Members of the Senate failed to advance any immigration laws on Feb. 15, leaving the fate of various United States immigrants in an ongoing state of limbo. News of the vote came in as hundreds of attendees sat in Irvine Auditorium, listening to former Vice President Joe Biden and former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush discuss immigration policy with Penn President Amy Gutmann.
The two-hour discussion was punctuated by brief personal anecdotes by the panelists. In a particularly memorable moment, Bush described his relationship to his wife, Columba Bush, a Mexican-American philanthropist.
"My wife is from Mexico, she's a proud Mexican-American. My children are Mexican-American. And to use [immigration] as a wedge issue — if you happen to be sleeping with a beautiful Mexican woman, which I do … " Bush said, prompting applause from the audience.
"Yes, 43 beautiful years of sleeping with her," he added, to the delight of attendees.
The event, titled “Policy Adrift: A 21st Century Framework for Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Immigration Policy,” is part of the David and Lyn Silfen University Forum, an annual series of panel discussions on contemporary issues.
Other panelists include professor and Director of Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative Michael Doyle, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard and 2014 College graduate Dau Jok who founded the Dut Jok Youth Foundation to support youth in South Sudan.
Gutmann opened the event with a moment of silence for the victims of the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida before going on to address the subject of the forum: immigration.
“At its core, immigration is about the fate of millions of individual people,” Gutmann said.
Jok, a former Penn men's basketball player, spoke about his own experience as an immigrant, adding that it is dangerous to label immigrants as “other.”
“Each and every one of us in this world, what happens in the other part of the world matters to us,” he said. “There’s a lot of stories, and we need to pause and see them from different perspectives."
Biden, who recently reaffirmed his partnership with Penn at the formal opening of the Penn Biden Center in Washington D.C, agreed with Gutmann's remarks and added immigration is central to American identity and necessary for economic growth.
The conversation on stage quickly turned to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The proposed repeal of DACA by the Trump administration has been condemned by Gutmann and prompted a range of student protests on Penn’s campus.
Just this past week, lawmakers re-opened their discussion of various immigration policies, including DACA and the Temporary Status Program, which is also at risk of being cut.
"The DACA issue is the easiest of the immigration issues. We're talking about children who, through no fault of their own, came to this country because their parents came," Bush said. “Even when it’s 85 percent popular, Washington seems to add all the other things in to make it complicated."
However, Bush also added that although immigration is essential American identity, "there also needs to be an understanding that we are a sovereign nation and the rule of law matters."
Bush urged the use of technology to prevent visa overstaying and to make legal immigration easier than illegal immigration, adding that visas should be given to skilled professionals who will add to the American economy.
Biden also had policy proposals of his own, recommending that all international Ph.D students receive a seven-year visa when they finish their degree. He said that there is “no compelling evidence” that immigration has led to economic dislocation in the United States.
Nursing junior Lily Keohane said that she appreciated how the panelists offered practical solutions to ongoing problems.
“I think [immigration] is a topic that’s easy to talk about hypothetically, but they really focused on concrete ways to solve issues, so I was happy to see that,” she said.
The panelists ended the event by turning to the issue of refugees.
The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that there are currently 65.6 million displaced people worldwide, the highest levels on record.
Richard said she hoped that moving forward, leaders on both sides of the aisle would work together to address the issue of refugees.
Biden agreed, adding that he felt Republicans and Democrats "don’t even talk to one another" when it comes to immigration.
College sophomore Erica DePalma said she appreciated the conversation that happened between Biden and Bush, who are leading figures in the Democratic and Repbulican parties respectively.
“I really like how Joe Biden as well as Jeb Bush were there and kind of understanding that they agree on a lot of the same issues regarding immigration," she said. "That’s a hopeful thing for our country.”
Contributing reporter Courtney Butterworth contributed reporting to this article.