Experts discuss the future of immigration policy in the United States, focusing on immigrants from Central and South America.
The Renewing America series examines how policies at home directly influence the economic and military strength of the United States and its ability to act in the world.
PRESTON: Welcome to today’s meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. This meeting is part of the Council’s Renewing America series, which examines how policies at home directly influence the economic and military strength of the United States and its ability to act in the world. I would also like to welcome the CFR members around the nation and the world who are participating in this meeting through Livestream.
We are going to start. I’m going to engage in a conversation with our panelists and then we’ll have about 25 minutes of questions at the end. We have the honor and privilege today—this is Ted Alden, who is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council. We have Maria Teresa Kumar, who is the president and chief executive officer of Voto Latino, which is out there registering Latinos to vote. And we have Doris Meissner, who is participating via videoconference from Washington. Hi, Doris.
MEISSNER: Hello, Julia. Hello, everybody.
PRESTON: Before we start, just as a journalist I want to express particular gratitude to Doris, who has a remarkable lifetime dedication, in my view, to what I can only describe as the patient work of improving the United States immigration. She was a very productive commissioner of the INS, but since then she’s given us journalists much reason to be grateful to her, because this has become a very contentious debate and in Washington there’s this incredible cacophony of reports, of findings by interested parties and think tanks who are issuing their various opinions about this.
And as a journalist, you just go, please give me some facts, give me some analysis that is neutral and nonpartisan, and Doris has really done a tremendous job of building up the Migration Policy Institute to provide that service, I think, to a—to bring some voice of reason and some factual information to a debate that has become increasingly contentious and unmoored from those facts. So, Doris, it’s my—I’m just saying thank you for the work that you’ve done. I really appreciate it.
MEISSNER: Thank you. Thank you very much.
PRESTON: So we’ll start with Ted. Why don’t we start with you? So let’s talk about the border. How would you—if you take five years ago and today, how would you assess border security? Where are we at?
ALDEN: In most respects far, far better. I think your comment is interesting about the perception and reality on these issues. I would find it hard to think of another issue where the gap between perception and reality is bigger than on border security.
So if you ask people—and there have been a series of polls asking a variety of questions—do you think fewer or more people are coming illegally across the border than five years ago or 10 years ago—significant majorities, two-thirds or more, think that more people are coming illegally across the southwest border with Mexico than came five years ago or 10 years ago.
The numbers we have—and there are a lot of measurement issues—tell exactly the opposite, that we’re seeing small fractions of what we saw. So the number of people entering illegally across that border is probably one-fifth of what it was at its peak in 2000, and it’s even down significantly over the last five years. And surprisingly, historically, if you looked—because so much of the illegal migration was driven economically, that when the U.S. economy was stronger and was creating jobs, more people would come. When the U.S. was weaker and creating fewer jobs, fewer people would come.
But even as our recovery—admittedly not the strongest recovery ever, but even as our recovery now is entering its fifth year we’ve seen the numbers of people entering illegally remain at historic lows. So we actually, you know, have been in a period some time now where there’s no net in migration from Mexico. We do have rising numbers of people from Central America, mostly people fleeing violence of one sort or another, though some economically driven as well.
But the situation at the border is really far, far more in control than we have seen probably ever actually in modern U.S. history. And the history of what’s going on in Europe is quite striking, the troubles that they are having creating some kind of orderly system for dealing with the numbers of people coming to Europe.
PRESTON: Do we have adequate measurements? Is there a way to measure border enforcement that might be the basis of some kind of agreement or discussion between the warring parties over this? Do we have some kind of measurement?
ALDEN: I mean, I think it’s possible. You know the measurement now is not a great one, which is simply counting the number of apprehensions that are made in the region of the border, so how many people are arrested by the Border Patrol. And you could extrapolate from that, you know, assuming constant effort—and in fact effort has been increasing—if you’re seeing the numbers falling, it probably means fewer people are coming.
There have been efforts for some time now in the academic world to try to come up with better measures that would allow us to make pretty accurate estimates of what we’re missing, because of course at the end of the day the question people care about is not, who’s being caught by the Border Patrol? It’s, who’s being missed? How many people are managing to get across the border illegally? And there are actually pretty good techniques being developed for estimating those.
And there’s only been a rough start, but when you look at those numbers they’re actually even somewhat more dramatic than what the apprehension figures tell you, that we really have seen a significant, significant decline in the number of people coming illegally to the United States, which, again, is quite striking given where the political debate is right now over building a wall in Mexico. I mean, we really are, with a lot of this, fighting the last war, not talking about where we are currently.
PRESTON: So just when the administration was declaring victory at the border last summer and getting ready to go—make a push on immigration reform, we had a very significant influx of families and unaccompanied children. So what conclusion should we be drawing about border security from that?
ALDEN: I think the conclusion—and this is very frustrating talking about the Central American situation. The conclusion that we draw from that is it’s a different issue. So, again, historically if you go all the way back to the 1970s, the inflow we were talking about was mostly young Mexican men trying to come to the United States to work. And they were trying to evade the Border Patrol. They didn’t want to get caught, so they were trying to get around agents and get into the country successfully.
The folks coming from Central America are fleeing violence, by and large. They’re often coming in family units. You have minors coming on their own, young people coming on their own. Soon as they get to the border they’re turning themselves in to the Border Patrol—
ALDEN: —and asking to be allowed to remain in the United States under asylum status because they face potential violence when they go back home. So the notion that somehow that’s a problem you can solve with border security—they’re not trying to evade the Border Patrol. They’re saying, here we are. You know, where we’ve been trying to deal with it through enforcement measures is at the border between Mexico and Central America where, with U.S. money, the Mexican government is putting a lot more resources into trying to stop people from even making the journey across Mexico.
And there are a lot of questions that that raises that we can talk about, but we really do need, in the public discussion, to separate the Central American problem—which is much more like what the Europeans are dealing with, people fleeing violence seeking refuge—from the traditional economic migrant issue of people coming largely from Mexico looking for better lives in the United States.
PRESTON: How fundamental is cooperation with Mexico to our border enforcement arrangement?
ALDEN: It’s gotten better gradually over time. I think what some people in the United States hope for is cooperation by the Mexican government to discourage people from leaving. And we’ve never seen that, and I don’t think we ever will see that in any significant way.
What we are getting now, as I said, is cooperation trying to deal with third country problems. And you do have now almost—if you look at the numbers, about half of the people apprehended at the border are from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, so coming from Central America into the United States. So we are seeing a lot more cooperation with the Mexicans in trying to deal with that flow.
KUMAR: Can I just add a footnote?
KUMAR: A lot of the folks that are coming from Central America, it’s because they already have a contact person here oftentimes. And what folks don’t realize is that Costa Rica is also, right now, combating the same problem, because if—and that’s because they also have family allegiances. And when we’re talking about this idea of securing the border, 40 percent of the folks are folks that actually have flown into the United States and overstayed a visa.
So it’s not just—it’s not just a South American problem that—in the matter that we like to couch it. It’s actually a much broader system that the checks and balances is just simply broken as well.
PRESTON: So that was a question I was going to ask Ted. So how much more can we accomplish with border enforcement in terms of curbing illegal immigration if there is no—for example, no legal—new legal channel for people to come?
ALDEN: I mean, I think clearly we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. I mean, we have, you know, more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents, a very intensive enforcement effort. So I think it’s hard to see—you know, I can imagine small, continued drops in the number of people getting in illegally, but at the end of the day you’re not going to solve this entirely through enforcement. I mean, as long as there is demand, as long as there are people who want to come back and join with families, there is going to be pressure. And without legal arrangements to make that possible, I think enforcement really has its limitations.
But I’m not one of those—I mean, I do—you know, I do separate myself from some of the advocates on this issue who say enforcement is always ineffective, that if people want to come they’re going to come anyway and there’s nothing we can do through enforcement to discourage that. I think the record of the last 10, 15 years says otherwise, that you actually can deter people through enforcement. And there are lots of consequences, lots of issued raised by that, but that enforcement at the border actually can and has been reasonably effective.
Doris, so let’s talk about illegal immigration for a minute and look inside the country. We’re now in a situation that is a result of the presidential campaign, particularly on the Republican side where the notion of mass deportation of 11 million people is back in the public debate again after it had subsided. So just as a practical matter, how would you see that happening, or could you see that happening? What would be the social impact? How would a president actually execute a mass deportation program like that?
MEISSNER: Well, I think one has to start by saying it’s impossible—(laughter)—the idea of removing, just physically—housing, finding, traveling—11 million people. It’s unmanageable. I mean, at our absolute peak of deportations, which is maybe now two, three years ago, we were removing about 400,000 people a year—400,000 as against 11 million. And that’s the—that was extremely aggressive action.
The administration has pulled back from that by changing some of the guidelines and we’re seeing less deportations. But partly we’re seeing less deportations too because the population of people who are in the country without legal status has become more and more of a stable population. As Ted said, we have had no net new illegal immigration from Mexico for, now, six, seven years.
The size of the resident unauthorized population has fallen from 12 million to 11 million. Those people who are here without a legal status, more than 60 percent of them have been in the country for more than 10 years. Another percentage of them have been here for more than five years. They are deeply connected to jobs and labor markets. They largely lived in—live in what’s considered mixed-status families, which means households where there are some people who are unauthorized, some people who may be permanent residents, some people who may be U.S. citizens. And many, many have—even when the adults don’t have a legal status will have U.S. citizen-born children.
So just as a practical matter where labor markets are concerned but also as a question of social policy and morality, the idea of tearing apart that structure and that set of connections that exist is pretty impossible to imagine for us as a society. And that’s why you see this continued focus on removing people who have criminal backgrounds or who have recently violated immigration laws by being repeat crossers across the southwest border, because that’s the population that, by and large, is not consistent with the patterns. I mean, those are people that could be considered a risk in the United States. And even with that, as I say, at a peak, it was 400,000 a year. This year it will probably be under 300,000.
So this is all—the idea that is being propounded that we can just get on with it by removing all these people is unrealistic, and it really would hurt our economy and it would hurt our communities, families, deeply, broadly across the country.
PRESTON: So the alternative then is some form of legalization for the 11 million people who are here. I know that MPI has thought about this quite a bit. So, I mean, give us a picture of what would be an effective and efficient way—I mean, set aside the politics for a minute. I know that’s hard to do but, you know, what a legalization program would look like that would be, in your view, a cost-effective way to do—to accomplish this goal.
MEISSNER: Well, we can talk about what kind of a legalization program. The difficulty, of course, is political not policy.
MEISSNER: I mean, it’s widely agreed across the country and across political lines that, at the end of the day, it’s better to provide some form of legal status, combined with other things—combined with continued enforcement.
Ted is absolutely right; enforcement has worked. It can’t work in isolation of other things, but border enforcement has worked. Deportations from the interior of the country of course are going to continue, and certainly in the case of people who have criminal backgrounds, but we also need to have better legal pathways for people to come to the country, especially for work purposes. That’s an important part of our economy for the future. We’re not doing that in a way that really harnesses the advantages of employment-based—labor-market-based immigration.
So that’s all part of what we need to do to address our needs and fix this broken system, and legal status, some kind of a legalization program as part of a package like that, is something, as I say, that there’s—around which polling of the public, you know, you find support. Where you don’t find support, of course, is in the Congress in the, particularly, divisions within the Republican Party at this point about moving immigration reform at all.
I think the area where you could ultimately agree is on a concept of earned legalization. That’s the terminology now as compared with amnesty and the suggestion that you just give away some kind of status to be here and reward people who violated our laws, because they have violated our laws. But at the same time, as a practical matter we have to move forward and we have to make it possible for people who are here that are deeply connected to us and to our economy to contribute in much better ways.
One of the earned legalization—
MEISSNER: Earned legalization basically would mean that you show that you’ve been in good standing, you haven’t violated the law, that you are working, that you are preparing to learn English or you already do speak English, that you are—you know, have family members in the United States. Some of the proposals ask for people to pay up and be right with the government on taxes.
All of those—that kind of an arrangement can definitely be put together, and it’s been part of the legislative debate over the last two or three years. The sticking point is where—and the disagreement is whether people ought to have a right ultimately, who get legal status, ultimately to apply for citizenship.
MEISSNER: And that is an absolute deal-breaker for many in the Congress. And I think that the executive action that the president announced about a year ago, which gives at least an opportunity for a work permit but makes no possibility of citizenship, because that’s something that Congress would have to enact, we could begin to see a middle ground here where at least as a first step people would be able to get some kind of a legal status that would improve their circumstances; it would improve the circumstances of the country considerably. But there will not be any possibility of that until at least after the 2016 election, politically.
PRESTON: Yeah. Let me just change the subject. Well, give us a brief update on where things stand with the president’s executive actions from last year. These were the announcement—the president announced some programs that would have given protection from deportation and work permits to as many as 4 million people. Those have been held up in the courts, but just give—how do you see that? Where is that right now and where do you see that going?
MEISSNER: Well, as you say, this would have been protection for probably 4 (million) to 5 million people. It would have been limited and it would have been temporary, but it would have been built on—it follows the same line of reasoning as the more—the smaller program for the DREAMers, young people that have been in the country for some period of time.
And all of the evidence from that—it’s now about 600,000 people that got a limited legal status under the so-called DREAMer program. The evidence from it is very positive. I mean, the ability to have some mobility in the labor market, get better jobs, work legally in the country, go to school makes a big difference in people’s earning capacity, in their ability to invest in their education for the future. It has so many positives.
But the expansion of it to many more people and to adults is stuck in the courts. The state of Texas brought a lawsuit against the federal government. It’s been enjoined. And now there’s really more and more concern that this issue won’t even get to the Supreme Court in this term. It’s passed the district courts. It’s at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, but it does seem as though that court of appeal is slow-walking a decision.
The hope among—the hope in the administration and among those who have wanted the executive action to go forward was that the case would get to the Supreme Court, a decision would come next—you know, by next June. The issue that would have to be decided even with this Supreme Court, the general feeling is it would have gone in favor of the government and there would at least have been an opportunity to begin an application process prior to the presidential election in 2016. That could still happen but it’s more—is looking more unlikely.
Now, that means then that of course we are right back where we were four years ago or even eight years ago, which is immigration again being a wedge issue not only for Republicans but also for Democrats in this upcoming election, because for Democrats of course it will be—see the administration try to do a program. It got stopped in the courts.
This, yet again, is something where the paralysis at the—in the Congress, controlled by Republicans, is making it impossible to move anything on immigration reform. And of course, as we’ve talked about and as we’ll see probably again in the debate tonight and in the continuing discussions in the Congress, there is just no possibility of agreement, it would seem, within the Republican Party on immigration and certainly on legal status.
And the underscoring of that, it seems to me, is so pertinent right at this moment, which is that with the election of Paul Ryan as speaker—I’m not sure it’s happened yet but should be happening today—the condition—one of the several conditions that he had to lay down with the Freedom Caucus in order to get their support is a commitment that he would not put an immigration bill before them prior to the election.
PRESTON: OK, so let’s see—quickly, to change to another subject, do you think if the United States took a significantly larger number of refugees from Syria that that would be a security risk? Would we be facing an increased security risk if we increased our Syrian numbers double or triple where they are now?
MEISSNER: I think we really must relook the whole humanitarian system, both from the standpoint of the things that Ted talked about with what’s happening in Central America and where overseas refugee resettlement is concerned.
You know, we’ve always, for a long time now, felt that when we talk about a broken immigration system, at least on the humanitarian side we’re OK. We fixed it with the Refugee Act in 1980, with asylum reform in the 1990s, and now we have seen, with the Central American unaccompanied children crisis and, more recently, the Syria crisis, that our humanitarian systems have atrophied as well.
Where Syrians are concerned, people particularly coming from the Middle East, our security clearance process post-9/11 has become so lengthy and so risk-averse that we’re unable to retain any real global leadership in the refugee arena, and that is an area of immigration and also foreign policy that has been central to our image as a country, to our role as a country in the world.
And that all needs to be revitalized, which will require looking at refugee groups such as the Syrians with a greater willingness to recognize that although these are parts of the world where terrorism is certainly a danger, it’s very unlikely that people that are in this degree of need in fact also would be terrorists.
PRESTON: OK. Thank you, Doris.
Maria Teresa, so you’re the future here.
KUMAR: Oh, dear. (Laughter.) The future is here. (Laughs.)
PRESTON: (Inaudible)—we’ve been talking about.
So tell me a little bit about the electorate that you’re trying to engage at this point. I mean, how many Latinos are out there to be registered? Are you engaged in the naturalization process? And traditionally, I think people—or people believe, or it’s in fact true that Latino turnout has been significantly less than other constituencies. So why is that and what—
KUMAR: The bottom of that—the last part is absolutely true. I think, though, to add to the—to the dynamic of why we have 11 million people, part of it is that right after September 11th we basically started tightening up the border in a way that you had individual workers that would come back and forth, very seasonal workers, especially around the South. So all of a sudden September 11th comes and you have—you have the invisible wall—the actual wall wasn’t built yet—and all of a sudden they were stuck because they still had family and they weren’t able to basically be mobile, as they were before.
So I think that’s part of the conversation that we need to be—it wasn’t that they were always here; it was more of a lot of the actions that the American government took to assure that our border was secure actually created—basically put a dent in natural migratory patterns that had been happening for—you know, for literally centuries. And I’m not going to go all the way back.
But, that said, when you start looking at the American Latino voter it’s quite interesting. I’m going to basically set the table for you. The average American voter is 42 years old. The average Latino voter is 27. So when we start talking about why are they not participating, it’s on several levels. Oftentimes, for the most part, they’re actually first-generation voters.
So if they’re first-generation voters where they are—they went through the American school system. They’re not receiving civic engagement and civic history there. And they go back home and they have a household where oftentimes folks are saying, you know, don’t get involved in government. Many of these folks, their parents have actually fled instability in South and Central America where getting involved in government can literally get you killed. They didn’t come—for the most part they didn’t come here to actually be part of the process. They came here to work.
And so what we’re finding now is because you find individuals that have basically said that the Latino community is at the crux of what’s wrong with America, that’s when you see a generation of Americans, who happen to be Latinos, rising. The perfect example is the DREAMers. The DREAMers are the most politically disenfranchised group among the Latino community, most politically disenfranchised, but they’re also the youngest that went through American school systems who actually believe in the leverage of power and have learned how to mobilize Washington in a way that I can’t remember the last time we’ve seen it, in a peaceful way.
We take for granted that our largest civil rights actions happened in 2006, where 2 million people went to the streets. That was more than the 1960s. They went to the streets to basically say they wanted a voice for their family; they wanted a voice for themselves. Fast-forward to this really caustic rhetoric coming out of the Republican Party where neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are basically saying, shame on you for trying to demonize a whole generation of Americans, and you’re starting to see very similar mobilization.
PRESTON: Well, let me just ask you about that.
PRESTON: So I’m curious whether—because, you know, it has been very negative rhetoric, and I’m just wondering if that has a discouraging effect or if you see that that’s mobilizing people to get interested in voting.
PRESTON: I mean, not protesting but going out and—
KUMAR: So to answer your question, so the—Telemundo/NBC/Wall Street Journal recently did a poll about two weeks ago, and I think I shared this, and they found that close to 60 percent of Latino voters were paying attention to the election. Those are numbers that we don’t normally see until about a month before the election; we’re a year out.
To set an example, back in California in 1994, Pete Wilson, the governor then, basically created what I call the blueprint for this really outrageous immigration reform under the guise of Proposition 187 where folks were not going to provide basic school, emergency care, social services to anybody they thought was undocumented, until they can actually produce a piece of paper.
My family—actually, my family has no idea why I’m political because they’re not. (Laughs.) They’re slightly confused. They are from Northern California. I came home from college for Thanksgiving. We had eight uncles and aunts, including my grandmother, that for the very first time talked about becoming U.S. citizens. That conversation that Thanksgiving was happening all throughout California.
California prior to 187 was a swing state. Sometimes it was red, sometimes it was purple. But because the toxicity of Proposition 187 and what it meant and how it targeted families, all of a sudden woke people up and saying, no, this is my country. I’m here earning a good living trying to make good for my family, but also contributing to a community.
And that conversation you saw again when Sharron Angle was running against Senator Reid. Senator Reid looked like he was going to lose. But at the end of the day, nine to 10 Latinos came out and voted in favor of him. And sure, Senator Reid is a stellar gentleman, but it was because Sharon Angle was doing the exact same thing, demonizing—
PRESTON: That was 2010?
KUMAR: And this is 2010.
KUMAR: Demonizing a whole generation of folks. When you have candidates talking about America—when they start talking about anchor babies, when they start using words such as go back to Mexico, or when they start basically saying speak English, yes, their guise is the immigrant, but we recognize that you’re actually talking about us who happen to be American, but are Latino as well.
And part of the—I mean, and part of the change is that this demographic shift has been massively quickly. And what I mean by that is that from 2000 to 2010 50 percent of our growth in America was of the Latino population—50 percent—and the majority of them are U.S.-born. So if you take the former presidential candidate John Edwards’ hometown that he always talked about and look at it today, it’s 50 percent Latino. So there no longer—we’re no longer in pockets of New York and Texas and Florida and California. We’re literally everywhere, and if—and we’re growing so quickly and we’re young.
So that 27-year-old basically has her kids in school. And if you have for the very first time in America last year, the kindergarten public school system had the highest poverty rate, where it exceeded 51 percent; if you have such a massive group of Americans that are not—that are not politically disenfranchised and no one’s talking to them—and no one is talking to them. The last election, 2014, it was the lowest participation rate among Americans in 72 years.
Latino Decisions came out with a study and found that Latinos who were registered voters—folks that had participated—of that pool, only 41 percent of them had been contacted by a political party or an organization. So the organizations and the political parties are not even contacting the folks that have participated in the past, let alone investing in the infrastructure that we need as a country to ensure that this increased population is participating.
American Latinos today are the second-largest group of Americans in this country—second-largest—and we’re the youngest. The challenge, though, is that when you read a headline, whether it’s talking about race relations or whether you’re talking about how Americans feel about environmental reform, they very rarely in those pollings include the American Latino perspective. We can’t solve immigration reform; we can’t solve health care, environment; we can’t solve the challenges and opportunities that our—that our country faces if we’re not including the second-largest group of individuals.
PRESTON: Let me just ask you about obstacles to voting.
KUMAR: OK. So one of the things that I’m sure everybody—folks here are very familiar with, the Voting Rights Act that was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, it was Shelby County versus Eric Holder. Everybody basically takes for granted that because it was coming from the South that it was primarily aimed at disenfranchising the African-American community. But if you dig a little deeper, you find that Shelby County was the fifth-largest growth of Latinos in the U.S. in the 2010 Census, by over 200 percent. If you follow where the state legislators, shortly after that was gutted where they tried to implement, and in some cases successfully implemented voting rights challenges at the polls, they literally follow the trail of the fastest growth of the Latino community.
And some people will say that it’s because it’s folks are trying to prevent Latinos in a malicious way. With the exception of the terrible rhetoric coming out of some certain candidates, I actually think it’s more that you have state parties that all of a sudden see a huge boom in a community that they just don’t understand, so they’re trying to hold back the future until they figure that out. In the meantime, you’re disenfranchising individuals that may want to participate for the very first time, have a bitter taste in their mouth, and never participate again. And we can’t start solving, again, our individual issues locally or nationally or globally without these perspectives. If you—yeah, yeah. (Laughs.)
PRESTON: So that’s a good place to leave it.
OK. Very good. We’re going to open up to questions. And I would ask that you wait for the microphone and speak into the microphone, and just ask one question so that we have opportunities for a number of people to ask their questions.
Q: I have a—
PRESTON: Wait for the microphone. Yeah, there we go.
Q: Hi. Amy Davidson from The New Yorker. I have a question for Maria Teresa.
You mentioned the anchor baby controversy that came up. And one way Jeb Bush responded to that was by trying to deflect and say that he was really talking about—he really meant to insult Asian immigrants—(laughter)—rather than Latino immigrants.
KUMAR: Yes. (Laughs.)
Q: And—(laughs)—I wonder, you know—and other candidates have implied that they like, you know, immigrants who come in for tech jobs and not Mexican immigrants. I just wonder about those efforts to divide and sort, and how that plays out within immigrant communities when they hear that.
KUMAR: Well, one, I think—well, yes, I think that Jeb Bush should have actually seen the polling numbers in 2012. One of the communities that helped put him over the top was the Asian community because of this immigration issue, right? So he’s not doing himself any favors.
But I think that one of the—one of the bigger challenges, oftentimes, when we look at what is happening and the conversations and how do we split work, we’re having a disingenuous conversation with Americans. Every eight seconds, a Baby Boomer retires. Every eight seconds. The only reason that our fertility rates—our population rates aren’t reflective as they are in Europe, where they’re down, is because of a generation of immigrants that come and sow the seeds of their life here and that contribute to the economy.
If we want to have the—and I—and I’m a big, big believer that the individual that is MIT, is an entrepreneur, as much as the individual that swam across the Rio Grande is an entrepreneur. It takes mettle to sacrifice everything and to get here any way you can because you know that the moment you step on—in this country you’re an American, and that you can try to achieve and make it for yourself. And the fact that we’ve forgotten that as a country is painful.
I think that the Latino community has never felt so alone in this conversation because we haven’t seen neither the Democratic or Republican Party actually call out what’s been happening. And we contribute every single day, and we believe with the same ideals. Voto Latino deeply believes that American issues are Latino issues, and vice versa. And we’re in this together.
And our future—when you—when you talk to a young person and you poll them—and they are having a hard time out there, but when you talk to them—the majority of the country, when you poll them, they’re incredibly pessimistic—you know, our best days are over, we’re done. It’s like, you talk to these young Latinos and they’re seeing everything at the front lines. I actually compare them and their socioeconomic status, their need to actually make adult decisions long before they’re—before they’re 18, closest to those individuals that suffered the Great Depression in many respects, just because they don’t have access to so many things. But you poll them and you talk to them, they’re the most optimistic group of Americans. They see that the future is incredibly bright. How do we harness that and open the doors for possibility?
PRESTON: Yes? Could you state your name?
Q: Yes, I’m Marshall Bouton, Asia Society and Chicago Council. I guess this question is addressed to any or all of you.
I’d like you to look or step back. And you all know that if you look at a graph of foreign-born individuals as a percentage of the U.S. population over the last 150, 200 years, you see this jagged pattern where we have rapid growth of the foreign-born population followed by an inflection over a decade or two, and all of a sudden it drops—not all of a—it starts to drop all of a sudden and then you spend 30, 40, 50 years until you have another inflection point: in this—in our present case, the 1965 Immigration Act. We’re due for another one of those inflections if you look at these patterns historically, yet the politics—the politics argue for it and against it. There have been some crabwise movements, whether on H-1B or border security. What do you see in the future?
PRESTON: Who wants to go first? Doris? Could you hear the question?
MEISSNER: Yes, yes, yes. And, Marshall, it’s wonderful to see you. It’s been a long time.
I think what we see in the future is less of an inflection point than we’ve seen in the past because we are such a globally interdependent—because our economy and our future is so tied up with global interdependence. With global interdependence comes human mobility, population movement, and that’s one of the reasons that it is so urgent and we’re so behind in actually figuring out an immigration system for legally regulating those flows that will serve us in this new economic environment. I mean, the last time we made any real changes in our legal immigration system was in 1990. That was a very different economy from today.
In addition, there is the issue that Maria pointed to, the aging of the society. This is the first time for us in our history we’ve been an aging society. And it is the case that immigration now accounts for I think it’s as much as 55 percent of our population growth. That’s likely to go up into the 80 percentiles in the coming decades. And that infusion of younger workers is a huge comparative advantage for us as a country competitively, as well—and we’re the only, of all the advanced industrialized nations, that has that advantage at this point. It gives us an infusion of younger workers that contributes to productivity, that boosts revenue. And we are positioned very well to take advantage of that if we could put—get our systems and our policies to incorporate it more fully.
So I think that the inflection is, I hope, going to be a stabilizing of the large-scale, unauthorized flows from Mexico, which has already happened, but a much more—but a—but a continuing, reasonably high levels of immigration as part of the American future because of our different economic and demographic place.
PRESTON: Did you want to—
ALDEN: I mean, the only thing I would add is, you know, the reason we saw an enormous drop-off in the high levels of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century was because of World War I, the Great Depression, World War II. So I deeply hope that none of those things are around the corner for us. (Laughter.)
Yes, here? Could you say your name, please?
Q: Yes. Joan Spero from Columbia.
Could I go back to a point that Maria Teresa raised, which is how is the Latin community in the United States organized to help itself to get involved within the political parties? Is it a unified community? I mean, we know we have Dominicans and we have Mexicans and we have all—could you give a sense of the politics within the Latin community and how they are pushing from the ground up?
KUMAR: And, Julia, you’ve covered all of this, so you have as much insight, or—but I think it’s this immigration debate in many ways has actually unified the Latino community. And there’s room for debate, but really it has. And it’s—and part of it is that one in three Americans, when polled, think that the majority of Latinos living in this country, the 54 million of us, are undocumented—one in three. And so you can be a Puerto Rican, that you have citizenship automatically, you can step out your door, and you might as well be undocumented because that’s how folks are being perceived.
And so what we’ve seen in the last—and I’ve been doing this work for 10 years now, relatively new to it for other folks that have been doing it for much longer, but one of the things that I find is that people are using less of their nationalities—of I’m Mexican, I’m Colombian, Peruvian—and learning more to work together. But that’s tough.
But Latino, the idea of Latinos, an American concept. You go to a Chilean in Chile and you tell them, are you Latino? They’re like, I’m Chilean, you know. (Laughs.) So that is—and very similar—it’s very similar to what happened to the Italians when they arrived, right? So it’s very much an American concept, but we are learning to work together. Part of it is because we are feeling the increased heat of what’s happening at the local level and, yes, in the national rhetoric.
But it’s not easy. I can share with you, during the—during the 2012 election it was a record year for voter registration for Latinos. Collectively, organizations such as Voto Latino, along with the campaigns, registered roughly 626,000 Latino voters. High-fives all around. Eight hundred thousand Latinos turn 18 every single year. We’re not even meeting the need.
So one of the things that Voto Latino has been doing is, working with the administration, is how do we digitize the federal form? The federal form—there’s a federal form that’s a piece of paper that basically is accepted in all 50 states. Its roots came out of the Pentagon because of military personnel. And so we have been working since November, because when we saw the results in October we basically—I was like, this isn’t working, we have to start thinking differently. So we’ve been meeting with the administration and they’re working—they just did a beta test in September. And the idea is, how do you digitize the form?
This idea of voter registration and the hurdles that are put forward should, more than anything, be a government function, right? First of all, we should eliminate all the hurdles, but it should be a government function. And our work, really, as an organization should be to persuade folks and to teach them and to basically give them the tools. But unfortunately we actually have to end up doing two things, and that’s very challenging.
And part of it—yeah, sorry.
PRESTON: In the back?
Q: Hello. Shahad al-Ditskitu (ph) from (Somali ?) television.
While interviewing the detainees released from El Paso, Texas, I came to know that the detainees—the youth detainees, they are coming through 17 countries, through even the Pacific. They are passing by boat and they are coming to Texas, and they are asking for the asylum. But what the concern is like they are taking a risk, a life risk, and a lot of them have died in the way of coming through these passes. So in this situation, I want to ask Ms. Doris that, do you think that the enforcement to the border is the solution, or that we have to do something with the human trafficking?
MEISSNER: Well, the, you know, trafficking is a serious problem. It’s been a serious problem for a long time, and it’s a good example of why enforcement is important. And enforcement includes not just keeping people from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, it also calls for, and increasingly the government commits resources to, trying to dismantle the criminal organizations that support a lot of illegal immigration.
The, you know, paradox in many ways, though, too, is that the better your enforcement is at preventing people from coming to the country, the more you create incentives for criminal activity because of the desperation that exists in so many parts of the world to get to safer places. So the best policies, of course, are policies that provide enough possibilities for access to various countries, not simply the United States. Europe is facing this much more urgently than the United States is. But in the world that we live in, you have to have immigration systems that make it possible for people to come legally for a variety of different reasons—protection, but also for work, also for family reunification, and of course for tourism, travel, temporary stays of one sort or another.
That said, given inequities in the world and given the incredible amount of, you know, war and injustice, no system is ever going to be able to provide anywhere close to the legal opportunities as the need that we see at the present time. So enforcement, dismantling criminal organizations, reducing incentives, ultimately dealing with the issues of war and peace, economic privation, have to be part of a much longer-term approach and set of policies that make the world a better place. I mean, that sounds obviously hugely idealistic, but these things are all connected.
ALDEN: Can I just—
PRESTON: Yeah, go ahead.
ALDEN: —add quickly to—I mean, asylum is one of those problems that probably doesn’t have a solution. So I personally would like to see the United States be far more generous in terms of refugees and asylum now because we take in about 70,000 a year, which is a tiny number if you look at what’s going on in Europe. But the fact is the demand far exceeds the willingness of advanced countries to admit these populations. You’re seeing it in Europe in the backlash in Europe, which in a lot of ways has been tremendously generous to the flood of refugees coming from Syria and elsewhere.
So you’re in this catch-22, which is, if you take harsh policies, there are a lot of awful human rights consequences that flow from that. People get sent back. They get tortured. They get killed. People die trying to get there. If you turn it the other way around and say, well, we’ll really open the doors, then you encourage lots more to come, and that’s got its own dangers and its own problems. So really all of the advanced countries are struggling with this problem and not coming up with very effective solutions.
KUMAR: I mean, I think part of the difference, though, that we see is that most of these are they’re children. And some of them are women and children, but mostly they’re children. And I think that’s—we’ve never been here before.
ALDEN: Never have.
KUMAR: Right? With the exception of Cuba, right? So in Cuba, they literally airlifted—through the Peter Pan project, airlifted their children and sent them to Florida, right? That was their migration. We don’t have that.
But I think something that we should also keep in mind, we hear a lot of the mass incarceration reform here in the U.S. And it’s a bit—we’re right now actually doing kind of a whack-a-mole, because if you look at the numbers of—when you include detention centers in that—because it’s not voluntary, clearly—you actually see that—you see two spikes in our—in our—in our prison systems. The first one was with all of the drug laws that passed in the 1980s, and then you—the second spike you see is roughly around 2006, 2007—I’m sorry, 2011, excuse me. And that spike was the detentions of—under President Obama.
So you are—right now we actually have a mass incarceration system where you’re talking about low-level drug offenders; folks, for the most part, that have mental illness; and finally you have workers. And we never talk about the workers when we talk about how to actually revamp mass incarceration.
Q: Yeah. Thank you. Rita Hauser.
PRESTON: Could you stand up?
Q: Yes, thank you.
PRESTON: Thank you.
Q: There’s been no discussion whatsoever of another issue, which is bringing in highly skilled workers here, which is amazing to me that it escapes the purview of an immigration discussion. We have done something to improve the H visa, but most of the advanced countries have a very generous policy to bring in highly skilled workers, and they get there very quickly, and you get there also by investment of money to make jobs. We’re very far behind, even vis-à-vis Canada. Why is that? And why don’t you see any push by employers for a bigger tech-related—
ALDEN: Can I? I mean, it’s quite striking. I was thinking the same thing about this conversation—that, you know, we’re 50 minutes into it and this hasn’t even come up. And I think it tells you a lot about the way the issue’s been engaged in the United States. We’ve been trying now for 15 years to solve this problem comprehensively.
The high-skilled part is actually the easy part. There is a broad consensus in the country, there’s a broad consensus in Congress on what we need to do on the high-skilled side, that we need to let in more people based on their education levels and their skill levels, that we need to push our system in that direction. There’s a strong business lobby in favor of that. On its own, that would be a no-brainer. But because of the way we’ve structured the issue, it’s been held hostage to the passage of a comprehensive bill. And all the issues that we’ve been talking about today are the difficult issues in passing a comprehensive bill.
I have yet to talk to anybody—and if you ever—you know, maybe this is one thing all of our organizations should be working on, because part of the idea of a think tank is to come out with new ideas and new approaches. And we’re desperately in need of them with respect to immigration because we’re locked into this notion that we’ve got to do it all comprehensively. It’s not clear that’s possible. We got very close to it in 2014 and it fell apart in the House.
But there are a whole bunch of other issues that we didn’t talk about today, particularly related to the highly skilled, which are entirely on hold because we can’t move a complete package of immigration legislation through the Congress. And that has enormous consequences—negative consequences—for our economy.
KUMAR: And I mean, and I think to that point, there’s really three chunks that we—we basically put everything together, but it’s really three chunks, right? So we have the border security, that’s one portion of it. Then there is the 11 million that are already here, and that’s really—when we talk about immigration reform, everybody gets stuck in the, what do we do with the 11 million? But when what you’re—what you’re talking about is like the future flows. And somehow, you’re right, everything has been basically put together, and we don’t even have conversation of the future flows. Because it’s not just the tech; we’re going to need the individuals that are lower-skilled labor here as well, but we don’t even have a formula for that either. So we don’t talk about the future.
PRESTON: All right.
Q: Hi. It’s not on? Dara Adams, hi.
I have a question about the states’ role in all of this. You know, you talked about states’ rights and kind of rolling back voter rights. We have a DREAM Act in this state. It can’t seem to go anywhere, you know. And the country is continuing to become more and more Republican, and there’s lots that states are doing—that potentially could be doing or are doing to either hurt immigration or help DREAMers. And I’m just curious, when it comes to voter registration, you know, there’s a lot of focus on presidential years, but what’s being done in the off years to keep these people engaged and to get them turning out into local elections to try and do some more work on the states’ issues?
KUMAR: I’ll talk a little bit about what we do. And basically, we never turn off the lights. We basically continue our work. And what we’ve done at Voto Latino have moved not only from voter—simple voter registration to issue advocacy, because we recognize that while I love voter registration, most people don’t, but what issue is going to basically turn you on to the political process? And so we actually identify that. And we do that in five states. That’s basically where we reside. And then we’ll do some national conversations.
And then we also recognize that, for us is, we don’t need the “A” student, we need the “C” student. That’s where the majority of folks are. And oftentimes they’re “C” students because they are trying to make ends meet and go to school at the same time, to be clear. So we are trying to basically target them, so we do a lot of leadership development and stuff. But the idea is, is that we can’t stop talking about the importance of voting.
Ferguson, as many folks may be aware, in 2012, 51 percent of their population went and voted, and that was because it was for the president. In the municipal elections the next year, in 2013, 6 percent of their folks voted. So we have—we have to figure out, how do we instill democratic conversations in schools early on to make sure that—early on so folks actually see themselves in the system?
And sometimes—and I think is what happens in Ferguson—if you don’t see yourself in the system, it’s hard for you to participate. So we have to figure out, how do we actually open up those levers?
PRESTON: I think we have time for one more question here. Yes, sir?
Q: Mahesh Kotecha. I have a very simple question.
You know, this country was built on immigration. Where does our heart lie? We have forgotten where we came from. How can this be reconciled with what’s happening in the Congress? What will change? I’m an immigrant twice over, my father from India to Africa and I to the U.S. So I empathize with you totally, and this country should, as a whole country.
ALDEN: I find myself terribly puzzled by it, too. I think—I think a lot of the discussions just don’t fit with American tradition and with so much of what makes us the country we are today.
All I can say is I think social change is hard, and this country and others as well have been changing very rapidly. And it makes people uncomfortable and worried about their futures, and that can go in a lot of unfortunate directions. And I think that’s some of, sadly, what we’ve seen in the immigration debate.
PRESTON: Well, I would close the discussion by saying I think the United States is built on a cycle of immigration where new immigrants come to the country and they encounter tremendous adversity and opposition, and they stick to their guns and they have tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and they make it through. But the immigration is only part of the tradition. And the resistance is also part of that tradition, and I think we’re seeing that today.
So thank you very much for coming, and let’s have some applause for our great speakers. That was great. Thank you. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.