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UNLV Law Professor's New Book Looks At Immigration Through A Community Lens

<p>In this June 18, 2020, file photo, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students gather in front of the Supreme Court in Washington.</p>
(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

In this June 18, 2020, file photo, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students gather in front of the Supreme Court in Washington.

As immigration remains a fixture in news headlines, the lives of many Nevada residents hang in the balance.  

After losing an immigration battle in the Supreme Court, President Donald Trump has now said the U.S. Census would not count undocumented immigrants. 

Nevada is estimated to have more undocumented immigrants than any other state. 

Someone who knows about the struggles and politics of immigration more than most is UNLV law professor Michael Kagan. He’s director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic. And he just has just published a book titled "The Battle To Stay in America: Immigration’s Hidden Front Line."

It explores how immigration laws and policies have impacted undocumented people. 

“I wanted to write something that might explain to people, not just to lawyers interested in technicalities, why our immigration system can be so arbitrary and can also be used to inflict so much cruelty,” Kagan told KNPR's State of Nevada.

He said that cruelty has surprised a lot of people.

Kagan also wanted to show just how important the immigrant community is to Las Vegas.

“Immigration is often talked about as an issue for politicians to negotiate, and it looks a lot different when we think about this as part of our community,” he said.

Kagan said his book is as much about what it means to be a neighbor as it is about immigration.

The idea of community and immigration came into focus for Kagan after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

Kagan's two children are adopted from Ethiopia. On election night, his daughter was in tears, terrified that she would be deported.

“I was shocked,” he said.

He got out her citizenship certificate but that didn't console her. She told him it was "only a piece of paper."

“I teach immigration law and I could not convince my own daughter that she would be safe,” he said.

Kagan realized through the eyes of his children just how much Las Vegas is an immigrant community and the message he wanted to get out to everyone.

“We need to see much more clearly the people in our own community and the way they are threatened and all of us respond to that the way we would want our neighbors to respond to a threat to us,” he said.

In the book, Kagan answers many of the questions people have about immigration like how do undocumented workers pay taxes, which he says most do. He also explains why people come to the country illegally, instead of through legal avenues.

"I also try to show the way in which immigrants are just integral to every aspect of our society, especially here in Las Vegas,” he said.

From construction to casinos, industries across the state are dependent on immigrants, he said.

Kagan said the community needs to recognize that contribution and know that the typical undocumented worker has been in Las Vegas for about 10 to 15 years and is deeply established in the community.

“A lot of undocumented immigrants you’ll find whole extended families with mixed immigration statuses. They’re really rooted,” he said.

Audrey Peral is part of that community. She came to the United States as an infant and was raised in the U.S., but remains undocumented. She has immigrant status with the Violence Against Women Act - a status somewhat similar to those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA) program.

Now, she is the economic justice organizer for the nonprofit Make a Road Nevada, which focuses on organizing and advocating for immigrant communities.

Peral said her situation underscores the diversity within the immigrant community.

“I think more than anything it highlights the fact that when we talk about undocumented immigrants, there is a big spectrum of statuses within that,” she said.

And while the recent decision by the Supreme Court to uphold DACA has brought some relief for some families, it is still not a path to citizenship and doesn't cover everyone.

“I think it is important to highlight the fact that the DACA program is not fully inclusive of all immigrant families,” she said.

Kagan said he has worked with Peral before, but did not know her status or story - and that goes to the heart of why he wrote the book.

“A lot of us go through our day and may not even realize how often we are dealing with, talking and working with someone who is struggling with the immigration system in some way, or has someone at home who is struggling with the immigration system,” he said.

Kagan pointed out that 7 percent of the population in Southern Nevada is undocumented.

He also agreed with Peral that while the DACA decision is a good one for the immigrant community, it is far from a comprehensive solution.

"That’s not the whole immigration issue, and it’s not everything that needs to be done to welcome people who are already part of our community," he said.

He added that it doesn't help people who came here to escape violence but are being deported back to that violent home. It also doesn't address people who have been living here for decades but are picked up on a minor offense and put into the deportation pipeline.

Both Kagan and Peral are hopeful that former Vice President Joe Biden is elected this fall and things improve for the immigration system. 

“The level of cruelty that we’ve seen the government capable of, I think, has shocked a lot of people and opened a lot of people’s eyes. I think that gives me a reason for optimism,” he said.

Kagan said under the Trump administration, people have seen how dangerous the immigration system can be when it's in the "wrong hands."

“President Trump is sometimes portrayed mockingly as a buffoon… but his administration has been anything but on immigration. They know what they’re doing,” he said.

Kagan believes the administration has re-engineered the system so it can only be used to exclude, detain and deport people. While he would like to see Biden win the election, he doesn't think it would be a complete victory for the immigration system.

He said if Biden is elected, his administration would need to do more than just be decent to immigrants - it would have to get into the details to change it as the Trump administration did.

In his book, Kagan points out that the only way to defend a community is through a coalition. He said the work at the Immigration Clinic has been amplified and powered by its coalition with groups like Make a Road Nevada, Mi Familia Vota, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the Culinary Union.

“We have to be able to proceed with lawsuits. We have to be able to pressure politicians in the Legislature and at the county commission. You have to be able to protest sometimes. You’ve got to be able to use the media sometimes. You have to have all those things working sometimes."

Kagan's book will be available via University of Nevada Press August 11. 

Michael Kagan, director of the Immigration Clinic, UNLV;  Audrey Peral, Economic Justice Organizer, Make the Road Nevada

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Mike has been a producer for State of Nevada since 2019. He produces — and occasionally hosts — segments covering entertainment, gaming & tourism, sports, health, Nevada’s marijuana industry, and other areas of Nevada life.