A day-long symposium on the current status of immigration law drew immigration lawyers, policymakers and other experts from around the country to discuss a wide range of issues, from undocumented aliens to under-resourced courts and controversial enforcement methods.

The symposium, held in Austin Hall, was presented by the Harvard Journal on Legislation, one of HLS’s 13 student-edited law journals, and was sponsored by Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. [View video]

The first panel discussion, “Emerging Legal Issues in Immigrant and Refugee Rights,” was moderated by HLS Clinical Professor Deborah Anker, an expert on immigration law and director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. Asked by Anker to outline general trends in immigration law in the U.S. Supreme Court, Christopher J. Meade, a partner at WilmerHale, noted that while the Court is clearly more conservative than in years past, it is also “a court of serious judges who struggle with the problems in front of them,” and not a forum necessarily unfriendly to immigrants. “If you’ve got a good argument, you’ve got a shot.” said Meade, noting the 2006 case of Lopez v. Gonzales, in which the Court narrowly construed federal statutory language in holding that a state drug conviction could not serve as a basis for deporting Lopez.

Another trend is that the growing numbers of Supreme Court clinical programs at law schools around the country are having a significant impact on the number of immigration cases making it to the Supreme Court, Meade noted. Some immigration advocates worry that there isn’t a coordinated strategy for choosing which cases head to the high court, which could have negative implications for immigrants.

In the final days of the Bush administration, Attorney General Michael Mukasey issued a decision that represented an as-yet unrecognized but profound sea change in immigration policy, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Mukasey’s position was that immigrants have no right to counsel even in deportation hearings, and cannot appeal adverse rulings resulting from errors by lawyers. After significant pressure from immigrants’ advocates, the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, has agreed to review that decision. But, said Gelernt, “We have to keep up pressure, we need lot of support, or we’ll see whole families having to leave the country because their attorney messed up.”

Until Congress passes major reforms to immigration laws—no easy task, the panel agreed—the area that will continue to dominate both the news and the policy debate is enforcement, including the ongoing raids of factories and other workplaces to round up undocumented workers, said Michael Wishnie, a Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School.

The second session, “Border Security and Immigration Reform,” was moderated by Richard Boswell, a professor at the University of California-Hasting College of Law. It featured Jim Gilchrist, the controversial founder and president of the Minuteman Project, a citizens’ group which monitors the borders to keep out illegal immigrants. “There are 6.6 billion people in the world; half are impoverished and would love to come here,” said Gilchrist. “I and everyone in this panel would love to take care of them. Realistically, we cannot. … If we’re a nation that heralds itself as one that governs people under the rule of law, should we enforce the law? If not, what’s the purpose of laws?” He added that the members of the Minuteman Project “are for legal immigration, in an orderly queue, based on our needs to continue with a healthy middle class with a broad tax base. In addition, we would like those people to be people of character and integrity to carry us for another 200 years as a civilized nation.”

Allyson Ho, a special assistant to President George W. Bush and counselor to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, followed Gilchrist by acknowledging the men and women in the U.S. military who are serving their country although they are not yet citizens. She added, “The top of my wish list is more opportunities for people to come to this country legally and become Americans.” She added: “I think that would go a long way toward solving the problems we have.”

Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Law Foundation, decried the emphasis by many on enforcement to the exclusion of a broader discussion on how to create an immigration system that works best for America, its families and its economies. The “800 pound gorilla in the room,” continued Johnson, was the issue of undocumented or illegal aliens. “You must bring people out of the shadows onto an even playing field to focus attention on wages and working conditions and not country of origin.” Countered Gilchrist: “It would be fine if they were all Prince Charmings but we don’t know that. I’m going to call this an invasion because it is. It’s not military but it’s some sort, and by 2025 there will be more illegal aliens in the US than citizen voters.”