This blog post is authored by Lily Zheng. Lily is Immigration Advocates Network’s 2021 summer intern. She has spent the summer updating IAN’s nonprofit resource library. She is currently in her senior year at the University of Chicago, majoring in Public Policy with minors in Human Rights and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. Lily had a chance to interview Professor Michael Kagan, below is their conversation.
Last week, I spoke with Professor Michael Kagan, Joyce Mack Professor of Law and director of the immigration clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 2020, Kagan published his first book The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration’s Hidden Front Line.
Lily Zheng: What inspired you to write the book?
Michael Kagan: I intended to write a more scholarly book about the state of immigration law, but we were immersed in this crisis, and panic spread through the community. I also felt like many people who opposed what Trump was doing didn’t also understand why immigrants are so vulnerable. I wanted to respond to that, and so a much more personal book came out than what I had planned or had ever written before.
LZ: Who is your audience for this book? Because it is so personal, it reads almost like a memoir to me, so who do you hope will read this and learn from your experience?
MK: One of the things that happened under Trump is that I think a lot of white liberals had their eyes opened a little bit to the inherent cruelty of the immigration system, in a way that they were not aware of under previous presidents. And I am a white man, right? I’m not threatened, myself. My family’s not threatened directly, at least not by immigration. I and other white liberals had the privilege of not being aware. As I write about in the book, even I, supposedly as an expert in this field, was not really aware of what people were coping with.
When I wrote this book, I was really conscious that I was not writing to undocumented immigrants in Las Vegas. I very much would hope that they would respect what I wrote, but I was really writing to people like myself.
LZ: In reading the book, I was really struck by how willing you were to say, “I really didn’t know this, I had no idea this was going on right beside me.” I think that is part of what makes the book really special is just that you’re so willing to put your perspective and your errors forward.
MK: I do really believe, and this was something I decided consciously after the 2016 election, that you have to be willing to make mistakes. And I made some, which I tried to discuss in the book. I’ll make more. But I would rather try to do something and make a mistake, than not try to do anything for fear of making a mistake because that’s also a mistake. Especially when the community is under attack.
LZ: Previously, you were not as heavily involved in community organizing around immigration, and your focus was working in this field as a lawyer. After 2016, what was it like to add that aspect of community and working with community organizations?
MK: First of all, I’m always aware that I’m working with an area of law that I myself think is basically deeply wrong and deeply cruel and deeply racist in its origins and its applications. Crossing a line in the dirt is illegal only because someone arbitrarily said it is. An aggressive enforcement apparatus that we’ve built in this country only exists because we as a country consciously decided to set it up.
My basic belief is that migration is fundamentally human. To tell people not to migrate is going to be about as effective as telling people not to fall in love. And it’s going to cause hardships in similar ways and cruelty in similar ways.
So I work within that system as a lawyer. And I guess what I came to understand is that to work within that system, and to really be an ally of my neighbors, I have specific skills that some of my partners don’t have. Most of the people I work with are community organizers, not lawyers. They wouldn’t know what to do at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or in the immigration court. I think that I do have a role in that because of legal expertise.
LZ: It seems like having that legal expertise is beneficial to your work in the community. However, as someone who’s working within a system you don’t really believe in, how would you imagine the field or practice of immigration law?
MK: If I was in charge… Generally, I think we ought to have a government policy that says migration is good. It’s good for us as a country. You want to be a country that people want to migrate to, and the kind of people who do migrate are often the people who live up to every individual trait that we say we value in the United States. And migration is human.
LZ: It’s interesting that you mentioned that a lot of immigrants fit the values that America holds. Yet, I think we also see that immigrants are still criminalized and vilified in a way that is often racialized as well. How do you think that manifests in a place like Las Vegas?
MK: It is highly racialized. I think the reasons that we, as a country, have resisted immigrants have always been racial. Going back to the Chinese Exclusion era—pretty obvious. They would say they’re too hard working. They save too much money. They buy too many farms when they save all the money. Basically, they said they were the perfect Americans, if you look at the actual traits that were being ascribed to them. But then that still became a reason to hate that and exclude them for some reason. It definitely is a “you can’t win” situation if you’re brown. And that continues, too, today.
You know, like the stories I tell in the book. In a place like Las Vegas, you don’t have to work hard to find an immigrant family that has lived up to and exceeded everything that American students have been taught in elementary school about the stuff that we value in this country. They work hard, they love their family, they build their community, they help others. They teach their children to try to exceed what they have done. And yet, still, there’s a whole political party that just wants to kick them out. Just because they’re Brown. I think Trump made that more clear.
LZ: At the same time, though, there’s often a dichotomy in the narrative presented about immigrants, dividing them into good and bad immigrants, or hard-working, law-abiding immigrants and people who are unemployed or have records. How do you navigate this as you approach your work, but also, as you try to tell stories from your community and your neighbors?
MK: We struggle in the immigrant rights movement to figure out what to do with the fact that immigrants also are not perfect. There are a lot of variations on that.
So, on the one hand, with 11 million undocumented immigrants, a couple of them are going to commit murder. And I don’t think we should pretend otherwise. Because if you take any randomly selected group of 11 million human beings, you’re going to find a range. The flip side of this, too, though, there’s a tendency in immigrant rights activism, not only to highlight people who don’t have a criminal record, but also to highlight people who exceed a level most of us can never dream of. I don’t want to expect every immigrant to win a Nobel Prize in Physics either. And it’s cool that it was an immigrant who invented the COVID vaccine, but I don’t want to have to live up to that myself.
So because I think migration is human, I want immigrants to have the privilege or the right or the respect to just be normal humans. It’s cool that some of them win Nobel prizes, but they shouldn’t all have to, to have some value. So I think we struggle with that in the immigrant rights movement because it is irresistible, often, in the politics of this, to put forward the most sympathetic person.
Again, in the interest of self-criticism, in my book, if you look at chapter two, I still put front and center this very real family—not making them up—real and typical. But nevertheless, highly sympathetic, no criminal record, hard-working and all that. That’s real. And like I said, it’s irresistible. And I failed to resist using that as the narrative. But I think we should be pushing to be able to look at immigrants much more as regular people, meaning as flawed as the rest of us.
LZ: So, going back to the book, and seeing it as a process of personal growth for you as you wrote it and even now looking back on it, how was the process different from your previous writing experience?
MK: Normally, I write a lot of law review articles as a law professor or briefs because I also practice law. Those tend to be more formulaic. This was a much more personal form of writing.
I was writing about people in a community I know. Someone I know who read my book, described it as a love letter to Las Vegas. And I think that’s probably accurate. I didn’t think of it in those terms when I was writing it, but that’s right. So I hope that there’s a kind of passion that comes through, like a love letter.
But it was painful at times. As I tried to capture in the book, I was working through and learning, myself, what my role as a white man, as a white and high-status law professor in a community with far too few resources, would be when my neighbors were under attack. In the book, I tried to capture my own misconceptions, errors of good intentions, errors of blindness, and work through what I really needed to be applying myself to do and what I was also understanding was not my role. I also was witness and part of an immigrant rights community locally in Las Vegas that I think also really matured in a lot of ways in response to this crisis. We wanted to capture that too. I mean, some of the people I admire most in the world I didn’t even know in 2016, but they have mobilized to respond. I was really glad to be able to tell that story.
LZ: It’s amazing that we can read, in your book, the maturing of your work and of the entire community in Las Vegas. What has been happening, for you and your community, since then?
MK: I’m happy to report since the book ended that we’ve made a lot of progress. You’ll know from the book that I was very, very frustrated and really depressed, actually, that we had not been able to do as much as I had hoped to expand legal defense for people facing deportation.
In 2021, we are making some huge steps forward in Las Vegas. We’ve gotten $500,000 from the state legislature, and we are in process of getting a matching amount of money from the Clark County Commission to build what we will call a Community Advocacy Center and expansion of the UNLV Immigration Clinic. It’ll be the first stand-alone deportation defense center in the state of Nevada. And I’m really proud of that. I think it’s a huge contribution.