Emotions ran high during a lunchtime debate on Wednesday about Arizona's controversial immigration law, considered one of the strictest actions taken against undocumented immigrants in recent history. Students gasped when speaker John de León, a partner at the Miami law firm Chavez & de León, compared Arizona's legislation to the Nazis' discriminatory laws against Jews. Attendees were equally unhappy when Robert Alt, a deputy director at The Heritage Foundation, labeled as "sob stories" the accounts of illegal immigrants who are deported and thus separated from their American-born children.
As tensions increased during the debate, a few tears were shed, but students were polite and the speakers left Miami Law unscathed.
"One of the things to take away from this event is that there's a lot to be gained from the free exchange of ideas and spirited intellectual debate," said Scott Allbright, a third-year student and president of The Federalists Society. He helped to organize the event alongside members of The American Constitution Society in honor of Constitution Day, which celebrates citizenship and honors the last time the Constitutional Convention met in1787. But while Allbright concluded that the divergent opinions made the event a success, others disagreed.
A second-year law student said from the audience that the conversation was more insulting than informative. West Kraemer, a self-described German Jew, said de León's comparison of the treatment of illegal immigrants to the annihilation of Jews was a weak analogy, especially since Jews were citizens of the German state. "As a German Jew, I'm offended," he said. In the audience, heads nodded in support of Kraemer's comment.
Taking the contrary position, Professor David Abraham jumped in to connect the dots between Hitler's Germany and the law in Arizona. He said the Nazis "began with delegitimizing a certain group of people, representing them as outsiders who do not really belong, as others, not part of us – as, literally, an alien body illegitimately present among us, etc. That's how it starts."
In Abraham's view, the treatment of undocumented immigrants bears a strong resemblance to that endured by Europe's Jews under the Nazis. "The dehumanization process doesn't start at Auschwitz," he said. "It ends at Auschwitz."
Despite the emotionally charged subject, Professor Abraham was pleased with the discussion. "I think the debate was successful in getting students to see some of what is at issue in one of the most painful debates we should be undertaking, at UM and in the country as a whole," he said.
The debate hit home for Miami Scholar Paulina Valanty, who dreams of becoming an immigration lawyer. "It's important to know that illegal immigrants are people too," said Valanty, a first-year law student who, as the daughter of undocumented immigrants, was speaking from first-hand experience. "They don't have this sign around their neck saying, 'Hey, I'm illegal.' We're smart, too, and can make it to law school."
Valanty came to the United States from Chile when she was 15 because, she said, her parents wanted a better life for her. At the debate, she pondered whether it was right to call a child an "illegal" immigrant when the decision to enter the country was not her own.
After the discussion, Valanty said it had made her recall how, more recently, her parents had driven with her for two days through Texas and Alabama to get her ready for law school, and that her parents still fear being arrested. "We knew that if for some reason they would stop us, it would be really bad," she said, referring to border patrol agents or the police.
"They were proud of me and they wanted to help me," she said of her parents. "I'm trying to do what I can to help them."