How to Solve a Problem Like Illegal Immigration

Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman is a new half-hour weekly series on ideas and their consequences.

With states shaping their own immigration laws and courts taking up the issue, experts from across the spectrum discuss what is currently lacking and what is needed in shaping true immigration reform.

Transcript

IDEAS IN ACTION with Jim Glassman

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Illegal Immigration?

JIM GLASSMAN:
Welcome to Ideas in Action a television series about ideas and their consequences. I'm Jim Glassman. Illegal immigration has become a hot button issue in America affecting education, employment, healthcare and human services and as congress and the White House debate, states are making their own policies. What should be done about illegal immigration? Joining me to discuss this topic are; Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the INS; Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies; and Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. The topic this week: how do you solve a problem like illegal immigration? This is Ideas in Action.

ANNOUNCER:
Funding for Ideas in Action is provided by Investor's Business Daily. Every stock market cycle is led by America's never ending stream of innovative new companies and inventions. Investors Business Daily helps investors find these new leaders as they emerge. More information is available at Investors.com.

JIM GLASSMAN:
There are more than 11 million illegal immigrants in America today. Some Americans are alarmed by what they see as an influx of people who have broken the law to come to America, taking jobs that could go to American citizens. In this tough economic climate that's an easy idea to sell, however undocumented workers make up only 5% of the workforce and they perform a lot of menial tasks that Americans may not want to do. But efforts to stem the tide of illegal immigration are working. In fact the number of people crossing the border illegally has plummeted over the past two years. How serious is the illegal immigrant problem? And what can be done to fix it? Doris why are people so upset about illegal immigration? I mean illegal immigrants make up 3.7% of the U.S. population, 5% of the workforce, what's the big problem?

DORIS MEISSNER:
Well people are upset for a lot of reasons. They're upset because the country is changing through immigration and part of that change is being brought about by people who are coming here illegally. More of it's being brought about by people who are coming legally. We are a country of laws, we are also a nation of immigrants, and so the tension between our heritage and the fact that we've always changed over time through immigration is in conflict with the idea of people coming outside of the laws. But in addition to that people don't really understand our laws. Our laws don't provide a way for people to come to this country for work purposes in nearly the numbers that the economy was demanding until very recently. Overall immigration picture is one that is positive for the country at a macro level but at a micro level the costs of immigration are borne disproportionately, both legal and illegal immigration, at the local level, through schools and other kinds of services and our policy doesn't allow for that to be compensated right now.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And actually I wanted to ask Mark about that. What is the impact of undocumented workers on the U.S. economy?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
There'd be two sides to it; one is the illegality of the worker can have an effect and the other is just a huge number of low skilled workers, a kind of supply shock to the labor market. And the illegality of illegal workers actually has much less economic impact than people think. What really matters, their consequence, their effects to the economy is the fact that there's a huge proportion of the low skilled workforce that comes through immigration, mostly illegal because illegal immigrants are less skilled, but some of it legal and that then has a number of effects. First it slows down wage growth for American workers in these same occupations, and there's a lot of them. It also interestingly because they're low skilled workers in a 21st century knowledge based economy it limits their own upward mobility and their children's upward mobility, whereas in the past similar workers were coming to a very different economy. And thirdly it distorts the industries that these low skilled workers are concentrated in, slowing the process of technological advancement and labor saving technologies in areas like agriculture. There's nothing that can't be mechanized say that's in the hand harvesting of fresh fruits and vegetables. This supply shock of cheap labor creates takes away the incentives for farmers to implement the mechanization-- use the technologies that exist or invest in the development of new ones.

ALI NOORANI:
It's an interesting contradiction here because while we're on one hand saying well immigrants are doing the jobs of picking peaches, picking strawberries, picking apples, those are jobs that Americans will do, but then in the same sentence we're saying well actually those are jobs that machines will do. If congress was to act and actually put forward a reasonable immigration solution we'd be able to make taxpayers out of everybody, the worker as well as the employer.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Good point and let's get to that. Why is it that congress has been unable to come up with a solution to the problem that America is a nation of immigrants and yet we've got 11 million undocumented immigrants here breaking the law. Why can't something get done?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
Well the standard package that advocates call comprehensive immigration reform has three pieces to it; the three parts of this so called comprehensive reform is one legalizing the illegal immigrants who are here, amnesty in English, huge increases in future legal immigration, whether guest workers or whatever it is, but increased immigration, and then promises to enforce the law in the future so we don't end up with more illegal immigrants. The core political problem really is that the enforcement promises nobody believes because that's what the 1986 Amnesty Law was based on. Amnesty now, tie up the lose ends of bad law in the past, in exchange for promises to enforce the law, promises were not kept--

JIM GLASSMAN:
What about that? I mean-- was that a false promise in 1986? It seems to have been. So can those lose ends be tied up now?

DORIS MEISSNER:
Well it was a sincere promise in 1986 but the follow up didn't follow up on the promise but that's now 20, 30 years ago and I think that the political problem that Mark refers to is actually a deeper issue than the inflammatory issue of immigration itself, which has always been an inflammatory issue. In the first place we have done enormous buildups in enforcement in this country at least in the last 10 years, probably in the last 15 years. So the idea that we're not equipped to follow up on the enforcement promise of immigration laws is I think no longer valid. But the deeper political problem here is that immigration is one of those issues that requires bipartisanship. It requires a strong center. There is no immigration reform, statutory change, since the middle of the last century that has passed without a strong cross party agreement and that is simply missing from our politics today.

JIM GLASSMAN:
In fact it seems that there is a lot of demagoguery on this issue.

DORIS MEISSNER:
Yeah the problem solving is going to require people in both parties to come to a bipartisan agreement and it's not in the cards right now--

JIM GLASSMAN:
It's not in the cards. Do you think it's not in the cards in an election year?

ALI NOORANI:
An election year makes it more difficult undoubtedly but you also see in communities across the country whether they're Hispanic or even independent that there is a growing demand for a solution to this problem. And poll after poll for years has said people want a path to legal status, they want strong enforcement of the law, and they want a rational immigration system--

JIM GLASSMAN:
Well we're seeing states take matters into their own hands. What do you think of that?

ALI NOORANI:
Well you see Alabama and Georgia on one end of the spectrum who are literally undermining their very own economy. Then you see California doing things proactively for immigrants. But then you also see a place like Utah, the most conservative state in the country who is saying you know what, we can't just have an enforcement only perspective, we have to actually have an immigration system, even if it's just limited to Utah that serves Utah's economy.

JIM GLASSMAN:
So what is Utah doing specifically?

ALI NOORANI:
Utah has done two things; one is they have said they want to enforce immigration laws at a local level, then they have asked the federal government for a waiver so that they can institute in essence their own worker program. So based on the labor market and the economic needs of Utah they would like to be able to say ok workers can come into Utah based on our needs as a state and our economy. That's a practical solution that brought together Republicans and Democrats in the state of Utah that we need to see replicated in congress--

JIM GLASSMAN:
Come in legally--

DORIS MEISSNER:
--But the interesting thing about Utah is that there is no such thing as this waiver that they have asked for and there is now way to actually do at the state level what it is that they're asking for so what you're really seeing in Utah is the pressure that local officials, local elected, and state elected officials are under to respond to this issue of immigration on the ground, the distortions that it's causing the current system in the absence of the federal government doing the job that the federal government is supposed to do.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And even at the federal level there's a certain ad hoc ism recently the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was going to consider certain deportation cases on a case by case basis-- is the Obama administration making policy by itself by doing this rather than following the law?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
I would say yes. What--the thing you're talking about this reassessment of deportation cases is kind of the final part of a policy that has been pretty clearly articulated by the administration over the past couple of years the goal of which is that no illegal immigrant who hasn't also killed somebody or been a child molester or drug dealer something like that would be acted on by the government. In other words that illegal-- being illegal itself will not result in any consequences. So this recent announcement what they did was they said that the 300,000 people already in the deportation pipeline from before will all be reexamined one by one and those that they deem not to be somehow dangerous or threats will be released, given work authorization, essentially legalized or at least quasi legalized. The administration has essentially announced that immigration law is kind of a secondary offense, like not wearing your seatbelt. You're not going to get pulled over for it but they'll use it against you if you're doing something else bad and that undermines the very premise of enforcing immigration laws.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And isn't that kind of the major issue? We see this in the states you know-- is being an illegal immigrant really being treated as a crime? There are 11 million illegal immigrants. And should it be?

ALI NOORANI:
For us to forcibly deport 11 million people from our country would be a social and economic nightmare. I think we can all agree to that. So what the Obama administration has said is that we have a limited amount of valuable law enforcement resources let's focus those on, as Mark said, the worst of the worst. That's smart law enforcement. And let's make sure that the folks who are here and who are in violation of immigration law that they are put into a process where they are vetted, they haven't committed these types of crimes and let's make sure that we are using our valuable law enforcement resources the right way. Because at the end of the day a mass deportation is not going to serve our country's interest.

DORIS MEISSNER:
I think that describing this policy as going beyond what the executive branch has the prerogative to do it is in incorrect. The executive branch does have the prerogative to determine how it's going to establish its enforcement priorities and pursue them in that way. And it has said and has now made even more explicit that it is going to focus on serious criminal activity.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And you think that's a good policy?

DORIS MEISSNER:
I do think it's a good policy.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Can I ask you about another policy? 8% of the children born in America are born to at least one illegal immigrant parent and then that child then gets automatic U.S. citizenship. I mean isn't this a problem?

DORIS MEISSNER:
This is not a problem. This is one of the critical aspects of the United States that makes it distinct in the world in many ways. But fundamentally people born on U.S soil are U.S. citizens. It means a lot of things but among the things that it means in the current setting is that we will not build in structurally an underclass into our society going forward into the future.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Should an illegal immigrant be able to get the same rights and the same tuition as a legal American at a university in Texas for example?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
Certainly not. I-- actually I think the issue of in state tuition is kind of missing the point. The question is really should illegal immigrants even be permitted to enroll at state universities because there's a fixed number of slots, every seat at a university taken by an illegal immigrant is one that a legal immigrant or U.S. citizen doesn't get but--

JIM GLASSMAN:
But then you have the problem that Doris just expressed I think very eloquently, which is where do you leave these people like on the side of the road? Say you know well we're not going to give you an education fend for yourself--

MARK KRIKORIAN:
But the point-- what that means though is that the real issue is legalization or not, not in state tuition, that's almost a distraction because let's say-- California for instance permits in state tuition for illegal immigrants and now just passed a bill permitting taxpayer subsidized financial aid as well. Well ok those students spend four years in a university and then what? They can't get a job it's illegal. They're illegal immigrants. So the issue-- the in state tuition thing--

JIM GLASSMAN:
This struck me the other day when I heard about the California policy.

MARK KRIKORIAN:
It's almost a distraction.

JIM GLASSMAN:
So what do they do? Do they leave? Do they go into the black market?

DORIS MEISSNER:
These are all workarounds. These are workarounds because-- the idea of states trying to tackle this issue because of exactly what you said. They're at least trying to allow people to move forward because let's remember who most of these illegal immigrants are, they're kids who came here when their parents brought them as youngsters, they can't go anywhere because our system doesn't provide for any proper management of this whole not only group of people but way forward in terms of immigration overall.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Yes Ali.

ALI NOORANI:
There's two things here one is that these students are high performing academic students. They've already competed for that seat and they have earned that seat. So they're not displacing anybody. A university looks at somebody based on their grades and their test scores. So that's number one. Number two and Doris touched on this earlier is that these are all state-by-state solutions. This comes back to the fact that congress has not come around the table in a bipartisan way to fix the problem.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Right. Let's hone in on that because that's a very important issue to us at the Bush Institute as we look at ways to increase economic growth and there are a lot of people who are saying let's get rid of this family connect-- extended family connection type of immigration which I think is unique to the United States or is certainly quite unusual and instead make our decisions about whether immigrants come to the United States based on their level of education or even how much money they've got. In other words let's try to boost the quality of immigration-- what do you think of that?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
Well I mean there's a germ of a point there but you need to understand--

JIM GLASSMAN:
Only a germ.

MARK KRIKORIAN:
Only a germ I'm afraid because-- look we took in about 1.1 million legal immigrants last year, that's how many green cards we gave out. Now most of those people were already here and they engineered some kind of permanent status-- but 1.1 million people, 400,000 of them about were the spouses or minor children of U.S. citizens. That's the kind of irreducible minimum of family immigration. You're not going to get rid of that. It's the other--

JIM GLASSMAN:
Right.

MARK KRIKORIAN:
It's the adult siblings, the adult children, that kind of thing-- and that's not insignificant to get rid of that. But the point is you start with 400,000 people who are relatives who are not-- it's not going to be eliminated--

JIM GLASSMAN:
Right but what about the other 600,000?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
But--

JIM GLASSMAN:
What if you said you had to pay 50,000 dollars to become an American citizen or to immigrate to the United States? Or that you have to have a college degree? Or that you have to have an advanced degree?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
The question here is what kind of skills are special in a modern economy that actually have those kind of effects--

JIM GLASSMAN:
Well there are a lot of people in Silicon Valley and I mean I talk to people almost everyday who say we can't find those skills in the United States we need to import them--

MARK KRIKORIAN:
--Look the head of-- the vice president of Texas Instruments just testified last week that at the bachelor's degree level they have no interest in importing people. They couldn't care less. It's people with advanced degrees and overwhelming majority of foreign students who get PhDs in the United States stay already. It seems to me this is a phony issue because the top, the best and the brightest, already are able to stay.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Ali.

ALI NOORANI:
It's not a phony issue. The fact is if you graduate with a PhD in computer engineering you don't have a guarantee to a green card. You don't have a guarantee to be able to stay here. More and more we're seeing that companies are unable to sponsor those individuals and those individuals after we train them return to their countries and start businesses there. So in effect we are exporting highly trained workers to then take the jobs that we need as a country.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Do you think a part of the concern about people who want to reduce the number of immigrants is really related to the fact that so many of our immigrants are Hispanic?

ALI NOORANI:
This is a time-honored tradition in our country right? In the early 1900s it was if you were Irish or Italian. Now if it's you're Hispanic. I think as a country we've always met that challenge of understanding who are new neighbors are and welcoming them to our nation. So I think this tension that we feel as a country we can struggle through that. We'll figure that out.

JIM GLASSMAN:
The fact that it's historic-- it's been going on-- it was Italians and the Jews and you know everybody didn't like a specific class of immigrants-- and the fact that it's been going on for a long time doesn't mean that it's not somewhat pernicious.

ALI NOORANI:
I have confidence in us as a country that we're going to meet that challenge. So is it an issue of race? Is it an issue of class these days? Yes, but it has always been. So I think we need our leadership to help us meet that challenge.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Do you think there are too many Hispanics coming into the United States?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
The question is two-fold. Ali is right in that there's always a certain discomfort and always has been when newcomers show up. There's no question about that. What we face today though is different in kind from anything that's every happened before because this is the first immigration wave ever where the majority of immigrants are from a single ethnic group. I looked at the 1910 census when I was writing my book. The variation in the languages and ethnicities was stupefying. There was no group that was even close to being majority. Today like 55, 60% of our immigrants are of a single ethnic group. That really does create a very different dynamic that we have the least diverse immigration flow in American history.

JIM GLASSMAN:
And that-- least diverse even during the period let's say when lots of Italians were coming in the early part of the century--

MARK KRIKORIAN:
They weren't anywhere close-- anywhere close to the share of immigration--

JIM GLASSMAN:
What was the percentage? 10%? 20%?

MARK KRIKORIAN:
It was something like 20 or something, 25%, and even then only for a brief time. The Germans earlier only for a brief time.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Do you think that a border fence can really work? I mean Rick Perry for one, governor of Texas, doesn't think that it will. An extensive border fence.

DORIS MEISSNER:
Well I mean what's going on on the border now today and what's going on with the change since the recession in 2008 is really dramatic. Fencing is part of effective border control but it needs to be used selectively and it is not the answer across the entire border to solving the problem of illegal immigration. In the first place a lot of our illegal immigration actually comes from people that never have crossed the southwest border. Somewhere between probably 35 and 40% of the resident illegal population are people who came here with visas and overstayed their visas. So even if you reduce dramatically the number of people that come across the U.S.-Mexican border, which in fact is the case today, you have not solved the problem of illegal immigration through border enforcement. In Mexico there is a shift going on now which may really be a game changer in terms of the traditional push pull into the United States. They've just completed their census and the numbers are pretty stunning; a combination of dramatically reduced fertility, better job growth, and better economic growth in Mexico than in many other countries during this time, higher education levels, so that people have a reason to be staying there. So we actually may be turning a corner where some of the pressure is off in terms of the flow of illegal immigration which I hope allows for the political moment to arise where we actually rectify this system.

JIM GLASSMAN:
So Ali ultimately we've talked about a problem that's very difficult to solve. What-- do you think that there is a chance to solve this problem or to have a rational immigration policy by let's say 2013?

ALI NOORANI: Well I think we have to keep pushing towards that. I think we'll-- it'll be interesting the way that the presidential primary debates continue to unfold and how immigration continues to be in essence a marginalizing factor for the Republican Party. But at some point when we get to the general election both candidates are going to have to present to the country, not just to Hispanics but to the country, a rational plan to fix our immigration system.

DORIS MEISSNER:
The other thing that could be very important here is the Supreme Court. It's entirely possible that these state laws, which are now with court decisions in different circuits in fundamental disagreement, may be taken up by the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court decides that states cannot legislate in this area it creates a different political climate--

JIM GLASSMAN:
I just want to ask all of you what you think a reasonable immigration policy would look like very, very briefly.

MARK KRIKORIAN:
The way I see it is the enforcement part is going to come first. It has to come first. It's not going to be part of a deal. Enforcement is not negotiable. After a time the illegal population will shrink through enforcement. Not all of them will leave but it can be shrunk. We modeled and estimated that we could probably cut it in half in five years with real consistent across the board enforcement. No machine guns and stuff just regular enforcement. At that point, then a deal I think is possible and the deal then would be legalization for some of the remaining illegal immigrants in exchange for permanent reductions in legal immigration. That's the deal that we're going to see five or seven or ten years down the road. Not this comprehensive immigration reform that holds out the promise of enforcement but just a promise.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Doris.

DORIS MEISSNER:
I'm pessimistic politically about immigration reform but I do believe that from a policy standpoint you must do what we think of as comprehensive reform. You cannot ultimately enforce your way out of this problem. The problem is one that requires a more integrated solution because if nothing else and particularly going into the fiscal climate that we're going into we can't afford more enforcement. We're doing an enormous amount of enforcement at this point but of a law that is not rational. You need an employer enforcement piece that holds employer accountable on a mandatory basis to checking their workforce. We don't have that now. You must have an amnesty piece and you must have a possibility of future flows of workers for labor market reasons that is more balanced with the family immigration.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Ok. Ali.

ALI NOORANI:
We have two options in front of us. One option is we can bank on deepening recession and spending tens of billions of dollars on enforcement. That's what Mark just laid out. In essence make sure that people want to leave because the economy's terrible and we're spending a billion dollars-- tens of billions of dollars a year on enforcing immigration law. That option does not serve our needs as a country. That is clear. The second option is to make taxpayers out of people who are here illegally, require them to pay their taxes, get legal status, pass a criminal background check, and then get in line for citizenships. That's one leg of that stool. The second leg is to have an immigration system that meets the needs of our workforce and our economy so that job creators are coming into the country and creating jobs and they're welcomed here. And then third is actually being able to have an immigration enforcement system that can operate effectively and efficiently so we're not spending tens of billions of dollars to forcibly remove five million people. That's crazy. We're actually spending the right amount of resources on making sure the ones who are here to hurt us and cause harm are removed. That's smart immigration policy.

JIM GLASSMAN:
Thank you Ali, thank you Mark, and thank you Doris. And that's it for this week's Ideas in Action. I'm Jim Glassman, thanks for watching. Keep in mind that you can watch Ideas in Action whenever and wherever you want. To watch highlights or complete programs just go to ideasinactiontv.com or download a podcast from the iTunes store. Ideas in Action because ideas have consequences.

ANNOUNCER:
For more information visit us at ideasinactiontv.com. Funding for Ideas in Action is provided by Investor's Business Daily. Every stock market cycle is led by America's never ending stream of innovative new companies and inventions. Investor's Business Daily helps investors find these new leaders as they emerge. More information is available at investors.com. This program is a production of Grace Creek Media and the George W. Bush Institute, which are solely responsible for its content.


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Featured Guests

Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies

Mr. Krikorian has headed the Center since 1995. He holds a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University, and spent two years at Yerevan State University in then-Soviet Armenia. Before joining the Center he held a variety of editorial and writing positions.

Doris Meissner

Senior Fellow and Director, US Immigration Policy Program

Her responsibilities focus in particular on the role of immigration in America’s future and on administering the nation’s immigration laws, systems, and government agencies. Her work and expertise also include immigration and politics, immigration enforcement, border control, cooperation with other countries, and immigration and national security. She has authored and coauthored numerous reports, articles, and op-eds and is frequently quoted in the media. She served as Director of MPI's Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future, a bipartisan group of distinguished leaders. The group's report and recommendations address how to harness the advantages of immigration for a 21st century economy and society.

From 1993-2000, she served in the Clinton administration as Commissioner of the INS, then a bureau in the US Department of Justice. Her accomplishments included reforming the nation's asylum system; creating new strategies for managing US borders; improving naturalization and other services for immigrants; shaping new responses to migration and humanitarian emergencies; strengthening cooperation and joint initiatives with Mexico, Canada, and other countries; and managing growth that doubled the agency’s personnel and tripled its budget.

Ali Noorani

National Immigration Forum, Executive Director

Noorani is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, advocating for the value of immigrants and immigration to the nation.

Prior to joining the Forum, Noorani was executive Director of the MA Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). Before taking the helm at MIRA, Noorani served as the director of Public Health for the Dorchester House Multi Service Center and Codman Square Health Center- two large community health Centers in Boston. Prior to that, Noorani worked for the! City of Boston coordinating funding and Technical assistance to regional environmental projects.

Born in California, Noorani is the son of Pakistani immigrants and is one of the few immigration leaders of Muslim heritage. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley, and received his Master’s in Public Health from Boston University.

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