Published: April 16, 2021 By

Scholars and legal practitioners from across the country gathered virtually on April 9, 2021, for the University of Colorado Law School’s 29th annual Ira C. Rothgerber Jr. Conference. This year’s conference built on the themes of Colorado Law Professor Ming Hsu Chen's new book, Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era. Throughout the conference, speakers highlighted the incongruity of the citizen-noncitizen binary with the lived experiences of people in the U.S. and the need to promote pathways to formal and substantive citizenship for all immigrants.

Colorado Law’s Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law hosted the Rothgerber Conference, and the center’s director, Provost Professor of Civil Rights Law Suzette Malveaux, organized and spearheaded the discussions. The Rothgerber Conference benefitted from a wide range of perspectives brought by the panelists and speakers. Firsthand accounts of the immigrant experience inspired the panelists and shaped the policy conversations. Professors and practitioners of law, labor relations, Latin American and Latino studies, and sociology contributed to vibrant discussions of immigration policy. The virtual format facilitated the inclusion of experts from across the country.

"What made this conference so special was the interdisciplinary conversation and cross-pollination of ideas. Immigration lawyers, scholars from various fields, and immigrants themselves brought a range of perspectives that enriched and deepened our understanding of these critical and timely issues," Malveaux said.

Chen, who serves as faculty director of the Immigration and Citizenship Law Program, and Hiroshi Motomura, Susan Westerberg Prager Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, opened the conference with a discussion of the key ideas of Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era and how they would be interwoven into the day. They spoke about the spectrum of citizenship described in the book, which includes both formal and substantive dimensions. As evidence of unfulfilled substantive dimensions of citizenship, they explored the possibilities and limitations of immigrants’ economic, social, and political engagement. They concluded by discussing how Chen conducted more than 100 interviews with immigrants and what those interviews revealed about the impact of the enforcement era on contemporary experiences of citizenship.

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Suzette Malveaux, Ming Hsu Chen, and UCLA's Hiroshi Motomura

"I’m grateful for the opportunity to share the book and also to shine light on the issue of citizenship in America," Chen said. "This book launched on Citizenship Day 2020. I’m thinking of today as a landing among many of the people who I hope will find the book helpful: friends inside and outside the academy—scholars and practitioners—and some of the immigrants I interviewed in the book will be here as well."

Three panels organized by University of Colorado Boulder faculty from different disciplines elaborated on these themes.

The first panel, "Citizenship Theory Beyond Legal Status," explored the various dimensions of citizenship with an emphasis on the freedom of movement and its importance to self-determination.

Rothgerber Conference

During the second panel of the day, "Citizenship, Integration, and Belonging," panelists discussed the numerous pathways to securing the substantive dimensions of citizenship sought by immigrants.

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The third panel, "Noncitizens, Exclusions, and Enforcement," focused on the impacts of harsh immigration enforcement on citizenship and integration.

Rothgerber Conference

The conference also highlighted the first-person perspectives of immigrants living in the enforcement era. A powerful performance of Motus Theater’s UndocuMonologues on April 8 featuring immigrants’ stories and a reading by an immigration judge, Hon. Mimi Tsankov, set the stage for panels the next day.

"There is a real beauty to taking two people that are working in two different lives and contexts and relating to one another not in either of their individual contexts, but through a third place, and that is through this story. I think you give the greater community an opportunity to think about how they can be creative in connecting to others," Tsankov said.

During the lunchtime panel, a moderated discussion about "Stories of Immigrants," featured immigrant leaders working in science, technology, and politics. CU Boulder alumni Alan Sanchez and Shiyan Zhang and Mi Familia Colorado State Director Salvador Hernandez shared their experiences growing up and succeeding in the U.S.

“When I learned about what it would take for [the Dream Act] to pass in Congress, that is when I became an activist… That was another way for me to not only encourage people to vote, but to be active in many other ways: call your congressman or congresswoman, raise up your voice, show up to political events or rallies, the million things you can do if you are not a citizen,” Hernandez said.

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After a full day of listening, attendees met for a virtual reception to share ideas and learn about concrete actions they could take from different organizations. Breakout rooms provided the venue for small-group discussions of refugee programs, legal migration, state and local initiatives to promote integration, and potential pathways to citizenship for undocumented people.

A full recording of the conference is available on YouTube.

Selected remarks and articles from the conference will be published in the upcoming Rothgerber Symposium issue of the University of Colorado Law Review’s 93rd Volume, to be published in February 2022.

Biographies of all panel participants can be found here.