especially when we’re talking about immigrants and minorities who lack equal footing.
Are domestic political events changing the way you teach or what you research?
Mostly in the sense of urgency rather than in core content. There was a time when race and immigration were seen as marginal issues in the academy, and those studying them had to strive for respect. There is no longer any doubt that these subjects are critical to established subjects like Constitutional law and American politics. My students are extremely motivated, and know that learning about these subjects matters to the world. My colleagues and the university, too, are seeking expertise and guidance. If there is a silver lining to all the strife, it is that we have opportunities to teach and learn on a daily basis.
Have many CU students or DACA recipients come to you seeking advice?
My interactions have been primarily with DACA students and international students. It’s been challenging to level with students who want comfort and encouragement about how uncertain our legal environment is right now and to tell them that, like them, the experts are wondering what happens next. The law school hypotheticals are now realities. What used to be a question of ‘what if’ is now a question of ‘what now.’
If you could make one major change to current U.S. immigration policy, what would it be?
To broaden the dialogue around immigration policy and our conception of who are immigrants in the U.S. There is the danger of falling into the ‘illegality trap’ that sees immigrants as lawbreakers and the purpose of policy as enforcement. It is vital that folks engage on the front lines when children and community members are being deported. It’s also important to recognize that there are many kinds of immigrants and that they’re all vulnerable.
Where are you from originally and what brought you to Colorado?
I was born in the United States to immigrant parents who migrated as international students to a western public university (Montana State) and have now lived in the U.S. longer than in their native countries of China and Taiwan. We lived largely in California with significant time on the East Coast before I began this faculty position at CU.
CU has been an interesting place to work on civil rights and immigration. I really appreciate that CU is a flagship public university that draws students from all over the nation and is the first choice of so many students in the western U.S. and increasingly abroad. It is for that reason that it needs to be thoughtful and engaged about immigration and civil rights.
Condensed and edited.
Photo by Glenn Asakawa (top); courtesy Ming H. Chen