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Fixing a Broken Immigration System: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Reform, Day 2

October 23, 2009 // 9:00am4:00pm
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One of the great challenges demanding legislative attention after health care and energy regulation is immigration policy. In anticipation of a coming greater focus on this issue, the Wilson Center hosted a conference on October 22-23 to bring together leading immigration experts—from both academia and the realm of policymaking--to discuss problems that will need to be addressed. The conference had support from the Carnegie Corporation and was co-sponsored by the United States Studies Program and the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, along with Columbia, Vanderbilt, and the University of Southern California. The program consisted of three panels and a concluding roundtable, plus remarks by guest of honor Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) and a keynote address by the Honorable Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico.

Panel II: Incorporation

Gary Gerstle, Professor of American History at Vanderbilt University; David Abraham, Professor of Law at the University of Miami; Arturo Vargas, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials; Dowell Myers, Professor of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California School

How do immigrants become integrated into their host society? Gary Gerstle addressed this question by emphasizing that the burden of adaptation should not rest entirely on immigrants. Incorporation, he said, "is rarely a one-way process. It requires changes from immigrants but changes from America, too." He argued that this "transformational incorporation" offers an opportunity for political and social renewal and is central to US history. David Abraham expanded on the issue by comparing the ease of incorporation in the U.S., Germany and Israel. He argued that there tends to be an inverse relationship between the "thickness" of citizenship—what is has to offer—and the ease with which it can be attained. The U.S. has offered relatively easy access but few social benefits, while Germany, with its more generous welfare state, has until recently restricted access by ethnicity. In its early days, Israel looked more like Germany but has grown closer to the U.S.

Arturo Vargas provided a real-life example of how immigrants are becoming politically integrated by relating his experience as a political organizer for the Latino community in the United States. One of the greatest motivators for Latinos to organize, he said, was exclusion. He told how his mother chose to pursue citizenship after living in California for 42 years as a permanent resident, because she felt threatened by nativist politicians.

Looking at incorporation from a more practical side, Dowell Myers addressed the demographic revolution taking place in the U.S., noting that it is rapidly changing the context for discussion of immigrant incorporation. The coming wave of retiring baby boomers, he said, will far outweigh the working-age population. Immigrants can help avert that crisis, he argued, but only if proper investment is made now in their education and training, so that they can integrate and contribute more effectively to the economy.

Panel III: Labor

Cindy Hahamovitch, Professor of History at the College of William & Mary; David Bacon, Senior Fellow at the Oakland Institute; Tamar Jacoby, and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA; Jennifer Gordon, Associate Professor at Fordham Law School

Cindy Hahamovitch began the discussion with an overview of the global history of guest worker programs. From their very inception in nineteenth-century Central Europe, she said, guest worker programs were a "state-brokered compromise between employers who want[ed] low-wage labor and nativists who [didn't] want immigrants at all." The interests of guest workers themselves have rarely figured into the equation. The one exception to this, she pointed out, was the U.S. Bracero Program in its early New Deal phase, where the US played a more active role in caring for workers. But even in this instance, deregulation eventually placed power over guest workers in the hands of employers. Ultimately, guest worker programs have depressed workers' wages and prevented access to adequate protections.

David Bacon underscored the link between migration and economic liberalization, particularly NAFTA. "It makes no sense to promote free trade agreements and then criminalize the people they displace." He recommended equality for immigrants with other workers, while pointing out that the current system favors employers by supplying cheap labor with little accountability. Tamar Jacoby countered this dim view of employers by citing evidence from the Social Security Administration that 75 per cent of employers hire legal immigrants. She expressed doubt about whether further regulation is the answer to the problem of exploitation. Jennifer Gordon outlined a vision for a "transnational labor visa," a new framework for worker protections based on partnerships between sending and receiving countries, with workers' associations advocating for individuals in both countries.

Keynote Address

The conference participants generally agreed that the U.S. and Mexico have a unique relationship that dominates the issue of immigration reform. In his keynote address, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda provided a perspective on reform from his own country. The unfortunate reality for Mexico, he said, is that more cooperation from the U.S. on security issues will necessitate more intrusion. "Otherwise," he warned, the cooperation "will be insignificant." At the same time, he noted, Mexico has a bargaining chip of its own in offering willingness to cooperate on controlling emigration to the U.S. This is politically difficult in Mexico, but not impossible. For example, he pointed to the possibility of tying incentives and punishments to Oportunidades, a conditional cash-transfer social welfare program. Families in which a breadwinner or head of household does not emigrate illegally, for example, could be rewarded in the system. Such efforts could target the four Mexican states that are responsible for half of emigration: Zacatecas, Michoacán, Jalisco, and Guanajuato. Castañeda pointed to other issues that are important from the Mexican perspective, including reforming Mexican anti-trust policy and developing a more substantial approach to combating drug trafficking.

Concluding Roundtable: Rethinking Immigration Policy

Christian Joppke, Professor of Politics at the American University of Paris; Elena Letona, Associate Director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities; Richard Foltin, Director of National and Legislative Affairs in the American Jewish Committee's Office of Government and International Affairs; Rhacel Parreñas, Professor of American Civilization and Sociology at Brown University

The final panel provided additional perspectives on immigration that need to be considered in the U.S. effort for reform. Christian Joppke offered a view of immigration in the European Union, particularly the problem of immigrant integration. This is far more prominent in Europe, he said, and is the cause of some of the policy differences between the EU and US, particularly Europe's less liberal family unification policies. But the EU is also far less unified than the US when it comes to immigration policy, he said, a situation that allows nativists to dominate the discussion within the context of individual countries. Joppke pointed to the unique place of the distinction between "illegal" vs. "legal" immigration in American discourse.

Elena Letona focused on that distinction as well, arguing that the use of the word "illegal" when applied to immigrants is entirely inappropriate, especially given the extent to which the legal immigration system is broken. Richard Foltin focused on immigration and national security. He urged the separation of discourse over terrorism from debate over immigration. At the same time, he said that "the challenges of border control and the enforcement side are only made more difficult by the existence of a sea of undocumented immigrants in which those who seek to do us harm potentially can swim." The solution he offered was a more robust approach to verification and more vigilant policing of the border, while simultaneously ensuring that the human rights of detainees are protected.

One final aspect of the current system that needs attention, according to Rhacel Parreñas, is the forcible separation of families. This continues to take place, she said, despite the United States' ostensibly generous family unification policies. She cited examples of domestic workers who face long backlogs while they await legal status, during which time they often must be separated from their families in their home countries. Humanitarian rights need to be taken into account, she said, along with labor needs in drafting a reformed immigration policy.

By Robert Donnelly and Richard Iserman
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies

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