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Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia speaks at the E.N Thompson Forum on World Issues at the Lied Center on Tuesday, November 1, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska.

For the E.N. Thompson Forum’s second event of the 2021-2022 season, Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia highlighted exclusionary practices in immigration law Tuesday as a continuation of the United States’ history with immigration at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

Wadhia, a professor and associate dean at Penn State Law, explored the history of immigration law and the path forward for reform. Her event, “Facing Immigrant Exclusion: Then and Now,” was held in partnership with the Nebraska College of Law.

The government has discretion in whether individuals should or should not be deported, Wadhia said, and compassion has played a role in that discretion.

Wadhia referenced undocumented immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as a population that has benefited from the choice of the government against deportation. The program also grants these undocumented immigrants work permits.

Wadhia referenced how, as of April 2020, 27,000 DACA recipients worked in the health care field.

“DACA is, by all accounts, an American success story,” she said.

Wadhia said international students contribute both to the finances of Penn State and to its culture and academics every day. If she had the power, Wadhia added, she would erase the doctrine of “non-immigrant intent” — a standard requiring international students to have a permanent residence abroad that they have “no intention of abandoning,” according to the University of Rochester

The history of modern immigrant exclusion in the United States, Wadhia said, began with the anti-Chinese legislation of the late 19th century. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Geary Act of 1892, and the still-active Plenary Power Doctrine allowing the government to discriminate against noncitizens, are “crucial,” to explaining modern immigrant exclusion, according to Wadhia.

The Johnson-Reed Act, or Immigration Act of 1924, was another significant development in immigration law, Wadhia said. It significantly lowered immigration into the United States and, because Chinese people could not become citizens at the time, prevented them from immigrating to the United States.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended nationality quotas, increased immigration to the United States and created opportunities for those in Asian countries to come to America. The Migration Policy Institute said the law “ushered in far-reaching changes that continue to undergird the current immigration system” — Wadhia, though, said the act was not the end of discrimination in immigration law.

Modern day exclusion is informed by both the events of the past, Wadhia said, such as the story of the Chinese exclusion act, and present events, such as the anti-Asian rhetoric that resulted from COVID-19 being first reported in China.

“Fifty years after the 1965 act, 20 years after 9/11, history will continue to repeat itself unless we do something different,” Wadhia said.

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