American flags decorate the front doors of Texas A&M University-San Antonio during the mayoral forum. Photo by Scott Ball.
American flags adorn the front doors of Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

How does the U.S. Constitution apply to today’s efforts to reform and enforce immigration law? What does cultural assimilation mean? Who exactly should the United States welcome?

These and related questions were at the heart of a “Conversation with the Constitution,” a free, public event held Sunday – Constitution Day – at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

The “conversation” is an annual program organized by Constitution Cafe, which facilitates civil dialogue and exploration of the Constitution.

Nearly 40 students and adults attended this year’s conversation, held on the 230th anniversary of the Constitution’s ratification. Many attending students are currently enrolled in schools in the East Central Independent School District (ECISD), an early Constitution Cafe partner, or graduated from there.

Past conversations have centered on how the Constitution and federal law may today apply to issues such as gun control. Given the timeliness of the issue, and because Constitution Day is also known as Citizenship Day, immigration was a worthy topic for this year’s talk, organizers said.

All attendees received a free pocket-sized copy of the Constitution.

Attendance was down from previous years due to scheduling, logistics, and other issues. But one organizer, Patty Stone-Reyes, said attendance size did not matter as long as Sunday’s event helped people gain a better understanding of and be more curious about the Constitution.

“It takes a while to grow something valuable like civic discourse,” said Stone-Reyes, coordinator of programs for at-risk students at ECISD. “Let’s be persistent in wanting that kind of conversation to continue.”

Martin Capital Advisors Managing Prtner Paul Martin kicks off the “Conversation with the Constitution” at Texas A&M-San. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

“We try to bring up things that are timely and generate more conversation,” added Paul Martin, fellow organizer and managing partner of local firm Martin Capital Advisors.

T.J. Mayes, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s chief of staff and a practicing attorney, gave a brief explainer about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that has allowed about 800,000 people who entered the U.S. illegally as minors to get a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation as well as eligibility for a work permit.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2001 proposed the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act to introduce a multi-phase process that would allow conditional residency to eligible alien minors, and then permanent residency after those individuals meet further criteria. Congress has not passed the bipartisan bill, despite numerous efforts to reintroduce it – some as recent as this year.

Many people have argued against then-President Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to expand the DACA program, which was designed to give a form of relief. The Trump administration recently announced it is rescinding that policy and called for Congress to act on immigration. Now some 150,000 so-called “Dreamers” have until Oct. 5 to renew their status.

The way the Constitution is supposed to work, Mayes said, is that Congress writes immigration laws and the president executes that policy. Some critics argue that Obama crossed the line by adopting the DACA program.

But according to Mayes, Obama saw himself as enforcing the law by choosing to de-prioritize a majority of undocumented law-abiding immigrants from the risk of deportation.

“Now you see the intertwining of policy – should these people be deported or not – and constitutional law, which is about who has the right to determine whether these people get deported or not,” Mayes said.

Christopher Phillips, founder and executive director of Democracy Cafe, which oversees Constitution Cafe, was Sunday’s guest speaker. His past bestseller, Socrates Café, chronicles his nationwide travels aimed at fostering philosophical debate around constitutional law and its issues.

Phillips talked about President Thomas Jefferson, the subject of another one of his books.

According to Phillips, Jefferson felt it was counterproductive to have tight restrictions on people fleeing the country for similar reasons as those on their way to the U.S.

Jefferson also believed in rapid naturalization for these immigrants so they could assimilate to their new culture and surroundings and feel encouraged to take part in the democratic process, Phillips said.

“[Jefferson] believed [immigrants] had to be mainstreamed and brought into self-government right away,” he explained. “As contradictory and hypocritical as he may have been on issues of slavery, when it came to immigration policy, he had this very open-door, open-hearted policy.”

Attendees then discussed immigration in separate roundtables, asking the question, “Who should be allowed to legally come to the United States?”

Jiuan Mou, an East Central graduate and current Texas State University junior, helped organize Sunday’s event. She said as the daughter of immigrants, the topic hits home. At her table, she talked about how her family endured a complex, 10-year journey to get past bureaucratic red tape and become naturalized.

Jiuan Mou talks about her family’s path to U.S. citizenship as Paul Stahl (left) and Christopher Phillips look on during “Conversation with the Constitution” at Texas A&M-San Antonio on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. Photo by Edmond Ortiz Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

Mou said many immigrants genuinely want to take advantage of opportunities in the U.S. to improve life for themselves and their families.

“I really don’t think anybody should be barred from trying to immigrate to the United States, but I do feel there are certain channels that are open that should be used,” she said.

San Antonio Public Library Board Chair Paul Stahl said the fact that politicians are reluctant to follow through on their promises of reforming a sprawling issue such as immigration law is discouraging.

“But that’s partially the result of the people who elected them,” he added.

East Central senior Dallas Ramones said many immigrants head to the U.S. and other destinations because they feel the situations in their home countries are too hopeless to overcome. He wishes some of those individuals could remain in their native country to help find solutions to those problems.

“We should allow those people who are willing to give to their country [to] pledge allegiance to the flag [and] contribute to the community,” he said.

At another table, East Central teacher Vincent Briseño said Jefferson’s attitude toward immigration is dated because the issue has become more complex.

“[The United States is] not the same place it was then,” he said.

A few tables down, event organizer Chet Falcon addressed the argument that rescinding DACA could result in the deportation of thousands of immigrants who currently contribute to the U.S. economy.

“It may not be [just about] losing money, it may be about losing culture,” he said, explaining that many immigrants’ cultures have become ingrained in the U.S. cultural fabric.

Our Lady of the Lake University student Fred Casillas Jr. said the current path toward citizenship may be too rigorous, costly, and discouraging for some immigrants. Current U.S. immigration policy is overly concerned with border security, terrorism, and the fear of how members of some cultures, such as Muslims, view the U.S. and the West, he said.

“You’re not allowing people to be productive in society,” he added.

The Constitution Cafe’s partnership with East Central has provided students and teachers many opportunities to explore vital subjects about U.S. government and history, Martin said.

“From what faculty has told me, it has made a big difference with students and faculty.”

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.