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CFR-Politico Online Chat on U.S. Immigration Policy

Discussant: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Moderator: Fred Barbash, Senior Editor, Politico
September 3, 2009
Politico

FRED BARBASH: "The continued failure to devise and implement a sound and sustainable immigration policy threatens to weaken America’s economy, to jeopardize its diplomacy, and to imperil its national security," concludes a new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Independent Task Force co-chaired by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former White House chief of staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty.

"The stakes are too high to fail," says the report. "If the United States continues to mishandle its immigration policy, it will damage one of the vital underpinnings of American prosperity and security, and could condemn the country to a long, slow decline in its status in the world." For this reason, the report urges: "The United States needs a fundamental overhaul of its immigration laws."

U.S. Immigration Policy contends that America has reaped tremendous benefits from opening its doors to immigrants, as well as to students, skilled employees and others who may only live in the country for shorter periods of time. But it warns that “the continued inability of the United States to develop and enforce a workable system of immigration laws threatens to undermine these achievements."

Directed by CFR Senior Fellow Edward Alden, the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy reflects the consensus of a bipartisan group of eminent leaders in the fields of immigration policy, homeland security, education, labor, business, academia and human rights. The group urges Congress and the Obama administration to move ahead with immigration reform legislation that achieves three critical goals:

Reforms the legal immigration system so that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness;

Restores the integrity of immigration laws through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages employers and employees from operating outside that legal system, secures America’s borders, and levies significant penalties against those who violate the rules;

Offers a fair, humane, and orderly way to allow many of the roughly twelve million migrants currently living illegally in the United States to earn the right to remain legally.

According to the report, the high level of illegal immigration in the country is increasingly damaging to U.S. national interests—"[it] diminishes respect for the law, creates potential security risks, weakens labor rights, strains U.S. relations with its Mexican neighbor, and unfairly burdens public education and social services in many states."

But it contends that "no enforcement effort will succeed properly unless the legal channels for coming to the United States can be made to work better." Therefore, "the U.S. government must invest in creating a working immigration system that alleviates long and counterproductive backlogs and delays, and ensures that whatever laws are enacted by Congress are enforced thoroughly and effectively.

Edward Alden is our guest today.   He is the author of The Closing of the American Border, an acclaimed book about the dramatic changes in our border and immigration policy since 9/11. You may submit questions in advance now.

Welcome Ted. Let me begin just by asking you to quickly summarize the Task Force's main conclusion--briefly--for those who have not had a chance to read the report or executive summary.

EDWARD ALDEN:  Thanks Fred. It's good to be with you. The Task Force report argues that immigration policy is critical to America's economic, diplomatic and security standing in the world. The U.S. has long benefited from its ability to attract bright and hard-working immigrants, and there would be huge costs to this country if we lose that edge.

The report tried to show that there is a middle ground and room for bipartisan compromise on some of the very difficult issues in the debate, such as how to curb illegal immigration, how to secure our borders, what to do about illegal immigrants already living here, and how to create a more efficient system for dealing with legal immigrant applications. The hope was that is would be a positive and useful contribution as Congress and the administration take up this issue.

[Comment From PCook] How are the Health Reform bill and Immigration reform connected?

EDWARD ALDEN: In some narrow ways, for instance the question of whether illegal migrants would be covered under universal health care legislation. But more broadly, it will clearly be difficult for the administration and Congress to succeed on a difficult, contentious issue like immigration reform if they cannot succeed on health care.

[Comment From Jen] I'm wondering whether in this poisonous partisan atmosphere today--I say that without blaming one side or the other--whether you feel that the chances for serious immigration reform have been totally dashed?

EDWARD ALDEN: We have to remember that the last big effort at immigration reform, in 1986, took six or seven years to come together. So if you date this round to President Bush's speech in 2004, we're about five years into the current effort. There's no question that immigration reform is a difficult and often partisan issue. But I think there are a range of measures that can appeal to both parties, and that our report -- which was the product of a bipartisan group -- tries to spell out where some of that middle ground might be.

[Comment From Janice] Do you believe that 9/11 produced a new wave of "nativism" in America and even in Europe, where there seems to be quite a bit of anti-immigrant sentiment these days?

EDWARD ALDEN: While my book chronicles that many ways in which life become more difficult for immigrants and potential immigrants to the U.S. after 9/11, I'm reluctant to call it nativism. The U.S., by most standards, still has a generous immigration system, and we have not seen quite the same level of tension over immigration as is the case in many European countries. There are real, serious problems in the way we are handling immigration policy, but I don't think the "nativist" label helps in understanding these issues.

FRED BARBASH: In your answer to Jen, you refer to some "middle ground" that might appeal to both parties. Could you elaborate a bit?

EDWARD ALDEN:  In short form -- Republicans are very worried about border security and about dealing seriously with the problem of illegal immigration. Our report shows how much progress has been made in the past few years in securing the borders (illegal immigrant entries are way down, though much of that is driven by the economy of course), and also lays out the positive prospects for stopping most employers from hiring unauthorized workers, which is the real magnet for illegal immigration.

Democrats are interested in offering a path to earned legalization for many of those already here, and in dealing with some of the real abuses that have arisen in the immigrant detention system, and the report speaks directly to these issues.

And both parties want to make sure that America remains the destination of choice for talented and ambitious immigrants.

So I think there is an approach here that can reach across both parties.

[Comment From Carlisle] Given all of the concerns before Congress and the Administration right now, what will it take for them to take up immigration reform, what kind of arguments will they find most compelling, and when - either calendar-wise or issue sequencing-wise - do you think this might happen?

EDWARD ALDEN:  I would refer back to my previous answer on some of the compelling arguments for taking up the issue. And the report tries to spell out how much damage the U.S. is doing to itself -- to the economy, security, our standing in the world -- by not dealing with the immigration issue.

But unfortunately I do think immigration reform is partly hostage to the administration's other legislative initiatives. It is a top priority for the administration, but not the top priority, and therefore may have to wait a bit.

[Comment From Ali] Edward, Thank you for organizing the Task Force and moving the report forward - it has already made a significant and positive impression on the debate. After the fun and games of health care and energy debates, do you think Democrats and Republicans will realize immigration reform is a solution that serves their policy and political interests? Or, do you think the ugly immigration debate will continue with tub-thumping politicians standing in the way of good policy that serves our national interest?

EDWARD ALDEN:  I am obviously hoping for the former! Politically, I think arguing against immigration reform has been a loser in either party, though it obviously has appeal at some times and some places. And substantively it's just tremendously important for the country to move forward to a sounder policy. So I hope there will be strong incentive for both parties to work constructively. But recent history certainly shows that it won't be easy.

[Comment From Douglas] The CFR report was very helpful in making the case for bipartisan reform, but can the GOP work in a bipartisan manner? Health care is making that less likely, no? Are there any Republican Senators or Reps willing to take on the opponents of immigration and legalization in the GOP?

EDWARD ALDEN:  I think so, but the question as always in the Senate is whether the numbers add up at the end of the day. The report has had a good reception from both Democrats and Republicans, so I am encouraged by that. But until there is actual legislation on the table, we won't know if the numbers are there.

[Comment From ginny]  The big question to many Americans on immigration is how it relates to the economy. Many EU countries require big bank accounts or business to be a requirement of immigration, if approved for a few slots. How has the droves of immigrants since 1965 affected the US economy? Positive or negative?

EDWARD ALDEN:  There's no question that immigration has been overwhelmingly beneficial for the U.S. economy as a whole. One of the reasons it is controversial, however, is that there can be significant local costs. In California or Arizona, the burden on the state to pay for education, medical care and other social services for immigrants is very high. So there is rightly some anger that certain states are carrying a disproportionate burden for policies over which they have no control. So it's important that the federal government step up on this front.

[Comment From Britt] I followed the release of the Jeb Bush-McClarty task force report. I'm wondering what sort of feedback you have gotten on it?

EDWARD ALDEN:  Very positive. We got a good reception from many of the key players on the Hill, and an attentive audience in the administration. There have been a number of strong, positive editorials. The Miami Herald called it must reading for members of Congress, for instance. Personally, I am encouraged as much by the criticism of certain aspects of the report, which has come about equally from liberals and conservatives (though the labels don't always fit perfectly on this issue). That tells me that we did a pretty good job in assessing where the middle ground is on immigration.

Janeth: many people are concerned with the economic impact of immigration, but I wonder about the effects on our culture. Is this a net win for the US? Is there any real way of gauging this since this last wave of immigrants has been so large and steady?

EDWARD ALDEN:  This is a good question, and a hard one to answer. If you look at the long history, the United States has done an extraordinarily good job of integrating immigrants into a vibrant, American culture. It is one of the geniuses of the United States that you can be a loyal American and also hold on to many aspects of your cultural identity. We are generally comfortable with hyphenated Americanism (ie. Italian-Americans, Irish, Americans, Mexican-Americans etc.) But in periods of large-scale immigration, like the early part of the 20th century and the last couple of decades, we certainly experience greater concerns over the impact of immigration on U.S. culture.

[Comment From Bill McEnery] How can the Republicans have serious debate when their base is so against illegal immigration that their argument, to put it extremely simple, seems to be round them up, kick them out, and build a fence. You had McCain, who wouldn't vote for the bill he proposed, and Bush try to tackle this subject, but it was their own party who dismantled it.

 


EDWARD ALDEN: As I see it, the strongest argument that many Republicans have made against immigration reform is that it will be counter-productive unless and until the border is secure, and that's a legitimate argument. Our report spells out the substantial progress that has been made in terms of border security. So the question, I think, is whether some Republicans can recognize that progress, and the prospects for further improvements -- especially in terms of employment verification -- and therefore feel comfortable dealing with the broader issues. I think the prospects for this are better than they were two or three years ago,

[Comment From Hal] Did your task force, or perhaps your research for your book, explore the question as to why a nation of immigrants, as the U.S. is, can be so stubbornly hostile to each new generation of immigrants?

EDWARD ALDEN:  Not really. The culture issue raised earlier is certainly part of it. And fear is an element. But I would take issue with the notion that the U.S. as a nation is "stubbornly hostile" to each new generation of immigrants. By and large, the U.S. has been a welcoming nation for immigrants compared to most other countries. We stray away from that tradition sometimes, but have always managed to find our way back.
[Comment From Jonathan] Are the distinguished names on the Task Force--especially Jeb Bush--willing to go out and campaign for immigration reform at some point?

FRED BARBASH:  One more question after this folks...

EDWARD ALDEN: The Task Force members, both Republicans and Democrats, have been very active in promoting the report so far, and have indicated a willingness to keep doing so as the issue is taken up in Congress. I can't speak for any individual member, but both the co-chairs -- Gov Bush and Mr McLarty -- and the rest of the group have been strongly committed to moving this issue forward.

[Comment From MAtwood] Hello Mr. Alden, we appreciate your time very much. My question relates to national security. Are the respective natures of Mexican and Canadian immigration different enough to require separate policies? Or would a uniform national immigration policy better suit the country?

EDWARD ALDEN:  Tough question, and therefore probably a good one to finish on. Thanks for all the excellent questions.

From a security perspective, there are some very distinct issues on the land borders with Mexico and Canada, just because of the volume of border crossing and because it's a less controlled environment than at the airports. And the issues are very different with Mexico and with Canada. So I think in terms of border security and immigration policy, there has to be some measures that are specific to Mexico and Canada. There can't be a one size fits all policy.

FRED BARBASH:  I'd like to thank all of our readers today..with apologies to those with questions we did not get to.

And thanks to Edward Alden and the CFR for participating in this. It's great to see an issue discussed intelligently and with civility. Congratulations to all.

So long for now.

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