Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Blog

By Isaac Levey
Legal Fellow

On Sunday afternoon, AAI teamed with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) to host a town hall on immigration reform with a leading Member of Congress; an important White House adviser; and an immigration lawyer and advocate. The event, entitled The Road to Immigration, provided a very helpful and informative discussion about one of the most important issues facing both the Arab American community and the United States as a whole: how to reform our broken immigration system and still remain true to the promise of this country as a nation of immigrants.

We were very pleased to hear from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee and a leading Democrat in the House of Representatives. Congressman Van Hollen discussed S. 744, the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed earlier this year by the U.S. Senate. He explained that while the bill is not perfect – no piece of legislation, particularly of the all-assuming, comprehensive variety, is – it is a good start towards tackling the issues. While it’s unlikely that bill will pass the House, that’s not for lack of support. Van Hollen explained that, similar to the government shutdown earlier this month (as the Congressman demonstrated in an exchange on the House floor that went viral), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have simply refused to bring the bill up for a vote thus far – despite the fact that it might get a majority of votes.

Van Hollen also discussed the importance of this issue outside of the insiders-only atmosphere of Washington politics. He discussed his own experiences as the son of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, and how his integration with and understanding of other cultures has helped him as a public servant. He pointed to history, illustrating how Americans’ willingness in the past to accept immigrants and individuals from all over the world has made us a stronger nation – and how, in those darker moments when we’ve turned xenophobic or insular, it’s hurt us. And he pointed to his home district, Montgomery County, Maryland, as a living demonstration of these principles. Montgomery County is a living example of how immigrants from all over the world and their descendants can live together in this country; they retain their ethnic heritage while simultaneously embracing their new identity as Americans.

We also heard from Tyler Moran, the Deputy Director for Immigration Policy for the White House Domestic Policy Council. She reaffirmed that immigration reform is a top priority for the White House and President Obama, and she acknowledged that while the President would like to have a whole comprehensive bill on his desk, it does seem unlikely given political realities and the composition of the House of Representatives. She said that while the President doesn’t like the House’s idea to pass reform in small bits and pieces, the President would take some changes that were helpful over none at all.

Finally, we heard from Kamal Essaheb, a lawyer at the National Immigration Law Center, who has a stake in and a passion for these issues that goes beyond the professional. Essaheb discussed his experience as a young Muslim immigrant in New York City right after the horrors of September 11, 2001. He talked about how in the weeks after, he felt like an outsider for the first time since he’d come to the United States. And he talked about how, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) instituted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), his family needed to register with the Federal Government since they were from a newly undesirable country. He described the hours-long detention, the invasive questions asked, and his profound sense of shock and anger at the injustice that took place. He described his feeling that things like this – innocent citizens being rounded up, based on nothing more than what they looked like or where they were from, and subjected to humiliating interrogation – weren’t supposed to happen in the United States. And he resolved to make sure something like that would never happen again. He told the audience to make sure their Senators and Representatives know where they stand, and to let them know just how important this issue is to our community.

The Road to Immigration was an important event, providing a much-needed discussion of the crucial issues of immigration reform, free of the partisan politics and demagogic rhetoric that so often surround these questions. We are grateful to Congressman Van Hollen, Ms. Moran, and Mr. Essaheb for attending and providing their perspective, and to MPAC and our Government Relations manager Yasmine Taeb for their invaluable work in putting the event together.

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