Should the U.S. continue prosecuting illegal immigrants? Northwestern community split but majority favors decriminalization

By Carolina Gonzalez
Medill Reports

Northwestern University students were divided at a recent campus debate on  whether the U.S. should decriminalize illegal immigration, offering arguments both in favor and against the Democratic presidential candidate proposals to repeal or rewrite the existing law.

Sachin Shukla, a sophomore studying viola performance and the main debate proponent in favor of decriminalization, opened the discussion by telling participants that the existing law was the work of white supremacist Sen. Coleman Blease of South Carolina and adopted in 1929.

Shukla explained how the law specifically targets and criminalizes a small group of immigrants coming to the U.S. through the Southern border at Mexico. Under the current law, illegal entry is a misdemeanor.

“The whole conversation is centered around a very small minority of these people that are coming illegally and so it just seems punitive to this particular group,” Shukla said. “So, I think decriminalization seems like a better option because we are not even talking about the majority of the people that come illegally.”

Immigration debate
Sachin Shukla, a sophomore studying viola performance at the Bienen School of Music,  defended the decriminalization of illegal immigration.

John Magloire, a sophomore studying history and political science, was among the students who supported the law as it stands. He explained that immediate deportation of immigrants would be worse for the individual than getting detained and taken to court as they would “lack any type of due process to have any ability to actually stay in the country or make an argument in front of a judge.”

“This leads to a worse outcome for immigrants trying to come to American for a change,” Magloire said.

Immigration debate
John Magloire, a  sophomore studying history and political science, defends the prosecution of illegal immigrants.

Title 8, Section 1325, of the U.S. federal code defines improper entry as anyone “who enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers, or attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact.”

This section allows people who enter the U.S. without proper documentation to be criminally prosecuted. But are these punishments enough deterrents to stop people from entering illegally while still providing them with fair due process when they do?

Immigration debate
Ian Odland, member of the Northwestern Political Union, opens the arguments in favor of the prosecution of illegal immigration.

The question has been a recurring topic in the past two Democratic presidential debates.

Democratic presidential candidates such as former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are some of the major proponents of repealing the code entirely. Other candidates including Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke have opposed the repeal and advocate for “a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws.”

The current political discussion is the reason why Jahan Sahni, co-president of the Northwestern Political Union, thought it would be a good topic for their first debate of the year.

“It’s topical,” Sahni said. “We always like to do things that are currently in the national discourse. Even though the topic is controversial, we have a reputation for being a civil state. That is an expectation of the community. We will allow you to say your views. You will be able to back it up and we will give you space to do that but our primary thing is to respect other people.”

Immigration debate
Jahan Sahni, co-president of the Northwestern Political Union, explains how the forum works and presents the issue at hand before opening up the debate.

Members of the audience also weighed in on the subject, agreeing and disagreeing with each other.

One audience member mentioned that immigrants do not have access to state funded programs such as Medicare or Medicaid if they enter the country illegally, so accessibility to these programs could possibly be an incentive for legal entry. However, another student quickly questioned whether this is something immigrants would know before entering the country.

A younger audience member argued that, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, most illegal immigration results from people overstaying their visas. Two members of the political union quickly rebutted the claim, saying that visa holders usually have more resources, leading to higher chances of a successful trial, and that the CIS is an anti-immigration think tank.

After the debate went back and forth, the forum concluded with a vote, with the majority of the attendees supporting decriminalizing illegal immigration in the U.S.

Immigration debate
Magloire and Odland vote in favor of prosecuting illegal immigrants at the end of the debate.

“That is my goal with the political union,” Sahni said. “To create a space where we can have a conversation.”

Photo at top: Members of the audience vote on their stance in regards to decriminalizing at the end of the debate. (Carolina Gonzalez/MEDILL)