How Racism Impedes Reform—and the Need to Address it Head-On

“Changing laws and policies alone won’t change who we are unless we address the underlying problems with those laws,” writes Giovagnoli. (Saundi Wilson / Flickr)

For over twenty years I have dedicated my life to immigration reform, preaching the value of a welcoming society.  I’ve tried to make America a better place by working for legislation and policies that would expand who could become a citizen, open America to refugees and asylum-seekers, and protect immigrants in the workplace.

I’ve tried to live by it, too—knowing full well that I come up short in fully understanding the challenges people of color face in the United States.  I’ve clung very hard to the belief that if we could just get our laws and policies right, we could achieve a more just and humane world.

I still believe those things are necessary, but the murder of George Floyd and the massive outpouring of protest, rage and sorrow that have followed this senseless killing has stopped me in my tracks. 

How can I believe that fixing the immigration laws will make things better when there are police officers who kill Black men and women without fear of punishment, and a president who permits peaceful protesters to be tear gassed and shot with plastic bullets just so he can have a photo opportunity? 

I am humbled by both the words and actions that people of color, especially Black Americans, have shared in these last few days, revealing the pain and fear that they live with every day in this country.  

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I realize now, more than ever, that we must fight for a better world, in all the ways we can, with our eyes open to the legacy of racism and hatred that permeates our institutions.  For me, that means acknowledging that changing laws and policies alone won’t change who we are unless we address the underlying problems with those laws.

Our fight for reform must include a recognition that change may unseat some privileges and may force us into new and more equal relationships. The welcoming movement has always stressed the need to meet people where they are, with the idea that change comes through knowing one another. 

But change also comes from knowing yourself.  Welcoming is not only about opening our arms to others; it is about opening ourselves to scrutiny and introspection, to plumb those dangerous hidden places in our hearts that ask the very scary question: “Am I, could I, be a racist?”  

I tend to be a gentle person.  I don’t like throwing epithets at others.  I truly believe in creating the space to sit down and talk with one another.  Most of the time, I think that people who oppose immigration reform have a host of reasons that can be addressed systematically and logically. 

But there is a visceral and frankly, racist, element to many of the arguments that have impeded reform. Acknowledging what lurks in the shadows is the beginning of change, even though it can be uncomfortable and painful.

Those of us who make up white America need to take respectful and contrite steps towards understanding the racist history and subtext of so many issues that we never have to think about. 

Protesters at 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis on Tuesday after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

The focus right now, of course, is fear of the police, but systemic racism is everywhere. For instance, the immigration laws themselves have historically privileged white Europeans—and even as the notion of white changed to include my grandparents and great grandparents, Italians and Irish—it continued to exclude so many others. 

Those vestiges of the past mean even the system I am fighting to protect and improve is littered with disregard for people of color.  Even as I embrace the history of America as a nation of immigrants, I must look at the dark side, too, and refuse to settle for either tweaking laws or not linking immigration reform to broader issues of equality and justice.

President Trump has capitalized on the dark side of immigration law, often seizing on those dark elements of law, taking them out of context, to create a host of illegal schemes for blocking the entry of refugees, of Muslims and of people of color generally. His administration has seized on the pandemic to leverage public health laws to shut the border to asylum seekers and others, even turning unaccompanied children away at the border, contrary to the law. 

These are sinister acts and they are racist.  They are so blatantly racist, however, that it is easy, perhaps, to utter those words without realizing that they have meaning beyond the accusation. Trump gets away with racism in part because people like me don’t want to risk offending and alienating others by using the words that describe our system. 

To make reforms a reality, we must stare unflinchingly at ourselves, whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever we say we stand for and ask: Does my work acknowledge the pain and suffering that is at the root of most of our immigration system?  How can I reconcile the concept that politics is the art of compromise, with the clear message that there can be no more implicit compromise where Black lives are at stake?

I don’t have the answers, but I pledge to keep fighting racism in all its forms.  For me, that work will still take place largely in the immigration context, largely through trying to improve our laws and support those who defend and advocate for immigrants. 

But now, every day, as I think about my work, I will ask myself not only how must the law change, but how must I change to make the world better. I will keep listening to those people who experience racism firsthand, and I will keep challenging myself and my colleagues to dig deeper to understand, lift up and stand aside for the rising tide of voices who can help us make the America we want it to be.  I still believe we can. 


Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.