So why did we have the conference? In a nutshell, I wanted an academic conference that would analyze problems associated with legal and illegal immigration, and to propose possible "solutions." I realize that some people see the problem and solution as rather straightforward, i.e. the problem being illegal immigrants and the solution being deportation.
Many of the problems we should be able to agree on. The conference was to recognize many deep and complex problems associated with "undocumented" or "illegal" immigration, to include the overcrowding of schools, burdens on law enforcement, and the chaos of a broken immigration system that Washington has been afraid to fix. These problems and many others were discussed during the conference, and some conference participants presented research on the human suffering of the immigrants themselves, and on the children of immigrants.
To my knowledge no one at the conference advocated for the deportation of all or even most illegal immigrants. Neither did they advocate for open borders. There would be disagreement as to the details of the various solutions, but a broad agreement held that a "comprehensive" immigration reform is necessary, in other words conference goers generally accepted some kind of amnesty rather than mass deportations.
True, laws must be obeyed, and we must remain "a nation of laws." But the interests and needs of a nation are not static, and laws need constant review and oftentimes major alteration to maintain national strength and self-interest. The general conclusion among professor-types who study illegal immigration is the belief that a comprehensive or amnesty bill is within the economic interests of the United States, and in keeping with American values and morals.
Erecting a Berlin style "taco wall" or "hamburger wall" followed by mass deportations would create new problems. As the world is now globalized, and the United States increasingly faces fierce competition from China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere, we have to think long and hard about the needs of our nation in the 21st century. No immigration policy should be formed on the basis of local perspectives alone; and certainly not based on the passions and emotions of either the "pro" or "anti."
No proposal to present research at the conference was rejected for political perspectives. The only criteria was to propose a presentation based on academic data or professional experience. I read all of the proposals and organized the schedule. No one proposed a presentation advocating sealed borders or mass deportation. If someone had, and if the proposal had an academic or professional argument attached, they would have been accepted.
The conference was not a secret; and no effort was made to make it so. Dozens, more like over a hundred, faxes and emails went to departments at universities around the South, and the "call for proposals" went to the national website for academic conferences at the University of Pennsylvania. Some 150 people attended the conference, mostly from Georgia but also from Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, North and South Carolina, California, New York, Alabama, Nigeria, Brazil, and Mexico.
Planning for the conference began over a year ago, and was designed as a follow-up to the immigration conference hosted by Kennesaw in 2006, and the conference held at the University of South Carolina in 2008.
The majority, but not all, of the panels dealt with Hispanic or illegal immigration. One paper focused on Nigeria, one on Afro-Caribbean immigrants, another on Muslims, and several discussed the complex relations between American Black and Hispanics.
Actually most of the conference would have been pretty dry to most people. Imagine yourself sitting in a day long class hearing professors speak on and on about their research, showing slides of charts, graphs, and data.
The role of the university, besides preparing students for the 21st century, is to explore many options, do intense research, and bring the results of best ideas to the public and our students. It is correct to say that the views of most academics who study immigration are not in agreement with the current political trends in immigration policy, but I think, I hope, we have come to these views after honest research and analysis.
Alan LeBaron is Professor of Latin American History at Kennesaw State University. He served in the U.S. Air Force 1966-70 and received a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 1988. In 2005 he received KSU's Distinguished Service Award.