Last week, four members of an advisory council to the Department of Homeland Security resigned over the Trump administration’s policy of separating children and their parents at the U.S. border. In announcing their resignation, they called the policy “morally repugnant, counter-productive and ill-considered.” One of the people who left the council was Elizabeth Holtzman, a Democratic former congresswoman from New York City, who served in the 1970s and early 1980s. During her career in Congress, she worked on a number of issues that have once again become relevant: She was the co-author of the crucial Refugee Act of 1980, which ensured American laws met international standards on the admission and treatment of refugees; she helped pass legislation to denaturalize Nazi war criminals; and she served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate.
I recently spoke by phone with Holtzman, who is currently a practicing lawyer in New York City. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed her own career in immigration, where the Obama administration went wrong on the issue, and how cruelty toward immigrants is part of a conscious strategy.
Isaac Chotiner: What did this advisory council do, and why were you on it in the first place?
Elizabeth Holtzman: [Obama DHS] Secretary [Jeh] Johnson appointed me. I didn’t ask for that. He asked me to be on it, I guess because of my experience as chair of the immigration subcommittee, my experience with refugees, my having been a member of Congress. But you would have to ask him why he wanted me on there. Anyway, it was a very interesting assignment, and the advisory council did, I think, some very important work. It was assigned issues to write reports on. That was one of the things it did. It met with the secretary from time to time on various issues. But it wrote some very important reports on cybersecurity, private prisons.
Do you have some sense of why the people who have stayed haven’t left, and if more departures are imminent?
I can’t answer that.
How different are this administration’s immigration policies, generally, from what we have seen over the past several decades?
I think their approach to immigration is to make war on refugees and to make war on immigrants. That’s what I think they are doing. They are cutting down refugee numbers, and picking up undocumented aliens who have lived here for a very long time. They say that undocumented immigrants who live here hurt Americans, but when you remove the breadwinner from a family, and there are American-citizen children, who is being hurt? Their program is not only inhumane and cruel, but is in entirely illogical. How does this make Americans better off? It’s a level of cruelty that is unimaginable and despicable, with no recognition of the contribution that immigrants have and will make to this country. Somehow the idea that if we just got rid of all the undocumented aliens, and we stopped refugee admissions, and we didn’t allow anyone to immigrate to this county anymore, then we would be great is such nonsense. Immigrants built this country, whether they were brought here voluntarily or involuntarily.
Do you get a sense that the actual purpose of these policies is to be cruel and create a sense of fear? Or do you think—
That’s what [White House chief of staff] John Kelly said. I was at some briefings, and I think the briefings were supposed to be confidential, so I am not going to give what happened at these briefings, but the tone was horrific. And I countered them with these examples of how they were hurting American citizens by their behavior, and they would deny things that were obviously true. The approach was much more punitive, cruel, vicious, heartless, ruthless, and harmful to the United States of America than the preceding policy. I didn’t agree with the vast number of deportations that were taking place under the Obama administration, so I can’t say that they were a shining beacon of humanity and enlightenment, but they weren’t infected with this level of cruelty.
Why did the Obama administration deport that many people? You obviously know Secretary Johnson. Was it simply to get a deal for comprehensive immigration reform, which of course never happened?
Toward the end they developed standards so that they were focusing on people who had committed felonies, and you can’t really object to that. They could be felonies that were very old; that’s a different story. But people who remained a threat to the community—that’s what they began to focus on in the last few years, and that’s when I was on the advisory council. But that doesn’t mean that their initial focus was correct.
I didn’t get a chance to interface very much on those policies, but I did express my opinion. I don’t really know what was behind those policies, but I can give you one example of how they tried to ameliorate some of the problems. One of the things I suggested to a number of people in DHS was to use the example of the orderly departure program that we had from Vietnam [following the Vietnam War], that I helped to initiate, which is that people could leave without having to go into little boats, without having to face the perils of the open sea.
Most of the exodus that took place was by boats and it very dangerous and perilous for people who fled that. I said that one of the things that could be done here is to develop an orderly departure program from some of the people from the Central American countries whereby people can request asylum in those countries. And they started a program. I was never able to ascertain how effectively it was implemented or seriously it was implemented, but that could avoided a lot of heartache.
What did the Refugee Act of 1980 aim to accomplish, and how much of what it did accomplish is now at risk?
First of all, the irony is that it was not controversial when it was adopted. It was not. The point of the Refugee Act was to create a level playing field for refugees seeking admission to the United States. Before that act, we had various kinds of programs, but they were aimed primarily at people who were fleeing communist countries and there wasn’t a regular program. Both Sen. [Ted] Kennedy and I wanted to establish the notion that a refugee could be someone fleeing a country that wasn’t a communist country. You could have persecution or torture, even though it wasn’t a communist country.
And the second thing was that we wanted to regularize a program of admissions so that there would be numbers available for refugees to come to this country. So that we would be admitting refugees to this country every year. We wanted to do that. We understood that was a role we wanted to play, that the United States wanted to play, that we would be seen as a country that had a heart. The Statue of Liberty wasn’t just some French gift that nobody paid attention to: It was something that spoke to us in a very deep way. And so that’s what we did. Was it the world’s most perfect bill? I can’t tell you, but that was the objective. Both of us understood what happened during World War II. The Holocaust was part of the background of this, and we were part of witnessing the boat people flight. And that was an impetus to say: Let’s put this program on a proper footing.
Now the administration is both cutting down the number of refugees and making border stations where people are supposed to be able to apply for asylum almost impossible to access, right?
Correct. It’s a violation, I think, of our law, if not in words then in spirit, and the treaty obligations of the United States. This is the kind of thing we were berating countries about during the boat exodus. I know. I was there. I dealt with these foreign governments. I talked to some of the people running these countries in Southeast Asia begging them not to send the people back. To hold them. And they did because that’s when the United States showed leadership in a problem. It wasn’t to just force people back into the inferno. The U.S. basically organized the world to figure out a solution to this problem. And it did. It got all the countries right around Vietnam to agree not to throw those people back into the waters, and we agreed that we would work out with other countries permanent resettlement.
But we are not there anymore. Not only do we want to turn our eyes from, but we want to throw refugees out. We don’t care about the humanitarian crisis. We don’t care about what’s happening in Central America to force these people out. We don’t want to acknowledge our role in making that happen. We overthrew the government in Guatemala. In Honduras and El Salvador, we were part of propping up dictatorships. And now we just want to turn our back.
Any Watergate thoughts before I let you go?
What about Watergate.
I don’t know. What comes to mind?
I’d like to see this president out of office is what comes to mind.