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Book Review: Unwelcome in Fabulous Las Vegas

Michael Kagan

A UNLV professor examines the immigration mess as it plays out in the streets and “strip-mall courtrooms” of Las Vegas

If prodded by a recently popular Twitter meme to describe The Battle to Stay in America in the most boring terms, I’d say, “Author pulled over for broken brake light, given warning.”

For the author, attorney Michael Kagan, and for most middle-class white people, this thank-you-officer moment amounts to an inconvenience. If your skin is brown and your name Hispanic, the irritation might expand, at minimum, into harassment — being told to go back to where you came from, for example — or it could lead to a jail cell and deportation. Kagan, director of the Immigration Clinic and Joyce Mack Professor of Law at UNLV, describes both scenarios in Battle. The first involves a United States citizen and the second an undocumented immigrant who had lived and worked in Las Vegas for more than a dozen years when a faulty light provided a pull-over pretext.

As director of the Immigration Clinic, which aids undocumented immigrants in the fight referenced by the title, Kagan knows the value of illustrative narratives. “Details make it real. Details win these cases,” he stresses. This is why he and other clinic attorneys often have to torment the people they are trying to help, pulling stories of murders and rapes from them to impress a judge in a strip-mall courtroom. (“To be fair, Las Vegas is really a city of strip malls,” Kagan observes, a touch that lends the book an oh-yeah familiarity for any valley resident, native or immigrant.) And by “judge” he does not mean an official of the judicial branch. Immigration judges are employees of the Justice Department, and prosecutors are from Immigration and Custom Enforcement. The whole process is rigged in favor of ICE, and Las Vegas has a poor record of granting asylum — just 7 percent. The national average is 34 percent. Meanwhile, Kagan notes, Nevada has more undocumented people per capita than any other state.

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Matters were grave enough before 2017, but the Obama administration, at least, focused on deporting violent criminals. But after a presidential campaign launched with anti-immigrant calumny, the Trump administration has done everything possible to expand deportation. Law-enforcement agencies in Nevada and elsewhere have helped by turning undocumented arrestees over to ICE. Infamously, it tried to undo Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted temporary legal status to some undocumented children. Kagan’s deadline with University of Nevada Press left that issue before the Supreme Court, which this June halted the dismantling of the program. Even more infamously, the same administration that caged children also compelled them to represent themselves in deportation proceedings.

Along with the stories of several undocumented valley residents, Kagan tells some of his own. He and his wife have adopted daughters from Ethiopia. Hearing of Trump’s election, one feared they, too, would be deported. After detailing a dreadful debate with an Uber driver, he provides a handy guide to refuting anti-immigration arguments: Yes, immigrants pay taxes; no, they do not get “welfare.” And while he notes some failures, he celebrates Nevada’s turn to more progressive immigration policies, including passage last year of “one of the most sweeping pro-immigration occupational licensing bills in the country,” as well as the decision by both Sheriff Joseph Lombardo and the City of Las Vegas to halt ICE detainers.

Battle is a fairly short book, and you could wish for more heft, more examination of the history and depth of the United States’ exclusionary and racist policies. But what makes it valuable is its focus on how those policies play out in one city — one that, for all its quirks, exemplifies the nation at large.

Clearly, the battle is nowhere near over, but recent skirmishes have offered some hope. Next objective: November 3.


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The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration’s Hidden Front Line, by Michael Kagan, University of Nevada Press, $27.95