5 Questions with ACLU's Immigrant Rights' Project


Kavitha Sreeharsha

For nearly a century, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been the country's most visible defender of Constitutional rights and liberties—including those afforded to immigrants.

As director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, Cecillia Wang spearheads that critical work. Kavitha Sreeharsha, Emerson Collective's Immigration Portfolio Manager, sat down with Cecillia to learn more.

What do you think is most misunderstood about immigrants and the immigration process right now?

Talking to both regular people and even to lawyers, there’s still this misconception that it is a [criminal offense] to be a non-citizen in the United States without lawful status. That is not the law. It is only a violation of civil immigration laws. So much of the anti-immigrant vitriol out there is based on the labeling of undocumented immigrants as "criminals." If we can educate people that being in the U.S. without lawful status is not a crime, that would go a long way towards fighting some of that anti-immigrant extremism.

On a more philosophical level, so many who are anti-immigrant misunderstand something fundamental about the United States, something that I really feel as a second-generation American, as a child of immigrant parents who are naturalized U.S. citizens. And that is that this country, more than any other in the world, is one in which people come here wanting to become Americans, wanting to belong to a society where we have civil liberties, where we define membership based on shared values rather than parentage.

The anti-immigrant extremists who view newcomers—whether they are traumatized Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war and terrorism in Syria, or Central American asylum seekers who have been fleeing violence in that country, or undocumented immigrants who have been living in the shadows in this country making contributions completely unrecognized—miss the fact that all of those people and their children and their descendants are going to be Americans. There’s no other country in the world where you can see such a rapid integration of people into both the fabric of a community on the local level and the fabric of a country on the national level.

How do you view immigrant rights within the larger context of the ACLU’s mission to protect individual rights and liberties?

Immigrants’ rights are a core part of the ACLU’s mission, but a lot of people are surprised to hear that it was the issue on which the ACLU was founded in 1920. Roger Baldwin and the other founders of the organization were responding to the “Palmer Raids,” a series of raids by then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer targeting and deporting immigrants who had been labeled as Communists or as subversives.

Since the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project was founded in 1987, we have jumped into every major legal battle on the rights of non-citizens. So since our founding, the ACLU has been centrally concerned with immigrants’ rights. It’s about how we treat those among us who are most politically vulnerable—non-citizens. The way that our government institutions treat non-citizens is a real sign of how our society more broadly is functioning as a free society and one that respects people’s rights.

A major focus of your work is in challenging immigration enforcement measures. Why is this work so important?

Our immigration work is primarily concerned with how the immigration enforcement system works. We challenge abuses in “front-end” enforcement tactics—how federal immigration agents in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP, including Border Patrol) abuse people’s civil rights and civil liberties in investigating, detecting, and arresting people for deportation purposes.

We have also focused in the past decade on the many abuses that arise when state and local police and sheriff’s departments get into the business of immigration enforcement. For example, we successfully sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” because his immigration enforcement policies led to rampant racial profiling and illegal detentions of Latinos.

We also tackle abuses in the deportation process. Particularly since Congress enacted draconian revisions to the deportation laws in 1996, our deportation process has been grossly unfair. It has stripped away immigration judges’ discretion to consider the individual merits of an individual’s case, so that many long-time lawful permanent residents—people who, to use President Obama’s phrase, are Americans except on paper—are deported based on minor and old criminal convictions without recourse and without regard to family ties or a record of rehabilitation. The same 1996 laws have resulted in the “mandatory” detention, often for many years, of people who are fighting their deportation.

These enforcement issues are fundamental to our system of government and are defining questions for us as a country. So many anti-immigrant policymakers try to put non-citizens outside the scope of protection of our laws. We fight to ensure that the Constitution’s promises of due process and equal protection of the laws are kept.

2015 saw the introduction of a dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric into the political narrative. How do you remain hopeful in light of all of the misconceptions about immigrants?

The voices of the extreme anti-immigrant forces are very loud at the moment. It can be discouraging. I remain hopeful in the face of that because, number one, we can always avail ourselves of litigation and legal arguments to curtail these most extreme expressions of a pro-discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment. We always have the backstop that we can go into court and hold people to account for the laws in the country.

Number two, the thing that gives me reason to hope is our public opinion research showing that, while the fringes have a very loud voice, the vast majority of Americans recognize the contributions of immigrants and are looking for pragmatic ways that we all can work together in our communities to allow immigrants to make their contributions and make a living for families. I believe the majority of Americans want to maintain our position as a free society that serves as a beacon to the rest of the world. Having done this work now for more than 20 years, I know that there are cycles of anti-immigrant and then pro-immigrant periods throughout our history. I hope we’re generally moving in the right direction as a country.

Given the variety of public interest law and pro-immigrant organizations, why are you working for the ACLU?

I first worked with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights project when I was a first-year law student at Yale in 1992. During my first week at law school I heard that the human rights clinic was litigating a case to challenge the federal government’s policy toward Haitian refugees. At that time, the United States was “interdicting” Haitian refugees who were desperately trying to escape horrific violence in Haiti and reach south Florida on rafts and boats. The Coast Guard was literally plucking refugees out of the sea and imprisoning them at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo. That case was being co-counseled by the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.

Ever since then, I’ve seen the Immigrants' Rights Project as my dream job. From a civil rights lawyer’s perspective, no other place offers such exciting opportunities for constitutional litigation, along with the opportunity to work with colleagues who are the best legislative and policy advocates in the immigrants’ rights field, and colleagues who are at the top of the game in the intersecting fields of criminal justice, national security, racial justice, and beyond.

We have an uncommon privilege of working on the most cutting-edge legal issues of the day while making a broad impact for the immigrant communities we serve all over the United States.

Cecillia is a nationally recognized expert on issues at the intersection of immigration and criminal law, and has taught immigration law and the constitutional rights of non-citizens as an adjunct lecturer at Stanford Law School.