Panelist describes U.S. immigration policy as ‘a total mess’

By Jackson Cote

(Collegian File Photo)

Discussing his experiences as a Syrian asylum-seeker navigating what he described as a hostile and violent immigration system, Basil Zeno spoke on the state of United States immigration policy in the University of Massachusetts Integrative Learning Center.

Zeno immigrated to the U.S. in 2012, and had pending asylum status up through 2017. Formerly pursuing his Ph.D. in archaeology in Damascus, Zeno is now pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at UMass.

“I can’t see my family…I have to start again in another country. I can’t go back,” Zeno said about his current life in the U.S. “It’s a life in limbo.”

Hosted by the UMass chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha (PSA), the national political science honor society, the Nov. 6 panel discussion included Rebecca Hamlin, an assistant professor of political science at UMass.

Hamlin’s research at the University is focused on law and immigration politics. Her book, titled “Let Me be a Refugee,” covers how certain countries determine refugee status. Hamlin was also the director at the Multicultural Youth Project in Chicago, a leadership development program serving hundreds of refugee youth.

Olivia Jones, Vice President of the UMass chapter of PSA and a senior political science and journalism double major, moderated the panel. She opened up the discussion by asking the two panelists to give a general ‘this-is-what-it-looks-like’ of the United States’ current immigration policy.

“It’s a complete and total disaster,” Hamlin answered, additionally stating that almost everyone agrees that some kind of change needs to occur, but there is no consensus on what that change should be.

Frederick Capossela, a member of PSA and a senior political science major, agreed with many of Hamlin’s points during the discussion, also stating that “an overhaul needs to happen” in regard to the immigration system.

Hamlin said that she could talk for hours on everything wrong with immigration policy. However, she focused her attention on the three ways in which people obtain visas—through family, employment or for humanitarian purposes—and how the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 has shaped the current immigration system.

The act, otherwise known as the Hart-Celler Act, repealed national-origin quotas, ending “an immigration-admissions policy based on race and ethnicity,” and giving rise to “large-scale immigration, both legal and unauthorized,” according to the Migration Policy Institute.

“Basically, what the system did was create a huge amount of unanticipated chain migration,” Hamlin said, noting that through the act, Congress constructed various forms of unauthorized immigration by incentivizing immigration to the U.S.

While the act incentivized higher-skill workers to come into the U.S., Hamlin emphasized that there was and still is an “undeniable need for lower-skill workers,” especially in the agricultural industry. According to Hamlin, the Hart-Celler Act therefore created a conundrum in which there is no legitimate path for the majority of those who want to come to the U.S., creating the concept of the “undocumented immigrant.”

In responding to Jones’ question on the current state of immigration policy in the U.S., Zeno recalled his and his family’s experiences, specifically in regard to President Donald Trump’s controversial January executive order in which he banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Zeno’s home-country of Syria.

The travel ban affected Zeno personally, as his brother Nael Zaino, a Syrian refugee, was repeatedly turned away and was unable to board his plane to the U.S. from Turkey, despite the fact that Zaino’s wife and son were already in America.

Zeno described the situation he and his family are as “one of the invisible stories” of those affected by the travel ban. His family lost $6,000 through the process of trying to rebook flights.

“I remember my brother calling me crying at the airport,” Zeno said.

Zeno, who sought asylum right before the rise of ISIS, regrets seeking asylum because of the institutional violence he has received. After waiting four years for an interview with the Department of Homeland Security, Zeno was met in March of 2017 by an “asylum officer [who] was very hostile.” According to Zeno, the officer could not fathom that he wasn’t a terrorist.

While war-torn Syria posed its own problems, living in the U.S. has resulted in problems as well, although they are less clear-cut ones, Zeno explained.

“I’m more insecure being in the U.S. than being in the middle of the war,” Zeno said. “Here, nothing is clear.”

“Every single day, you don’t know what’s tomorrow,” he added.

When asked about what those in a position of privilege can do to help the situation of refugees, immigrants and those plagued by the immigration system, Zeno encouraged a proactive response.

“Educate your circle…Don’t take for granted what anyone is saying,” he said.

Hamlin had a similar message.

“I would just encourage people to keep on learning about it,” she said.

Jackson Cote can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.