On the same night President Obama announced an executive action to address illegal immigration, Alfonso Gonzales and Michael Rivera, assistant professors in the Department of Mexican-American and Latina/o Studies, spoke in the George I. Sánchez Memorial Lecture in the Social Sciences and Education about different issues surrounding immigration.
Speaking at the College of Liberal Arts Building, Gonzales talked about immigrants seeking asylum. Gonzales said he found that the U.S. refuses asylum requests for a majority of applicants from Mexico and Central America, whereas granting them at a higher rate to refugees from other nations.
“I don’t assume that this just happens naturally and by accident because, if we look at Venezuelan asylum claims, almost 40 percent of Venezuelans won their claims,” Gonzales said. “Almost 100 percent of Cubans win their claims, so there’s something going on in particular with Mexican and Central American cases that we need to look at.”
Gonzales said this inequality led him to question the quality of modern democracy in the U.S.
“What does it mean to deny people asylum when you hold yourself to be the bastion of democracy worldwide and you criticize other countries for their human rights practices?” Gonzales said. “What does that say about our democracy?”
Gonzales said he would study the trials and proceedings of immigrants who go to court to seek asylum.
“I plan to go to immigration courtrooms, and I have been in many immigration courtrooms as an expert witness in asylum claims and as a consultant,” Gonzales said. “I want [to] look at the type of ideological rationale, or legal reasoning, that judges give about these cases.”
Rivera, who is also an assistant professor in the government department, spoke about his studies regarding the types of bills that state legislatures pass with regard to immigration.
Rivera said the Texas Legislature passed a measure in 2013 that would honor the life of Cesar Chavez, who was a farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist.
“Yes, this is important to recognize the cultural contributions of this group and of this individual, but this policy, you could say, does not have any teeth,” Rivera said.
Rivera examined the difference between bills that actually benefit immigrants and bills that merely appear to benefit immigrants.
“Pro-immigrant bills are those bills that expand access to public benefits or services for immigrants, assist with incorporation into society and those policies that help facilitate commerce,” Rivera said.
Domino Perez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, said the center has made the memorial lecture into a tradition as a way of celebrating the faculty.
“The idea was that new faculty to the department or to the center would share their work with a larger, wider community as a way of welcoming them to the intellectual community of UT,” Perez said. “We also invite faculty who are newly promoted either to the rank of associate professor or full professor to share their work through these lecture series as a way of informing the larger community of new projects they’ve initiated and new ideas that they’ve been working on.”