NCILJ Symposium 2019: Professor Susan Akram on Challenges to Immigration Rights Advocates

The North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill held its annual symposium on February 1, 2019.  The symposium invited scholars including Professor Susan Akram to speak on discrete issues in immigration law.

Professor Susan Akram at Boston University School of Law directs BU Law’s International Human Rights Clinic where she supervises students in international advocacy of domestic, international, regional, and United Nations issues.  Her research and publications focus on immigration, asylum, refugees, forced migration, and human and civil rights issues, with an interest in the Middle East.[i]

Professor Akram began her keynote address by gazing over the conference room and out the back windows, taking in the beauty of the Piedmont region in late winter.  After taking in the peace of the calm, brisk morning, Professor Akram reminded the audience, “we have been down this path before.”[ii]

Akram addressed broad trends of immigration law in the United States, focusing on two refugee moments: the immigration wave from Central America in the 1980s[iii]and the influx of Islamic refugees in the 2000s.[iv]  As a professor of law and litigant acting concomitantly in each professional capacity throughout both periods, Akram presented her knowledge first hand.[v]  Xenophobia is nothing new.[vi]  Populist movements are not new.[vii]  In presenting her historical argument, Akram provided clarity to both movements and recognized one key difference between the two: a public-private advocacy partnership that defined the 1980s refugee crisis and is seemingly absent in the 2000s.

Akram highlighted the work of various religious organizations in the 1980s that provided sanctuaries for refugees by providing food and comfort while attorneys worked out immigration issues in the courts.[viii]  Akram argues that this public-private partnership is presently missing with our response to Middle Eastern immigrants.[ix]  The missing public-private partnership could be due to substantive changes in immigration law, particularly the legislative response to the September 11th terrorist attacks as seen through the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act.[x]

Until the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, refugee law was largely defined by substantive changes to immigration law found in the Refugee Act of 1980.[xi]  The Refugee Act of 1980 was far reaching and progressive in that it modernized U.S. refugee law from a Cold War approach to the United Nations’ definition.[xii]  This United Nations definition, now U.S. law, defined a refugee as an individual unable to return to their home country, because of “persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”[xiii]  In the 1990s, additional legislation supplemented the 1980 Refugee Act, increasing America’s worldwide annual ceiling on immigrants from 270,000 persons to 675,000.[xiv]  However, the refugee friendly legislation of the 1980s began to narrow after September 11th, as a flurry of legislation took a defense-oriented approach.[xv]

The Patriot Act of 2001 initiated the defense-oriented legislative response after September 11th.[xvi]  The Patriot Act provided additional funds for border security and granted the Attorney General the power to detain anyone deemed a threat to national security.[xvii]  In 2002 the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act heighted scrutiny of visa application from applicants of countries deemed sponsors of terrorism, adding additional procedural friction to refugees fleeing the Middle East.[xviii]  Finally, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 established the Department of Homeland Security to centralize immigration control and in so doing severed the Immigration and Naturalization Service agency into various departments within itself.[xix]  Taken together, this legislative response increased institutional friction for refugees, and when combined with persistent conflicts in the Middle East, may lead to public indifference towards meaningful immigration reform.[xx]

It is Akram’s firm belief that education will be the catalyst to reverse public indifference for immigrants’ rights.[xxi]  If the general benefit that immigrants provide our nation was highlighted, modern immigration legislation may be demanded.[xxii]

A 2017 Department of State report indicates that, despite popular belief, refugees do not adversely impact the U.S. labor market — even when accounting for the three million refugees that have been admitted since the 1980 Refugee Act.[xxiii]  Economists in Denmark found that over a 17 year period from 1991-2008, low skilled immigrants provided upward wage mobility to less educated local workers, as the immigrant labor allowed the locals to specialize.[xxiv]  Additionally, Harvard Business Reviewfound that, while immigrants comprise 15% of the U.S. population they represent an abundant 25% of U.S. entrepreneurs.[xxv]  Finally, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, on average, refugees spend $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in any kind of welfare payment.[xxvi]

Professor Akram’s balanced presentation emphasized a historical trend that ebbs and flows with the political moment.  While the anti-immigrant legislative response to the September 11th attacks reversed course on earlier pro-immigrant legislation, as we move further from the attacks that defined the early 21st century, so too should we move further from the fear of the moment that influenced such legislation.  Assuming Americans can be rational actors, there should be no room for fear-mongering with regard to refugees.  Refugees will only benefit our economy should America adopt a more lenient policy towards resettling those whose livelihoods may have been destroyed by the conflicts in the Middle East.


[i]Susan M. Akram, Boston University School of Law(2019), [].

[ii]Susan Akram (Clinical Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law), Address at the University of North Carolina International Law Journal Symposium: Discrete Issues in Immigration Law (Feb. 1, 2019).

[iii]Susan Gzesh, Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era, Migration Policy Institute (Apr. 1, 2006), [].

[iv]Akram, supra note 2.






[x]Peter J. Duignan, Making and Remaking America: Immigration into the United States, Hoover Institution(Sep. 15, 2003), [].



[xiii]8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42) (2014).

[xiv]Duignan, supra note 10.





[xix]6 U.S.C. § 101 (2016).

[xx]Akram, supra note 2.



[xxiii]Anna M. Mayda, The Labor Market Impact of Refugees: Evidence from the U.S. Resettlement Program, Department of State(2017),[].

[xxiv]Mette Foged & Giovanni Peri, How Immigrants and Job Mobility help Low-skilled Workers, VOX EU (Apr. 19, 2015) [].

[xxv]Sari P. Kerr & William R. Kerr, Immigrants Play a Disproportionate Role in American Entrepreneurship, Harvard Business Review(Oct. 3, 2016),[].

[xxvi]William Evans & Daniel Fitzgerald, The Economic and Social Outcomes of Refugees in the United States: Evidence from the ACS, National Bureau of Economic Research(2017), [].