Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

The assassination attempt against former President Donald Trump has raised fresh fears about safety amid the intensifying political campaign. This CFR report outlines steps for mitigating and preventing violence.
Immigration and Migration

Immigration and Migration

More than half of the migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border come from one of six Latin American countries in which worsening violence, poverty, and other factors are pushing people to leave.

Latin America

The United States continues to seek strategies for responding to the growing number of migrants fleeing poverty, violence, and other challenges in the Central American region.

Immigration and Migration

Edward Alden, CFR’s Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow, discusses U.S. immigration policy and how it is shaping political conversations in this election year. Ruth Conniff, editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner, discusses her experiences reporting on migrant stories, immigration policy, and border security. The host of the webinar is Carla Anne Robbins, senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times.  TRANSCRIPT FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focused on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you draw connections between the local issues you cover and national and international dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices. We’re delighted to have over ninety participants from thirty-five states and U.S. territories with us today. We appreciate you taking time out of your deadline-driven days to join us for this discussion, which is on the record. The video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org/localjournalists. We’re pleased to have Edward Alden, Ruth Conniff, and host Carla Anne Robbins to discuss immigration policy reporting. We’ve shared their bios with you, so I will just give you a few highlights. Edward Alden is Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at CFR, specializing in U.S. economic policy, competitiveness, trade, and immigration policy. He served as the project director of the CFR-sponsored independent task force, The Work Ahead, as well as one on immigration. Mr. Alden is also the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans got Left Behind in the Global Economy. And his forthcoming book is entitled, When the World Closed its Doors: The COVID-19 Tragedy and the Future of Borders. And that will be out in December. Ruth Conniff is the editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. In 2017, she moved to Oaxaca, Mexico to cover U.S.-Mexico relations, migrant caravans, and Mexico’s efforts to contend with the Trump administration’s border policies. She is also the author of Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers. Carla Anne Robbins is a senior fellow at CFR and cohost of the CFR podcast, The World Next Week. She also serves as the faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. And previously, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. So, Ted, Ruth, and Carla, thank you very much for being with us for this timely conversation. Carla, I will turn it now to you. ROBBINS: Irina, thank you so much. And, Ruth and Ted, it’s great to see you. And thank you so much for doing this. So I think I understand these things usually, but I am genuinely puzzled. So, Ted, can we start with a quick primer on current Biden administration immigration policy? You know, we heard there was going to be an executive order. You know, there was Title 42, then it went away. What is President Biden’s immigration policy and how does it differ, or doesn’t it, from the previous Trump policies? ALDEN: Thanks, Carla. Great, great to be here. Great to be with you, Ruth. It’s an excellent question. Just to start, I might note that immigration policy is a very, very big area, right? Most immigration in the United States are people who apply to come here legally, and they come, and sometimes they live and work here for a while, sometimes they make their lives here. The story of America is a story of immigration. So, you know, our lens has become very narrowed on the southern border, given our political debates, but it’s really important to keep in context the much wider picture of immigrants in the United States. But I will focus on the southern border, because I assume that’s why everyone is here. What President Biden would like is an orderly system on the southern border that allows people who are fleeing violence of one sort or another entry into the United States. Basically, his administration believes that immigration is positive for the U.S. He came to office very critical of some of the things that President Trump had done in terms of, you know, the remain in Mexico program to force migrants to wait in Mexico, or the family separation policy. The problem is that this administration—it’s hardly unique to the United States. Same thing is going on in Europe. Similar things are going on in Canada. Have been overwhelmed by the numbers of people seeking to leave their countries and make it into Europe or the United States. These are numbers that we’ve not seen. There’s really a global asylum crisis. What the Biden—and I’ll give the short version. We can go back on this. What the Biden administration tried to do back in the spring of 2023, it lifted—you mentioned Title 42. Title 42 was the COVID-era order that essentially permitted the administration to turn around anyone who crossed illegally and send them back to Mexico, with no consequences. Many people would try again. But it was, you can’t enter the United States because we face a pandemic, and you might contribute in some way. That’s a super simplified version of Title 42. Happy to go into more detail. The Biden administration knew when that was lifted that there were going to be a lot of people who’d been waiting to get into the country who were suddenly going to show up. And so they tried to craft a new approach that was designed basically to flip the incentives. To say, OK, under U.S. law, people have a right to come and seek what’s known as asylum. I mean, this is codified in U.S. laws. It’s an international obligation. If people arrive at the border of the United States and say: I’m fleeing torture, violence, threat of death for a variety of reasons, they have a right to have those cases heard, adjudicated in U.S. immigration courts. They have a right to seek protection. The problem is people have been arriving for some years, this occurred in the Trump administration as well, in such large numbers that the system just can’t handle it. So the Border Patrol essentially releases them into the country. They’re told to appear in court two, three, four years down the road. And for a lot of people, that’s a big incentive. So the Biden team, under Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas, tried to flip the script. They tried to say, look, we’ll make it easier for people to follow an orderly path. We’ll provide a way through this online app for them to get interviews at the legal ports of entry. We’ll create a new system to parole into the country up to 30,000 people a month from four countries—from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua, if I’m remembering correctly. I think I got that last one wrong. From four countries who—you know, where, you know, they are countries that are really in crisis. So we’ll increase that flow. But if you arrive between the borders, if you come across at Eagle Pass in Texas or wherever else, the presumption is going to be that you will not be granted asylum and you’ll be turned back. The problem is the numbers have just overwhelmed those intentions. So Biden’s got this problem of a border that is perceived by the voters as out of control. And he doesn’t really have the means to do anything about it. He tried to reach agreement with Republicans earlier this year on a reasonably hardline bill that would have really raised the threshold for people seeking asylum. But when Donald Trump spoke up against it, the Republicans wouldn’t support it. So he’s a bit over a barrel. He is—you know, he comes from a party that is by and large pro-immigrant. The Democrats have strong pro-immigration lobbies in the party. But he’s got a situation at the border there that is perceived by voters as out of control, that is clearly a political liability for him. So he’s sort of caught between a rock and a hard place. ROBBINS: So, Ruth, this asylum process, and Ted also, this asylum process is intended, if it worked—and one of the problems, of course, is that we don’t have anywhere near enough judges and courts and people to sort this out. But the asylum process, and under international law we’re supposed to take people in who are fleeing, you know, genuine persecution. But the asylum process is supposed to sort out the people who we have an international obligation to take in from the people who want to come here for the reason that many of our grandparents came here, or parents came here, or some of us came here, which is for economic reasons. The country has made a decision that will allow in certain numbers of people who want to migrate for economic reasons. But under international law, we have an obligation to take anyone who was fleeing persecution. Do we have any sense, Ruth, what the percentages is? Last year the government reported that three million people sought to enter the United States. Of that three million people, do we know how many of those people had legitimate—potentially legitimate asylum claims, versus people who were economic migrants? CONNIFF: I don’t know the answer to that. Ted might. But I will say this, then I’ll go—I’ll kick it back to Ted for those specific numbers. Here in Wisconsin, where I am reporting on immigration, there is an enormous economic dependency on migrants both from countries that are potentially places from which you can seek asylum—in Central America, particularly Nicaragua—and a lot of people from Mexico. They prop up the dairy industry in Wisconsin. So the economic dependence on those migrants is a lot of what’s driving—employers want them to come. And in the dairy industry, the best number that I have seen very recently, the 10,000 undocumented immigrants who are working in the dairy industry in Wisconsin, they comprise 70 percent of the labor force. So our dairy industry in America’s dairy land would go under overnight without that labor force. So I feel like this is an important aspect of the conversation. When you sort of separate asylum and economic reasons, and there’s sort of this sense of, well, those economic reasons are maybe not so legitimate, or people are coming to take advantage of our economy, I feel like one of the really important things that local reporters can do is to get down to the community level, get down to the employer level, and talk to people like the dairy farmers in Wisconsin, who are utterly dependent on a workforce that is almost 100 percent undocumented, because the United States does not have a work visa for year-round farm work. We allow seasonal farm work, and we grant visas for that, but in the dairy industry where work is, you know, 24/7, 365 days a year, there is no category of visa—except for a few technical visas that people are able to apply for sometimes. So, basically, if you’re milking cows and you’re from another country, you’re unlikely to be here legally. And yet, the industry is utterly—and has been for decades—now utterly dependent on this workforce. So that pull factor from employers is as much of a factor as people seeking a better life, which they are. They’re seeking to make money here to send it back to their families, sometimes to build a life back at home and sometimes to move here. But that underlying economic structure is, you know, U.S. employers, particularly in agriculture, particularly in dairy, are very dependent on and really want these workers to come. ROBBINS: So that’s another—that’s sort of the converse side of the economic. There’s the economic push and then there’s the economic pull. But our legal structure is not set up to recognize the pull aspect of it. We have a sorting—asylum, economic migrants who can come in legally, but not—we don’t have a Bracero program, necessarily, in this way. So can you talk a little bit about the awareness politically in your state, Ruth, which is—you’ve got the politics of migration and then the economic reality. Because you have a dairy industry, and you can quantify it, but you’re not the only state in which migrants are doing jobs that other people don’t want to do. CONNIFF: Right. Right, right. There are not a ton of American workers lining up to milk cows who’ve been displaced by this wave of migrants taking their jobs. That is just not the reality. And, you know, you can talk to dairy farmers, and they will tell you they have tried really hard to find workers and we’re just delighted when they found seasonal migrant workers, mostly from Mexico, who were willing to move over from those seasonal jobs to work in the dairy industry. They were attracted to the year-round jobs. And the and the industry has become utterly dependent on them. As far as the politics goes, it’s very complicated. And, you know, in my book I talk to a lot of farmers who voted for Trump—not once, but twice—who did not like his antiimmigrant rhetoric, but who are basically conservatives. And, you know, his language about the forgotten men and women of America really resonated in rural Wisconsin with a lot of people. They felt sort of culturally represented by him, even though they’re heavily dependent on an undocumented workforce and, in fact, interestingly, have found a kind of shared agrarian past with their undocumented workers. And I write about these farmers who take annual trips to Mexico and who have found that, you know, it reminds them of their own youth in the ’60s in Wisconsin, when neighbors help neighbors and, you know, there was kind of this rural community and this, you know, attachment to small farm life. So that—you know, that is another pitch that I will make to local reporters. (Laughs.) Is really getting down below that 30,000-foot level. It’s fascinating to talk to people about their politics and what it really means. So the fact that these rural areas of Wisconsin went for Trump, you know, in 2016, and even bigger and 2020 even though Biden won the state, doesn’t really mean that their number-one issue is fear of immigrants. I mean, for one thing, we’re a long way from the southern border. So a lot of the hype about the danger of immigration is a little bit far away here. I think that there’s something that’s not so much intellectual, some buttons that Trump is pushing. And he did come here on Wisconsin’s primary election day and talk a lot about the dangers posed by immigrants and how he’s going to, you know, represent native-born Americans in repelling immigrants. And I feel like it was part of a—kind of a general pitch that he makes that excites the crowd. But I know from interviewing people in rural Wisconsin that the antiimmigrant aspect of it is not driving them. And in fact, there’s this complexity in the—in the dependence that they have on the very undocumented immigrants that he is, you know, talking about so viciously now in his campaign. So that’s kind of fascinating to me. I don’t know if it’s part of the reason that Trump only won 79 percent of the vote, even though he was the only candidate in the Republican primary here in April. That was—you know, there’s—one in five Republican voters in Wisconsin didn’t vote for Trump, even though they didn’t have another option. That was actually, you know, going to move forward to the convention. So I think some of that rhetoric might—there might be some backlash from that. But it is definitely the national Republican strategy to run against immigrants in 2024. And, you know, you see that in our U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, who went to the little town of Whitewater, Wisconsin—which Trump also mentioned when he was here on our primary day in April—where they claimed—and this is interesting, unfolding. Breitbart News, the right-wing website, claimed there was a flood of— ROBBINS: Can I stop you, because I want to tell the entire Whitewater story. So I want to do an entire segment on this, because I have a question about the Whitewater story, because it’s a fascinating one. And it’s not the Whitewater I grew up with, which is the Clinton Whitewater story. But we’ll do Whitewater in a minute, OK? (Laughs.) CONNIFF: All right. ROBBINS: So, Ted, do you know the number about the economic versus asylum? And if you don’t, I don’t want to put you on the spot. But it’s one— ALDEN: Well, not economic versus—so, just, three quick comments. One, I absolutely want to endorse Ruth’s point about the economic pull in all of this, right? The two big periods where we’ve seen very large numbers of undocumented migrants are the end of the ’90s and the current era, when U.S. unemployment is around 4 percent. And if you look at what happened under COVID, we lost about two million immigrants as a result of the closures during COVID; like if the immigrant population had increased along the pre-COVID trend lines, there would have been about two million more working-age people in the United States in 2022 than there were. So there is a big hole in the labor market, and this huge surge of people has filled it in. It’s not a small part of the explanation for why the U.S. economy is doing so well compared to all of its competitors around the world. Also, on a second risk point, there’s a lot of great stories out there. One of the first big immigration stories I did when I was working for the Financial Times back in the early 2000s, there was the first debates over immigration reform in the mid-2000s, so I went down and visited then-House-member, later Senator Jeff Flake, who is a Republican, on his family’s ranch in Arizona where they had 10,000 head of cattle. They hired a couple of dozen undocumented migrants every year to grow the crops that would feed those cattle in the winter, and he was the one who first sort of explained to me circular migration from Mexico. So there are so many good stories here. The question on asylum approval, there are sort of—if you come and seek asylum, there’s two hurdles you have to jump. First you have to persuade the asylum officer—usually at the border there—that you have a credible fear that you will be harmed in a way that’s protected. You’ll face, you know, torture, persecution, or death on account of your race, religion, belief, or membership in a particular social group. That’s a fairly easy threshold to cross. About 70, 80 percent of people who arrive are able to cross that threshold. Once you’ve done that, then you need to have a proper hearing in front of an immigration judge, which is an arm of the Department of Justice. The approval rate nationwide since 2000 is about 40 percent, so of those people who pass the credible fear threshold, about 40 percent are ultimately approved for asylum; the rest are not. It varies enormously depending on the part of the country you are in. But of course a lot of people who are not approved don’t necessarily go home. They just become—you know, we do not have the capacity in this country—Trump is promising to create it—to hunt those people down and force them to leave the country—so a lot of them remain anyway and become, you know, part of the ten and eleven million—you know, the numbers vary a little bit—of undocumented migrants living in the U.S. Those awaiting asylum are technically living here legally. They are under our protection, under our asylum. Those are not undocumented migrants. But if they lose their asylum case, refuse to go home, they then enter that larger undocumented population. ROBBINS: So I want to come back a little bit to you after we talk about Whitewater, and then to everybody here, you are journalists. I’m sure you have a lot of questions. So I’m just going to do one more round here and then throw it open to you guys. So, Ruth, you did some really great reporting debunking the so-called immigration crisis in Whitewater, Wisconsin, after Wisconsin politicians and Breitbart claimed the small town was suffering from a big-city immigration crisis, and was inundated, and there was crime, and all the terrible things that were supposedly going on everywhere. I live in New York, and I haven’t noticed it, but OK. So can you tell us quickly about that story, and can you tell us how other reporters who cover these local issues can bring these stories alive if they don’t have a Ron Johnson doing them the favor of sensationalizing them? (Laughs.) CONNIFF: Yeah, I mean, I think it was really interesting—I mean, that was an example—and I think there will be many more in this election year—examples of a small community that suddenly becomes a national talking point in a political campaign, and the national talking points get further and further away from the reality on the ground. So just contrasting those two things is an obvious assignment for immigration reporters right now. And I—in Whitewater in particular what was fascinating is there was a local police chief who had written a letter to the Biden administration asking for help in his community because they do have a lot of immigrants in the community, and they didn’t come in all of a sudden on a bus—as was implied by Breitbart, sent there by Joe Biden. You know, it was actually Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, who has been sending busloads of migrants to other northern cities. But in this case, there were a group of Nicaraguan—mostly Nicaraguan migrants who had come to the area over time, and I went down to Whitewater and talked to local officials about what was actually going on. The police chief who sent that letter—which he never expected to become, you know, this huge flashpoint—really what he was talking about when he talked about the stress on the system there was the fact that Wisconsin, in 2007, took away driver’s licenses from undocumented immigrants. And so he had this huge surge in unlicensed drivers. And one of the suggestions that he made in a longer interview with a local news outlet was that Wisconsin restore driver’s licenses—(laughs)—to undocumented immigrants so that he and his staff wouldn’t be overburdened with dealing with people driving without a license. A lot of people are working on farms in that area—in Whitewater—which is no surprise to me because I’ve been writing about that for a long time—about the agricultural workers, and it’s very likely that it was because of those jobs that people came to that area. But, you know, within the community there’s a lot of volunteerism and a lot of goodwill towards—it’s a diverse community, it’s a community that has a University of Wisconsin campus—and people, you know, are doing their best to help out. So the level of, like, sort of fearmongering, and the idea of crime—which was really conflated with this unlicensed driving issue—all of that disappears—(laughs)—when you get closer in on the ground and talk to people about what’s really going on. And another issue, which is related to what Ted was talking about in Whitewater is the fact that people have to wait to be legally employed when they are here seeking asylum, as these Nicaraguan folks were, so they’re either not able to work at all, or they’re working off the books. But, you know, there’s been a report recently actually that talks about sort of progress in terms of employment, and income, and tax paying for people who come seeking asylum in the United States, by the Immigration Research Initiative, which is there in New York. And, you know, in Whitewater, as in other communities, there is this really rapid rise in income for people who are allowed to work. So the other things—besides giving people driver’s licenses—the other thing that people are talking about locally in Whitewater is why can’t people get work permits right away. And, you know, these are just sort of sensible reforms that would help alleviate some of the pressure on local officials. And then the other part of this story, which get a little bit in the weeds in our state is that Whitewater is a community that was left out of shared revenue between the state and municipalities. There is this kind of reshuffling of revenue, and Whitewater really got the short end of the stick of all the university property in that community. And so another issue for them was that some of the same politicians who were really beating the drum about these dreadful immigrants and the crisis they were creating have been withholding funds that would help that local community deal with that fairly easily, really. It really isn’t the crisis that it was presented as being. ROBBINS: So, Ted—and we already have a question, so I’m going to turn it over to the Q&A, but data is so essential, and you are a wizard with data. What data is important for people who are covering this to understand? Where can they find it? Ruth mentioned this report from the Immigration Research Initiative, which is really interesting because it does it state by state—you know, what wages are after the first two year versus what wages are after five years, as well as the tax contributions, which shows, you know, that people are actually giving back. And it is a state-by-state breakdown, and we’ll push this out to people. But what data—first, what data do you think is important for people to have who are writing about this topic? And where do you—where are the best places for us to go and find it? ALDEN: Yeah, I mean, it obviously depends on the specific story you are doing. I mean, a real go-to on most—if you are looking for national-level information on immigration, a real go-to is the Migration Policy Institute. They have a website—migrationpolicy.org. They are really the premier immigration-focused think tank probably in the world, in the United States, but they do a lot of work on Europe, and Latin America and elsewhere. And they have really good data on their website as well as analysis and articles. If you are looking particularly for, you know, data on sort of border trends, the court system, others, there is a great initiative out of Syracuse called the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse—or TRAC—and they do a regular series of publications which are really good on court cases particularly, trends at the border. The Department of Homeland Security has really good information on things like border apprehensions. Their website is reasonably up-to-date. They have what’s called an Office of Immigration Statistics that does a very comprehensive annual review and regularly updates a lot of the key data points on migration. And there are—you know, there are other think tanks and organizations very active on this. The American Immigration Council has a lot of good people working on these issues from a somewhat more pro-immigrant perspective. If you want to know where Donald Trump is getting his data and information from, you read the stuff from a group called the Center for Immigration Studies—CIS—which really provided the intellectual heft for a lot of what Stephen Miller did when he ran this issue in the White House for Trump, and a lot of the Trump administration ideas come out of them, or sometimes work being done at the Heritage Foundation. So there is lots of good information, most of in D.C., actually, if you want to understand at a national level what’s happening and how it might relate to whatever stories it is that you are covering locally. ROBBINS: And just to add on to this, if you haven’t looked at the immigration sections of the Project 2025, you should be because they’re not kidding around about this. You know, it’s pretty scary stuff, so—yes, I was an editorial writer for a long time so I say things—(laughs)—like “pretty scary stuff.” ALDEN: Well, it’s promising things that haven’t been done for a long time. You know, there hasn’t really been a mass deportation—correct me if I’m wrong, Ruth. I think you’ve got to go back to the 1950s to find the last time there was a sort of systematic national deportation effort, and the numbers were much smaller back there. ROBBINS: You’re talking about gathering people in large camps. ALDEN: Yeah, I mean—you know, he would like to use the National Guard to round up everybody living here without permission, which, you know, as Ruth suggests, would have pretty horrific economic consequences apart from the whole question of human rights. I mean, all these people have lived here for decades now, right? The family is here, the children are Americans because they were American born, so, I mean, the stuff that they are talking about is unprecedented, really. ROBBINS: Not to mention— CONNIFF: It’s—you know, and what I have found on that, with talking to voters, is that even though ICE raids in small towns in Wisconsin were really—added a lot of pressure to the lives of both farmers and their employees, and a lot of people moved on to the farm, and don’t drive, don’t go to stores anymore because of those days. I mean, there is a lot of—there is a lot of fear around deportation. But on the whole for the employers, the Trump era, the Trump presidency didn’t stop the flow of undocumented workers, and so in the end, you know, all of that risk and scariness was assumed by the immigrant workforce, and the employers really didn’t—in some ways they can say, well, he talks a big game, but it didn’t really make that much of a difference. ALDEN: I mean, that’s what the numbers suggest; that there were actually considerably fewer deportations in the Trump years than there were in the last four years of the Obama administration. CONNIFF: Yeah, so it didn’t hurt them—(laughs)—it didn’t hurt employers in their pocket then. ROBBINS: So Anne Braly, you have written a question. Do you want to voice your question, or do you want me to read it for you? (Pause.) So we have a question from Anne Braly, who is with the Chattanooga Times. ALDEN: I think she’s coming—she’s coming on here, Carla. ROBBINS: OK, right. Q: Yeah, sorry. I was trying to answer a question from one of my editors at the paper. ROBBINS: Don’t you hate that? ALDEN: That’s the life of a reporter. (Laughs.) ROBBINS: Don’t you hate editors? (Laughs.) ALDEN: It’s been a few years for me, but I remember it well. Q: Nothing like multitasking, I swear! (Laughter.) Well, anyway, you know, I was just thinking. You remember the CCC—the Civilian Conservation Corps, and I just didn’t know— ALDEN: No, even I’m not quite that old, but yeah. (Laughter.) Q: But I’m not that old to remember, either. ALDEN: Go ahead. Q: But I still see—around Chattanooga, I see, you know, walls and things like that that the CCC built way back when, and I just didn’t know if possibly someone had considered the same type thing for some of the immigrants, you know, so to keep tabs on them, help them, put them to work—just a way to help them on their way to citizenship. What do y’all think? CONNIFF: I guess I think there is not a problem with employment for immigrants. And so I think this is the part of the conversation that I think is neglected in the very politicized conversation about immigration that we’re having as a country right now, is that, as I said earlier, the pull factor—the fact that there is a labor shortage and a lot of manual labor and, you know, really hard jobs like jobs on farms—employers are seeking this labor. So it might be that a Civilian Conservation Corps type effort would help, you know, politically, make people feel that there was something going on official. The other aspect of that that maybe would be an improvement over our current situation is that we have a very unregulated and—you know, ProPublica has recently done some very powerful reporting about deaths on dairy farms in Wisconsin and just how completely under the radar this workforce is because they are not documented. And there are no OSHA requirements, there are no housing inspection requirements, many of things that are required—worker’s comp—when it comes to a migrant workforce that has a temporary visa to follow crops in this country doesn’t apply to year-round workers on those dairy farms. And so people are ending up in some very dire situations, one of which, you know, led to the death of a little boy who was living above the milking parlor on a farm with his father, and was run over by a heavy skid steer, a piece of equipment used for scraping manure on the farm. There was nobody keeping tabs on him. So I think the idea that, yes, we have this immigrant workforce, and there should be some regulation, and there should be some safety rules, and we should be, you know, helping people is a really good idea, but the idea that there isn’t already enough employment for immigrants is simply not true. We just haven’t really acknowledged how dependent we are on those immigrant workers, I think. ALDEN: I might—I might just take this question in a slightly different direction. There is a very interesting program that I’ve been working on with my students here in Washington state. The Biden administration, about a year ago, launched a program called Welcome Corps, which allows American citizens to sponsor refugees, the typical path for refugees. And these are people who come from overseas, not people who arrive at the border—is that they are integrated into the communities through taxpayer-supported programs, a lot of them run by the churches. Canada, years ago, started a new model where private citizens—it could be family, it could be a group of teachers, could be retired people at my tennis club—decide they are going to sponsor a refugee or refugee family, and agree to take on some of the expense and effort of integrating them into the community. I think it’s a fabulous and interesting program that has a chance to do some of what you are talking about, Anne, which is sort of build these cultural connections between the arriving immigrants and the people who are already here. There may be in the communities that you are reporting in people who have sponsored refugees under Welcome Corps. It’s a new program and would be an interesting story in looking at how this has gone on this. As I said, I’ve had my student put together a handbook for the county that we’re in about resources available for people who want to sponsor refugees under this program. I mean, Canada is a very interesting case study because even though their levels of immigration and the number of refugees settling there are much larger then in the United States, the attitude is pretty positive. And I think the sponsorship program is one of the reasons, and the Biden administration has been trying to learn from that. So I think your point about ways to build stronger community that links, you know, longer-term residents with new immigrant arrivals is a really important one. I’m not sure the CCC is the right method, as you suggest, but I think it’s a good idea. ROBBINS: So we have ten questions, so we’re going to start going through them quickly. So we have a question from Jay Jochnowitz, who was the editorial page editor of the Times Union in Albany. Jay, do you want to ask your question? (Pause.) ALDEN: He is muted. Jay, you are muted. Q: There we go. ROBBINS: Great. Q: OK, I should correct. I’m now editor-at-large. I used to be opinions editor; I’ve semi-retired. Ruth, your explanation—I had not been aware of this—that there was not an option for a year-round visa for, you know, the agricultural industries. And, you know, that sounds like, you know, one of those things—when we write about the need for immigration reform it sounds like exactly what we ought to be talking about. You know, we hear this argument for E-Verify, for example, and, you know, that all employers should use that. Well, if they did, it sounds like the workforce would just dry up. So can you address that, and can you address how that might be reformed? And we’ve written about the driver’s licenses, we’ve written about the long wait for jobs for asylum seekers—work eligibility for asylum seekers. Are there other dichotomies, contradictions, et cetera, in policy that you’ve seen that you could talk about? CONNIFF: Well, that’s a big one, but—the lack of a year-round visa. Q: Yeah. CONNIFF: And there are—there has been a coalition of sort of big ag groups and immigrant rights groups trying to push for a year-round visa. The problem is that, ever since comprehensive immigration reform fell apart in 2013, 2014, it is hard to get one sensible piece of immigration reform done. It’s hard to get everybody on board because, of course, if you do something obvious, like allow employers to make their employees that they already have and have had for decades legal, then what about DACA recipients? You know, there is sort of a—I mean, I think is—in Washington this is sort of the political problem, is that getting everyone together again for a sensible immigration reform is really hard. And when they got close on making farm workers—year-round farm workers legal, there were a lot of immigrant rights activists who were worried that essentially it turned the employers into ICE agents. They would hold their employees’ documents and, you know, we’ve seen abuses with that. So there was kind of a feeling that maybe people, individually—these immigrant workers were better off with their fake documents because they could skate out of an abusive employment situation, and they weren’t—you know, they weren’t paying the price of losing their passport and their legitimate visa. And we see that with labor trafficking—a lot of labor trafficked. People are moved out of status by being moved from the state where they do have an H-2A visa to work on—you know, to pick crops. They are moved into a state where they are now out of status and their undocumented status gives the labor contractors and employers a lot of power over them. But, I mean, basically what we have is a vestige of the Bracero Program, which is what Carla mentioned from the 1950s when Mexican workers used to come up and pick crops, and there was a lot of free flow across the border. That still basically exists in the form of the H-2A visa program, except we have this militarized border now. And ironically, what the militarization of the border has accomplished basically is to keep people here who aren’t—who aren’t—you know, who are working year-round, for decades. Many of the Mexican workers that I’ve talked to in Wisconsin always have planned to go back to Mexico, but they are saving up money, and because it’s so expensive and so dangerous to cross back and forth, they are staying here for decades and just keeping their heads down, working around the clock, sending home money to their families. So I think those are all really important things to talk about, and I think the biggest—the biggest thing to just try to surface more is how much of our economy these workers are propping up. ROBBINS: Thanks. So we have another question from Annmarie Timmins, who is the senior reporter for the New Hampshire Bulletin. Annmarie, do you want to ask your question? (Pause.) Q: Hi. Can you hear me now? OK, thank you. Our governor, who with a group of thirteen, went down to the border to assess what he said was the crisis, has now sent fifteen National Guard troops, at the state’s expense, down to help Texas National Guard, and his sole argument is that he says he can track drugs right from the border all the way up to New Hampshire. He has no evidence of this. We can’t find any. I’m wondering how you—do you have suggestions on how to, you know, interrogate that? Is that—how do we look into that and say, yes, it is true, or no, there is no evidence of this? ROBBINS: Ted, do you have anything on that? ALDEN: Yeah, I’ve got—I mean, I would suggest that you look at some of the data on drug seizures at the border. I don’t have the latest, but I could probably dig up some stuff. The percentage of drugs that are seized at the border is infinitesimal, you know, in the order of 5 or 6 percent of the drugs that are smuggled across. I am certain it has become much worse with fentanyl, which is small and reasonably easy to smuggle. So the notion that any police or military force on the border is going to reduce the flow of drugs is ridiculous. On top of that, the mass—the overwhelming majority of drugs that are smuggled into the United States come through the legal ports of entry. And again, you can get data on that—you know, do some searches, you’ll find it. And most of it is coming through in trucks, or in private automobiles, or through the proper legal ports of entry. So even if you were able to stop the very small percentage that’s coming between the ports of entry, it would have no noticeable impact on the flow of drugs into the country. So, I mean, I think you have to call that what it is, which is pure political symbolism—the notion that fifteen New Hampshire National Guard agents are going to make any appreciable difference on the drugs flowing across the border from Mexico into your state is painfully ridiculous. ROBBINS: Yes, Euan Kerr is the morning editor of Minnesota Public Radio. Euan, would you like to ask your question? (Pause.) Q: There we go—sorry. Yeah, we’re doing a lot of coverage of climate change, and we have been looking at some material which says that projections show that the current immigration situation is just a tiny, tiny droplet against the wave of people that are going to be coming for so many different reasons. And I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek but, you know, having the New York Times point to Duluth, Minnesota, as the best place to survive climate change— We’re very interested in what this is going to do and, also, the implication that in fact this could really benefit everyone, but only if it is managed correctly, and it doesn’t seem like there is any real desire to manage this situation properly. I’m just curious what you think about that. ROBBINS: There are no legal protections, asylum protection for climate migrants, climate refugees. That is not on the list of people who are forced from their homes because of—because of climate change. ALDEN: And Carla, you know, to put the two parts of this conversation together—Ruth’s focus on economics and my comments on asylum—you know the best evidence out there, the report that went into this in the most detail is a few years dated now, but most of the people arriving at the border don’t actually qualify under the normal asylum protection criteria. What’s happened is that, you know, historically the border wasn’t very well defended, and it was mostly young people coming from Mexico looking for work. The border is now much better defended, but there is this potential loophole with the asylum system because we’re required as a country, by law, to take these asylum claims seriously and vet them. So there clearly are people—I mean, places like Haiti, Venezuela, I think, you know, clearly a fair number of those people would probably qualify, even under traditional asylum criteria. Cuba is another big one. Cuba was actually the fourth in that list—I apologize—not Nicaragua. But a lot of people showing up don’t, but they’ve found that this is their easiest way to escape situations that are desperate. I mean, you have people who are walking across the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia, right? I mean, incredibly dangerous journeys to make to the United States. And they are assessing that this is a better choice for them than staying where they are, which tells you something about how desperate their lives are. I mean, the climate change piece is a part of this, right? We live in a period right now—I think it’s one of the reasons that so many people are on the move globally—of significant disruption, right? We have a breakdown in political order. You go back thirty years, and the U.S. would have took care of what’s going on in Venezuela. We never would have allowed that to escalate out of control in the way it did because we saw our role more as one of maintaining order, for better or worse, in our hemisphere. And then climate on top of that is going to create lots of situations where you have, you know, hurricanes, droughts, floods, bad crops that are going to cause other people to say, the situation that I’m living at at home is untenable, and my best option is to try to get to the United States, or if you are in Africa, try to get to Europe. So I think your assessment is right. This is a problem that is going to get worse, and our capacity to handle it is hopelessly inadequate, in part because, in the Congress, the perception is that this is better as a political problem than as a legislative solution. CONNIFF: Well, no better example of that than, at the beginning of the conversation, you referenced the—you know, the Biden effort to push really a very tough immigration, you know, law through Congress and really giving Republicans pretty much everything that they asked for. But it’s better as a campaign issue than a policy issue, and so it’s very unlikely that anything is going to happen this year. ALDEN: Yeah, so it suggests, you know, the number of people arriving is likely to keep increasing, and our ability to handle it will not get any better; it might in fact get worse. So that’s a bad recipe. CONNIFF: I mean, I do think it’s important to keep in mind that our ability to handle it is probably quite a bit better than is currently being presented in the political campaigns and, in fact, you know, a large percentage of the people who are coming are keeping things going in our country, keeping the economy going—in construction, in agriculture, in hospitality, in food service—and really important, I think, for local journalists to continue to point that out. And in the face of this very dehumanizing kind of push to talk about immigrants as, you know, a disease, and an affliction and, you know, all the other dehumanizing rhetoric that’s just escalating this year—to talk to actual people about what their lives are like. And I think that’s—it’s powerful because you find people who are working really hard to just try to provide for their families and who are fleeing some pretty awful situations. And of course, you know, in a really big-picture way, we would think about what the United States is doing to help stem, you know, the flight of people who are fleeing those awful situations because really the only way—I mean, I think in Enrique’s Journey, which was just an amazing, amazing book about the little boy who came to find his mom in the United States from an impossible situation, you know, she concludes the book by saying, until we address that impossible situation at home, we’re really kidding ourselves just continuing to militarize the border because people will continue to come, and they’ll continue to get through. ROBBINS: So that transitions to a question for Ruth from Kassidy Arena—I’m induced to go for the Spanish pronunciation, my second language—who is the senior reporter for KTNE-FM in Nebraska. Kassidy, do you want to ask your question? It’s a really good reporting practice question. Q: All right. Hi, yes, it’s Nebraska Public Media basically. We went through a name change. But, yeah, so I regularly report on Latino immigrants in Nebraska, and Carla, you pronounced it perfectly—my name. So Ruth, I have come across many people when I’m talking to them, and they are OK with having their names being, you know, in the story, maybe because their understanding of press is a little bit different. Do you ever talk about the potential consequences of folks choosing to use their name, even though that’s within their right to have their name out there, but do you ever talk about those potential consequences of publishing that? CONNIFF: I think about it, and I did a story on labor trafficking recently where I interviewed somebody who was really afraid of the farmer who had abused him, and felt that he was still potentially a target for that farmer. And he asked that we use—we not use his whole name, and we didn’t. In my book, people were really proud of their stories, and they wanted their names used. And I felt like that was their right, to make that decision themselves. Many of them had already gone back home to Mexico so there was no issue for them. One of them is frequently in news stories and other media, has become kind of a spokesperson for the irrationality of the lack of year-round visas for dairy workers in Wisconsin, and so that’s—you know, that’s a decision that he has made to kind of be a public person. But I agree that there is something—there is a shift going on, and the dangerousness of the rhetoric, the demagoguery that we’re seeing now really should, I think, give reporters pause, and it’s important to stop and think about how you might be contributing to the targeting of people. I mean, part of the thing with our, you know, ten thousand immigrants who make up 70 percent of the workforce on dairy in Wisconsin is that everybody in town knows—(laughs)—that there are undocumented immigrants. You know, I mean, it’s not—it’s not like this super-secret situation, and so it just sort of points up in some ways how you’re not talking about something that’s not just a completely ingrained part of our society now, and so it’s peculiar that it can be flipped into this, you know, witch hunt, which is what—you know, when Trump talks about going door-to-door to grab people, I think that does escalate that fear, and I think that people have a right to step back from being public. So I don’t know if that totally answers your question, but I’ve done both things. I have used people’s real names; they wanted me to use their real names. I absolutely asked people. I haven’t tried to press upon them what the dangers might be. I kind of feel like people know their own situation, but I think that’s a legitimate concern. ROBBINS: Kassidy, you didn’t ask me, but I’m going to tell you, I mean, as a long-time editor, reporter, I mean, working in Central America, working in Cuba, places like that, I always warn people. And I remember the response from someone the first time people started talking to me on the record in Cuba, blowing me away, and I said to people—I was working at the Journal—I said, you know, the story is going to come out at 6:00 in the morning; 6:02 it’s going to be faxed back to the Ministry of Interior, and this absolutely valiant Cuban economist said to me, utterly contemptuously, we are not children. But she knew what she was doing. I think the average person probably wouldn’t know what they were doing, and I think, you know, I give people the right to do—you know, to do this even if it means I lose potentially an on-the-record interview. I mean, I don’t want to bear that responsibility because—and it’s going to get scarier. That’s basically sort of the way I look at it. So Pamela McCall, I apologize. I’m getting some of your titles wrong, so Pamela, I have you as the host of All Things Considered, KUER, NPR Utah. If I have your title wrong, please correct me. Q: No, you’re fine. That’s just great. Thank you so much for taking my question. And it’s basic in its nature. How are undocumented workers paid? How do they pay taxes? And is there a means of tracking their economic input to this country? CONNIFF: Well— ROBBINS: Ted, do you want to— ALDEN: I mean, I can start, Ruth, and if you want to go into details with some of the people you—they’re paid the same way the rest of us are, right? They’re—you know, they’re paid paychecks, their taxes are deducted. Most undocumented migrants pay tax. Certainly, there are some who are paid cash under the table. I haven’t seen really good estimates of the numbers. They pay into Social Security, though a lot won’t ever be able to collect out of it. There’s a huge surplus in the Social Security fund from undocumented migrants who have paid in, and they are unlikely to be able to collect. And, yeah, these figures have all been gathered. They are—another person who has done some good, some of the folks at the Cato Institute—David Bier and Alex Nowrasteh—have done some good research on the economics of undocumented migration. Gordon Hanson, who is now at Harvard, is an economist who has done some excellent work on this. So, yeah, there is good data on all this stuff, but in most cases it’s not a mystery. They get paid in relatively ordinary ways. Lots of people in the country have Social Security numbers, even if they are not legally resident. You know, they might have come as students and got Social Security numbers while they were students and not gone home. So there are a lot of cracks in the system. CONNIFF: There is a lot of money in the system, I mean, for people who will never take advantage of that system, too. I mean, people are having Medicare and Social Security taxes withheld from their wages, and they will never be able to draw from those systems, so that’s also an important data point, is sort of all of that money that’s getting paid in. People get fake documents. They buy fake documents, and there is kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell policy among employers who are—certainly with year-round agricultural workers—they are hiring them, they are looking at these fake documents and saying, I can now say that I have looked—(laughs)—and, you know, you have documents, and so, you know, it’s a well-understood system that, you know, doesn’t—it’s not for real. Q: If I might, when you said Cato Institute, do you know if there is any sort of breakdown per state as to the economic input that— ALDEN: Yeah, check the American Immigration Council folks. Q: OK. ALDEN: They have probably done this. There is one other organization—I will follow up with Irina and maybe she can share it—that does—I might be able to find it while we’re talking here—that does state-by-state breakouts. But, yeah, all that data is available. Just one other macro point here that’s important I think in the immigration debate. One of the challenges with undocumented immigration is that migrants are paying money into the federal systems—you know, tax, Social Security, Medicare—but a lot of the costs fall at the local level—education, for example—so the children of undocumented migrants, you know, they are in the public schools locally. That’s a cost for the state’s hospitals. That’s a cost for the state. So there is challenge in the sense that a lot of the revenue—the tax revenue they are generating is going to the federal government, and the costs that they impose are felt more at state and local levels. So this has been a longstanding tension with respect to undocumented migration. CONNIFF: This is also the report that I referenced earlier in the call, is the Immigration Research Initiative did a state-by-state breakdown of state and local taxes— ALDEN: Excellent. CONNIFF: —and earnings. And I’m just looking for the link. I’ll put that in the chat. Q: Yeah, thanks, Ruth, and Edward. Thank you. ALDEN: You bet. Thank you. ROBBINS: So Adriana Cardona, do you want to ask your question? (Pause.) Q: Can you hear me now? ROBBINS: Yes. Q: Yeah, so I just—I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I’ve been talking to different experts. I’m eventually doing a story about this even though people, you know, kind of like some people are more afraid about this concept than others, but can you talk a little bit more about state-led efforts to pass—you know, to pass like their own work permits, proposals, and legislation, and if this—is this maybe like another route? Can we be talking about it more? I know New York has introduced a bill. California tried something similar—a different concept with undocumented students. Utah tried something similar to our guest worker program about ten years ago, but that needed like a waiver from the federal government. So given the inaction at the federal level, and all these nuanced policies, and all these issues that are happening like—I feel like is there a conversation that needs to be maybe more robust when it comes to states kind of like leading their own efforts even though it’s challenging, and like the Texas bill that criminalizes immigrants it could definitely be challenged because it, you know, oversteps federal immigration law? ALDEN: Do you want me to start with that, Ruth, or— CONNIFF: Yeah. ALDEN: Yeah, I mean, I cannot give you chapter and verse of all the state efforts; you’ve listed a bunch of them there. Probably the most famous one was SB 1070 in Arizona in 2010, which again essentially, you know, criminalized unauthorized presence in various ways, and empowered police to stop drivers and do other things. I mean, this is all a consequence of the failure that’s now gone on for about twenty years of the federal government to reform immigration laws. And the result of that is one of two things happens: one, the states perceive problems. Sometimes, you know, there are political reasons; sometimes there are legitimate reasons. And they attempt to encroach on federal authority. I mean, immigration, clearly an area of federal authority. The states pass laws that then are often challenged in the courts—you know, the ACLU and others challenge them, and sometimes they stand up, sometimes they don’t. I mean, Texas is trying—you know, trying to interfere in what is clear federal prerogative, which is control of who crosses the border, and it is being fought out in the courts right now. The other thing that happens because Congress is unable to pass laws, presidents then resort to executive orders. I mean, probably the most famous one is the DACA program, which was created by President Obama as an executive order. And when presidents use that executive power, it’s much more vulnerable to court challenges, right? If the Congress is acting, and it’s a law, then for the most part that tends to insulate the federal actions from court challenges. But if it’s just an executive action, then you are open to court challenges. So we have seen immigration fought out in every which way in the courts, including the DACA program, which so far survives but, you know, at some point somebody could take another run at it, and not clear what the future is. And so there are, you know, dozens of stories that come out of that—what the courts are doing, what the states are doing, what the fights are between the federal and state governments, what local governments are doing sometimes. I mean, mention Whitewater—the famous town in my day was Hazelton, Pennsylvania, where the mayor at the time, Lou Barletta, who later became a member of Congress, passed an ordinance making it a crime to rent apartments to illegal immigrants, as it was called in the land. That created a whole big national hype, launched the career of Kris Kobach, who is a notorious anti-immigration lawyer defending the town of Hazelton. So these are all the consequence of the federal government not doing its job and reforming and updating our immigration laws. And I think that will continue for many years, and there will be lots and lots of things to write about.  ROBBINS: Ruth, last word to you—we’re at four (o’clock), but we’d love to have your last words. CONNIFF: Oh, well, Ted just reminded me of a similar situation in Arcadia, Wisconsin, where there was a mayor who made English the official language, and really it was anti-immigrant. It wasn’t about undocumented immigrants or documented immigrants. There were a lot of immigrants in that community who were working at the world’s largest furniture manufacturer there. He was run out in a special election. It is a largely Latino town now, and that demographic shift is just happening all over rural Wisconsin. So it’s—you know, some of this stuff—(laughs)—is a backlash that, you know, is very—it’s an ugly, racially driven backlash, and a lot of it is failing on the local level. So that’s—you know, that’s helpful. ROBBINS: I just want to leave—and we have many more questions, which is a testimony to what a great conversation this has been. I want to thank Ted Alden, and Ruth Conniff, and all of you who asked questions. I apologize to Rose White, Janet Martin, Mark Smith, and the outstanding questions, but we will push out more information to you all, and I turn it back to Irina. FASKIANOS: Yes, and I echo that. I also want to just list Ted’s other affiliation. He is the Ross distinguished visiting professor for the College of Business and Economics at Western Washington University. So I didn’t mention that at the top— ALDEN: (Inaudible.) FASKIANOS: —and I wanted to do that at the end. (Laughs.) So he has dual roles. We will send out a link to the video, and transcript, and all these wonderful source resources that were mentioned during this call. So thank you all. You can follow our speakers on X at @EdwardAlden, at @RuthRConniff, and at @RobbinsCarla. And as a final note, we are holding now a CFR virtual media briefing at four p.m. This special session will feature six CFR experts in conversation on Iran’s attack on Israel this past weekend. CFR president, Mike Froman, will preside. We’re putting the Zoom link and passcode in the chat so you can get on, but from there, or if you want to email us, we can email it to you as well. Please reach out with your comments and suggestions. You can email us at [email protected]. Again, thanks to Ted, Ruth, and Carla for this terrific conversation. We appreciate it. ROBBINS: Great job. Thank you guys so much. ALDEN: Thanks. CONNIFF: That was fun, thank you. (END)
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