Photo: Ethan Chua, our summer intern, transfers knowledge to Amelia Bellows, our fall intern.

A few weeks before I began my internship at the Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit based in Oregon that provides legal services to immigrants and refugees, I was both nervous and skeptical about beginning the work. Nervous, because I was an undergraduate majoring in anthropology who knew next to nothing about refugee law; skeptical, because, in the few years I’d spent in the United States, I’d learned how the rule of law is often employed as a smokescreen for institutionalized racism – from Nixon’s targeting of impoverished communities of color in his war on drugs, to the systemic brutality black men face at the hands of police today.


But the day I began my internship, I watched as the Innovation Law Lab scored a major legal victory in its suit against the Department of Homeland Security, winning a temporary restraining order that granted it access to the federal prison in Oregon where over a hundred immigrants were being detained. That day, I saw the rule of law being applied to ensure the dignity and security of over a hundred men who had been treated by the current administration as less than human, incarcerated without trial or conviction in blatant violation of their constitutional rights. And after that day, I worked with the Law Lab and saw several of those men through from their know your rights training, to their credible fear interviews (where their eligibility for asylum is determined), to their eventual release.


My internship is coming to a close, and I’ll admit I leave with a continued ambivalence towards the institution of the law in the United States. Its founding principles, couched in a language of equal rights and humanism, also effectively excluded indigenous and black Americans from its protections; nevertheless, those same principles have been rearticulated by activists of color to actually stand for the defense and dignity of all human beings. And with respect to immigration – on the one hand, the continued jurisdiction the executive branch has over immigration courts in the US allows decisions such as who qualifies for asylum to be swayed by the whims of whichever administration has power; on the other hand, the very principles of international refugee law were a powerful response to the atrocities of the Holocaust, holding nation-states accountable to ideals larger than the span of their individual territories.


But I’ve realized, too, that I started this internship missing a key point – forgetting that, as indomitable and opaque institutions such as the justice system may seem, they are ultimately forged from social relationships, and thus within our power to change. I think of Marx’s concept of alienation, where relationships between people are reinscribed as relationships between things, and where we subsequently forget the ways we are involved in the systems we inhabit. It’s this same alienation which prevented me from imagining the rule of law used as a tool for compassion – as a way to guarantee the safety of immigrants and the rights of refugees.


I’m frustrated, now, when headlines refer to the massive movement of migrants in response to persecution and strife as a “crisis” with murky origins – frustrated at the way it renders mass swathes of human beings into a problem to be solved or a security issue to be dealt with. And with the turns in the United States towards nativism and jingoism in response to the continuing arrival of refugees, I see a profound alienation at work. Because it’s not about the dilution of an abstract national identity or the supposed influx of a wave of criminals – no, how we respond to those who arrive at the border seeking safety and refuge is not a question of security, but a question of humanity.


So I guess, in other ways, immigration is a crisis – but a crisis of compassion. It’s a challenge to us to imagine a world where one’s fundamental rights are not dictated by the borders of one’s nation-state, the language on one’s passport, or the color of one’s skin. And it’s a challenge to the way we envision the institutions we hold dear – do we continue to employ the rule of law as a thinly veiled instrument of racism and sexism (as in Jeff Sessions’s decision to make it more difficult for Central and South Americans fleeing domestic violence to seek asylum), or do we fight for its just application (as in current litigation to have a private prison in Oregon stop its detainment of refugees) and for its empathetic reform?


Moving forward, too, we will have to confront the inadequacies of international refugee law, even as its just application has safeguarded millions from persecution. Can we, for example, recognize the ways in which economic disparities are also forms of global violence – say, expanding the current call to reunite families separated at the border to recognize the trauma faced by families also torn apart in places as varied as Nicaragua and the Philippines due to the demands of a remittance-based economy? Can we begin to prepare – with compassion – for the mass migrations that will result due to extreme changes in climate throughout the globe?


Perhaps much of this reform seems beyond imagining. Meaningful change in immigration law has stalled consistently in the United States due to partisanship and political polarization. But to say it is impossible is to forget that we are both participants in and drivers of social institutions; it is to resign ourselves to the way things are; it is to refuse to dream.


And in the wake of an increasing cynicism at the failure of globalization to deliver on its supposed promises of equity and prosperity; in the return to a rhetoric of racist nationalism among many countries in the West; international refugee law still stands as a powerful testament to our ability to imagine a humanity larger than ourselves and our borders. But we can do better, still – for today’s refugees and for the refugees of the future – so dream we must.

This blog post was written by Ethan Chua. Ethan was a summer intern at the Innovation Law Lab and is a junior at Stanford University studying anthropology. He is a published comic book writer and spoken word poet. This post was originally published on the Stanford Urban Studies & Urban Summer Fellowship blog.