Latin America, America Latin Symposium: Session 2: Dynamics of Integration: Exclusion, Assimilation, or Transformation?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

JULIA PRESTON:  (Off mike) -- to the second session of our panel.  This one is on the dynamics of integration and immigration in Latino America.  And this would be a good time for you to turn off your electronic umbilical cords -- BlackBerrys, cell phones -- (laughter) -- so that you can enjoy the very timely discussion that we are about to have.  And I'm also asked to remind you that you are on the record in this session, so be (san prudentes ?), be prudent and wise in your comments.

We are extremely lucky to have three speakers for whom the dynamics of integration of Latino immigrants in the United States is not a theoretical issue.  Our speakers represent three organizations that have played very powerful and patient roles in pointing out to Washington the crisis in our immigration system and the dire situation that undocumented immigrants are facing in this country.

And so I think for this session what I'm going to try and do is really have a report from the front about what is going on out there.  And again, you have bios and I, again, urge you, as Ray did, to read them, because they really are extraordinary.

Eliseo Medina is the international executive view president of the Service Employees International Union, the SEIU.  And this is a union has 1.8 million members in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico and focuses on hospital and nursing home and home health care workers and also janitors and security workers and public employees.

John Trasvina is the president and general counsel of MALDEF which is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.  And which you now have I think 22 attorneys on staff, is that right?  And it's long been recognized as one of the premier Latino litigation and advocacy organizations in the United States.

And Arturo Vargas is the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, NALEO.  And this represents -- it's a membership organization that represents about 6,000 Latino officials across the United States.

So I'm going to divide the discussion into two parts.  First, we will get the report from the front and then we'll leave maybe 10, 15 minutes at the end to directly address the, again, the bill that is before the Senate and parse that out a little more with the perspective from the field.

So Eliseo, I wonder if you could start by telling us briefly about the history of the undocumented issue and organizing those immigrants in your union.  Was there resistance to this?  Was there fear that these immigrants might be taking jobs from your members?

ELISEO MEDINA:  No, not at all.  And let me first start by saying that SEIU was a unit that was founded by immigrants.  It was founded in the 1930s, primarily at the time by Polish and Eastern European immigrants in the city of Chicago.  So from the beginning, this has been a union that sees its connection to immigrants.  And in 1980, we began organizing janitors.  And when we went out and we started organizing, what we found, obviously, was nothing but immigrants, primarily from Central America and Mexico.  And I think probably over the years, everybody sort of adjusted for a janitors campaign.  So that has been an integral part for our union.  And obviously, the more successful that we were in organizing with the workplace, the more problems we found in the community.

You know, no matter how well we did in improving the wages and the working conditions, the fact is that a large number of them were still undocumented.  So they were faced with the raids, with parents being deported, with families being split up, with people not being able to get driver's license.  So this is an issue that touches very close to home to our members.

PRESTON:  Do you find that undocumented immigrants were reluctant to engage with the union?  Were they fearful?

MEDINA:  No.  You know, one of the things that we found is that these are people that came walking through the desert which is extremely hazardous.  Many of them, you know, left El Salvador where there was a huge civil war going on.  And there, you know, they killed organizers.  Here they just fire you.  (Laughter.)  So people weren't afraid to engage. 

I think the main issue for most of the immigrants was, is this a reasonable risk?  Is there a reasonable chance of success if I join the union?  Or am I just going to lose my job over nothing?  And so when they felt that there was a reasonable chance of success, they joined in droves, and we've actually been very successful.

PRESTON:  Was there any differentiation between undocumented and legal immigrants?  Did it make a difference in terms of unionizing?

MEDINA:  I think in some ways the immigrants were hungrier because, you know, they came to the U.S. trying to do better, to have an opportunity at the American dream.  So they were more eager to actually take risks, because they saw this as their only avenue by which they could improve their life.

PRESTON:  And so you have been engaged in the service campaign.  Has that become part of the work of your union -- community outreach, extending into the community?  How does that work?

MEDINA:  Well, you know, one of the things that we know is that we don't live in the world by ourselves.  And if we're going to be successful in changing the conditions of workers, then we need to make alliances with community groups, with churches, with ethnic media and other people that also have the immigrants as a constituency.  And then together we can tackle some of the issues, such as immigration reform, such as education, such as living wages, workers' rights, affordable housing, access to health care.  These are all issues that are critical to the community but we can't solve by ourselves as a union.  So we need to have a broader coalition.

PRESTON:  John, let's talk a little about what's going on in terms of the pushback from many American communities against illegal immigration.  There have been measures all over the country to restrict housing, to bar local employers from hiring illegal immigrants.  How has that been playing out?  What has MALDEF been doing?

JOHN TRASVINA:  Well, over the past year, Julia, we have reoriented our litigation strategy.  We continue to do work in voting rights and employment education and immigrant rights, but we're really looking at the two twin issues that are going to define and shape the Latino community over the next 35 years as language and immigration with education as part of the language issue.  And as Washington continues year after year not to get a handle on the immigration issues where it belongs under our Constitution at the federal level, there's been a lot of self-help.  A couple of years ago it was the rise of the Minutemen in the Southwest going down to the border, the border vigilantes, increases of border deaths on both sides of the border over the past really eight to 10 years.  And also more recently in the past year or so local communities or elected officials in local communities trying to take the law into their own hands and pass local immigration control measures.  This started out in San Bernardino, California.  And there, the proponents really made it clear very early that while they were not really going after housing, they were not going after employment, what they were really going after was education.  Because they wanted to take a stand that if you could evict -- in effect, evict through the housing process -- evict undocumented immigrants out of town, that would mean that you could kick kids out of school.  And 25 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made very clear that all children in the United States are entitled to public education, not just for the interest of those children but also for the interest of the nation.

So this is an (end-around ?) the Plyler versus Doe decision.  We defeated it in San Bernardino.  But because of right-wing radio and through the Internet, it spread to other cities and towns.  A lot of people have heard about Hazleton, Pennsylvania.  About six or seven cities around the country have passed these anti-immigrant ordinances that require landlords to check the immigration documents or citizenship documents of all persons on a lease or file the leases with city hall.  City hall can't do anything with them, but they just had requirements to file them with city hall.  And every judge has looked at this order.  We've challenged, and this has been one of our top litigation priorities.  Every judge, whether a Clinton appointee, a Bush appointee, state judge or a federal judge, has put a stop to the ordinance where they have passed.

What we haven't heard so much is that there are coalitions, as Eliseo mentioned.  There are coalitions in communities, whether it's in Huntsville, Alabama; Sandwich, Massachusetts; Carpentersville, Illinois -- cities and towns around the country where people of good will are recognizing the value of immigrants to the communities and saying there's a better way of dealing with immigration and defeating -- defeating -- these ordinances before they are adopted.

The city of Indianapolis is a very good example, and some cities and towns in Iowa, where they have welcomed immigrants to the communities, because they see a beneficial impact on taxes, beneficial impact on reviving downtown.  So in those communities, those are the communities that have the highest rates of naturalization of newcomers. 

So we see both a positive and negative at the local level.  But clearly, it's playing out.  And now this week, the Senate is turning to a bill that will put the action back where it belongs which is in Washington, D.C.

PRESTON:  Is there also movement at this local level to enforce English in a more aggressive way as the only language of government?

TRASVINA:  Well, it's interesting when you say enforce.  A lot of these local laws -- and a number of states have passed laws making English the official language -- that's not a new thing. 

PRESTON:  What do you mean exactly when you say it's the official language?

TRASVINA:  Well, that's the debate.  All it is it's a statement more of resentment or chest-pounding by some.  It really is not enforced for a very good reason.  The U.S. Supreme Court said in 1923, when it was German-Americans who were the target, said that protection of the Constitution extends to all, whether you speak English or not.  It would be great if everybody spoke the common language, but you don't get there by limiting people's constitutional rights.  So there are states that have passed English as the official language, but they have very little impact.  The impact, though -- the real impact -- is in community relations.  It emboldens the type of person who would go up to somebody at a grocery store checkout line and see a mother talking to her daughter in Spanish and say hey, speak English, it's the official language of our town or of our state.  And that's really the problem.  It doesn't do anything to provide English classes, and that's really our bone of contention. 

There's a bill coming up, there's an amendment coming up today or tomorrow in the Senate that would say English is the language of the nation.  Well, that' doesn't do anything.  The states that have passed these laws, there is no more acquisition of English in those states than in other states.  The approaches that we support are adult English classes and also a bill by Congressman Hinojosa of Texas that provides tax incentives to those businesses that provide, either before work or after work, English classes for their employees.

PRESTON:  Yeah, I would just say, since I've written a number of stories about this for The Times, I have become a kind of one-woman, you know, channel of expression for people who see the immigration issue as a hot point, you know, who are frustrated or resentful about this.  And I can tell you that there is a lot of very angry people in the United States on this issue.  And it's a little hard to understand where it's coming from.  I mean, the immigration issue has become this sort of open forum for the expression of a lot of political frustration that's out there in the United States that really goes beyond the specifics of the issue.

Arturo, you are engaged in naturalization programs.  Tell us about that a little bit.  Was there a reluctance, was there a lag in the naturalization (raids ?) of -- what are we talking about -- Mexican-Americans?  What was the situation?

ARTURO VARGAS:  Well, Mexican-Americans and other immigrants from Latin American countries -- our organization has been engaged in promoting citizenship since our founding.  So back in the mid '70s, we were founded by Congressman Edward Roybal, who was the first Hispanic elected to Congress from California.  We are now in a period of where we're seeing a new surge of an interest on behalf of Latino immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship.  The last time we saw this was in 1994, and that was after Proposition 187 in California, after the Congress passed welfare reform that would have denied benefits, not just to the undocumented.  It would have denied benefits to legal, permanent residents.  So at that time, there was a reaction based out of fear and out of anger that this country would now treat you differently if you were a green card holder.  If you're not a citizen, obviously you cannot vote.  You cannot hold certain federal jobs.  You are not a full participant.  But if you're a legal, green card holder, you can participate in our economy just as any other way.  One eighty-seven -- that conversation and welfare reform changed that. 

So we saw a huge surge in people applying to be citizens after 1994.  Over 1 million Latinos became citizens.  It's (going to mean that we ?) change the electorate in California.  We are now in a new period.  Some of it is based on the spring mobilizations that we saw last year where never in this country before had millions of people walked in the streets.  And these were immigrants, undocumented immigrants and their supporters and families -- grandmothers, children -- walking in the streets, asking to be a part, a full participant in this society.  That has translated into new interests in seeking citizenship.  That also coupled with the fact that on February 1st, the USCIS announced that it would increase the fee to become a U.S. citizen from $400 to $675.  That's a 69 percent increase overnight in the fee to become a U.S. citizen.  So there are now more incentives to do that.

We're running a national naturalization campaign, Ya es Hora Ciudadania.  We started in L.A.  Nationwide, in the first quarter, there was a 75 percent increase in citizenship applications.  In Los Angeles, with our efforts coupled with SEIU, Univision and others, there was 150 percent increase in interest in citizenship.  And I think what distinguishes the current surge from the 1994 surge is that rather than it today being based out of fear and anger, it really is based out of hope.  Hope of when we saw the people taking to the streets, of wanting to be part of this country, wrapping themselves up in the red, white and blue, marching with white T-shirts saying we want to be part of America, we want to be full participants.  So we are working with a broad coalition of churches, labor unions, community-based organizations, because we're responding to this incredible need.

Now, what are the obstacles today to citizenship?  Financial is a huge obstacle.  The other one is folks are not yet confident in their English language-speaking skills and their knowledge of history of this country to be able to pass a citizenship test and the English language test.  John mentioned the lack of ESL services.  We did a national study in 2006 and found that, depending on the community, the waiting lines for immigrants to get into an English language class is anywhere from 12 weeks to two years.

So people understand.  They get it.  If you want to succeed in this country, of course you know English.  English is not just the language of this country; English is the language of the world.  If you want to succeed, you need English.  What we need to do is make sure people have the opportunity and the access to English-learning opportunities.

PRESTON:  I'm just remembering that in 1998, I think Mexicans gained the opportunity to be double nationals -- to retain their Mexican citizenship and also become citizens in the United States.  And I'm curious whether there isn't some impact of people having divided loyalties or, you know, in this global world, where the family is both here and there -- I mean, does that not have some impact on the aspirations?

VARGAS:  Actually, the dual nationality -- it wasn't dual citizenship, it was dual nationality -- it was Mexico offering its emigrants and their children the opportunity reclaim their Mexican nationality, not their citizenship, because (it concerned ?) voting rights on those not living in Mexico.

It was also Mexico's biggest disappointment.  They were expecting hundreds of thousands of people to come forward and reclaim their Mexican nationality.  It was scores of people who came forth to seek that.  And I think it really spoke to the fact that people are living in the present, they're living in this country, and people understand that they need to access the opportunities and the skills to succeed here, and that is being full participants in this country.

PRESTON:  And your new Latino voters, are they going to be Republicans or Democrats?

VARGAS:  You know, this is an excellent question, because 1994 was a huge lesson for the Republican Party, because the campaign to pass 187 went beyond demonizing undocumented immigrants.  It really went to demonizing Latinos in general.  We began that campaign with Latinos supporting Proposition 187.  By the end of that campaign, and it was a calculation that then Governor Pete Wilson had made to seek his re-election, was to demonize all brown people.  And native-born Latinos got it and understood what the conversation was about.  California has become a blue state as a result of that.  You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger not withstanding, although he is an immigrant.  I think if the GOP were really interested in securing a realignment of this country, as has been suggested that the president wants to do, comprehensive immigration reform will go a long way toward doing that.

I still run into my members, people who are elected officials, who are Republicans, some of whom tell me that the reason they are Republicans today is because Ronald Reagan sent into law IRCA in 1986.

MEDINA:  And if I can just jump in on a couple of questions on this.


MEDINA:  You know, I was born in Mexico.  And when Mexico passed a law on regaining your nationality, I was one of the first in line, not because I wanted to go back to Mexico but because that's who I am.  It doesn't take away, though, from the fact that I'm a U.S. citizen, I love this country, my kids were born in this country, I participate in this country.  It's just who I am but has nothing to do with my loyalty to this country and how I feel about it.  And I think that most of those that did that -- because more than anything else, we carry Mexico in our hearts, but our bodies and our minds are in this country, and this where we're working on.

On the question that you asked also about whether they will be Republicans or Democrats, one of the things -- there is a national campaign of civic participation going on.  People took very seriously last year when they said today we march, tomorrow we vote.  Because we understand that in this country, that's how your voice is heard.  And so there's a national drive going on that includes, along with the work that NALEO is doing, also includes churches and community organizations and unions to try and get the word out to not just become citizens but become participants in society.  And we say this is not about parties or candidates.  And in this country, democracy has sort of devolved to it being a contest among the parties and the individuals.  And we're saying this is more about issues, this is how you get things done that matter to you.  Whether it's education or access to health care or immigration reform, this is going to be done.  And so what you need to do is become a citizen and participate if you want your voice heard.

So I think as we go forward, particularly with a new immigrant vote, what you're going to find is a much greater focus on issues rather than parties.

TRASVINA:  Just a couple of things to follow up on Eliseo's point, and it shows the diversity of the panel and our community.


TRASVINA:  The first Trasvina came to Texas in 1684, and then Texas changed its flag a number of times and moved around, and we moved around.  And my father came to the U.S. as a non-immigrant and got his citizenship during World War II.  So we have a wide variety of perspectives on Mexico and the U.S. and the border within the community.  What concerns me about the current debate, both at the local level as we've described but also with the presidential candidates, is you have people running on the Republican side -- Mayor Giuliani, who forgot that he was so supportive of immigrants and dividing the law between the local role and the federal role when he was mayor.  You've got Senator Brownback, who forgot that he was a major supporter of family reunification the last time the Senate brought up the bill in 1989.  You've got Senator McCain, who until recently had been AWOL on the immigration negotiations.  It seems that the path towards -- they're taking the view that the path toward success in the caucuses and in the primaries is to abandon the families, as the bill has been crafted does in a number of respects. 

And even on the Democratic side, the statements put out by a lot of the Democratic presidential candidates have been well, we're tough on the border.  This is not going to be an amnesty.  I think the nation now it's become much more acceptable to view immigrants as suspects as well, you know, they have to be here, but we're going to be as intolerant as possible to look good, rather than what we have been in the past, which is generally welcoming and understanding that the labor economists and others have as to the need for immigrants in the United States.  So we have a long way to go to really change the message, change the story about immigration in this country.

PRESTON:  Maybe we could talk a little bit about the bills. 

Eliseo, could you just talk briefly about the temporary worker program?  Maybe you could outline the details and then give your view of how that might work.

MEDINA:  Sure.  Well, first of all, let me just tell you that my father was (a bracero ?) during the '50s, so he came to this country through that temporary worker program.  When that ended, he came to the U.S. as an undocumented worker, and that's how we all wound up here.  Our position from the beginning was that we need to fix the problem, and if we don't fix it, we're going to revisit it every 20 years.  And one of the things that we were saying to the Congress is that we have a window of opportunity to fix it this year.  Unfortunately, I think that the compromise that was crafted by the Democrats, the White House and the Republican senators goes only about 70 percent of the way there.  One big problem is a temporary worker program.

First of all, I think that the way it's currently crafted would ensure that more people would continue to become undocumented.

PRESTON:  Because of the two year -- you have to return home for a year, yeah.

MEDINA:  Because of the two years, people would just overstay.  Secondly is that they would then come here with no reasonable path to residency.  You know, there's a very limited number of visas that would be available, like 10,000.  You know, when you're talking about approximately 400,000, which is the flow, these people are never going to make it.  And so you have a situation where you're not really meeting the needs of the economy.  You're probably slowing the (feeds ?) for future undocumented status, and along with that you also create an underclass of workers with not the same rights and protections as American workers.  So that's a big concern of ours.  And I think that that's something that we really need to go to work on in the Senate, the House and hopefully we get there in a conference committee to fix.

PRESTON:  Arturo, do you want to talk about this whole family merit shift that's taking place?

VARGAS:  Yeah, I think this, for me, is probably the most disturbing aspect of this conversation.  We talk about this point system that's being assigned for future immigrants.  The vast majority of points will go to people with higher skills, higher levels of education and the ability to speak English.  Very few points will be assigned for family relationships.  You know, we're not talking about importing the cars with the best mileage here.  We're talking about importing people.  People are not inanimate objects.  People are going to come.  They're going to come with relationships.  They're going to come with aspirations, with emotions.  And to tell them you will come for two years, and you will have to leave for a year, then you can come back for two more years, then you will have to leave for a year, then you can come back for two more years, and then you can never come back again.  That is what is being talked about right now in the U.S. Senate.  And maybe your family can come.

We had a conversation on the earlier panel about (the Honduran ?).  And what's better for this country, the Honduran with the (BS degree?) or the Honduran brother who is illiterate?  Well, family ties are powerful.  And what just boggles my mind, it's the same people who talked about the strength of the family and how important family is to the future of this country -- it's the unit of the United States -- that that now is a lesser priority than somebody's ability to have a graduate degree. 

PRESTON:  I think the point that I've heard Senator Kennedy make, who's obviously in a very interesting position in this because he's stayed in the ring with Senator Kyl and with the White House through this whole debate to try and produce this compromise.  He says well, if you look at the figures, for the first eight or 10 years while we're clearing the backlog, the way this would work is that there is an eight-year period set out to clear the backlog of people who have applied legally to become permanent residents in the United States.  And so he points that out.  That is all based on the current system which is family based, based on family ties and family reunification.

VARGAS:  And a return system that doesn't work.

PRESTON:  Right.

VARGAS:  Because people are waiting 22 years.  People are waiting -- you know, we heard them -- the earlier panel.

PRESTON:  Right.

VARGAS:  So that backlog is a result of a failed system itself.

PRESTON:  Yes.  So but I'm just saying -- I'm representing Senator Kennedy just to say he would say well, for the first decade, you know, family immigration would be overwhelmingly still the major component of our new immigration. 

VARGAS:  People do not stop having families.


VARGAS:  You know, in 10 years, people will still have family members.  There will be children.  There will still be grandparents.  There will still be siblings.  And that's why, to me, this is so disturbing.  This conversation represents a fundamental shift in U.S. migration policy from reuniting families, keeping families together which, according to our society, we tremendously value, to a skills-based immigration system.  Where again, we look at people as an economic commodity.

PRESTON:  And John, maybe you could talk about the whole Z visa concept.  This is the legalization, this is the program that would apply to undocumented immigrants who are in the country before January 1, 2007 would be the cutoff date.  And so basically, this is a two-stage program that would provide registration at the beginning, and then after a certain point, when certain triggers were met, then people could go on and acquire a visa.  So what's your analysis of it?

TRASVINA:  It's a long process.  It's a costly process in many cases.  But it is an extraordinary thing to be able to say that if you got here as of last Christmas, you're going to be able to stay.  And that immediately upon applying for this -- you'd have to apply six months after the bill was enacted -- and you'd either get a year or two years.  They're still trying to work that out.  But at that point, as soon as you apply, you have what's called an interim stay of removal.  It means you can't be removed from the country except in limited circumstances.  So for those individuals who can pay for it, who can wait out, it's immediately a better situation than you are today, and it theoretically will cover a lot of people.

At the same time, though, that's not the entire set of immigrants.  On the family immigration side, 800,000 people who are currently waiting in line -- the ones that the people like to say oh, we love legal immigrants, the people who play by the rules -- 800,000 of those who are waiting in line who applied for their family reunification after 2005 are off the line.  They're out. 

And after all, back in the late '80s, the Senate passed an immigration bill with points system.  The House rejected it entirely.  The Senate passed a bill that had English -- actually, the Senate took out English points in the points system.  So this is a long way of getting over.  And there has been, in the past, a bipartisan consensus that family reunification is the cornerstone of our immigration policy.  And that just because you happen to be lucky enough to be born in an English-speaking country doesn't speak at all to your qualifications and your abilities to serve the nation. 

And the later iteration of the points system, you could have been a French-speaking scientists and you get fewer points than if you were a high school graduate from, say, New Zealand with no skills other than the fact that you spoke English and you were a certain age.  So this is a long way -- there are a lot of details in this large bill.  But the major formulations are that, really as Arturo said, we're mortgaging the future of family reunification.  Yes, some of the people who are currently waiting in line will be able to get in faster than under the current law.  But after that, the situation is removed.

And the brothers and sisters preference came about in the '65 act.  Back in the '60s, the people who had brothers and sisters back home, those brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, were back home in Europe.  But today, the fourth preference is the visa most often used by Asian-Americans -- United States citizens to be reunited with their brother or sister.  So today, when these visas are coming -- the brothers and sisters are in Seoul or in Manila -- that's when the visa that is most often used is going to get eliminated.  And that's not going down well in a lot of communities.

MEDINA:  But you know, let me just sort of jump in.  Because while it seems like we're being completely critical and in opposition to the bill, let me just say that there are some tremendous things in this bill.  The possibility, as John says, of 10 (million) to 11 million people legalizing is not something that can be dismissed easily.  People that won't have the problem of not having driver's license, of being raided and families separated and all of that angst that goes with having to live in the shadows, being discriminated and exploited.  That's a huge thing.  Clearing the family backlog is a huge thing.  Ag jobs being added to this and the (dream act ?) so that kids can go to college.  It's all big things. 

But I do think that that does minimize also its shortcomings.  And that's what I think that we need to focus on and try to fix.  And I'm hoping that through a lot of debate that we can get the Congress to really focus on trying to fix this thing once and for all.  Because if we don't, I assure you, in 20 years, a different group of people will be meeting in this room talking about how to fix a broken immigration system.  That doesn't make any sense to me.


MR.     :  I just want to add to what Eliseo was saying, there is a sense also of desperation within this population of 12 million.  And presented the option of paying the thousands of dollars and the fees and the this and the that, I think the vast majority will do whatever it takes so they can come out of the shadows, live as they want to live and be part of the society.

PRESTON:  Has it started to play in the communities yet?  Are people realizing what this is about yet, or is too soon?

MR.     :  And that's what's so heartbreaking, because the Senate compromise is out there.  It's headlines, it's the leading news story on all the Spanish-language news, and folks don't understand it's just a proposal right now.  And the hopes that rise and fall and rise and fall with every newscast.  The proposal that -- you know, negotiation talks broke down in the morning.  And oh, we have a compromise after all in the afternoon.  And the emotions that go up and down with this community about what is going to happen is something I think we don't appreciate what's going on right outside these doors.

MEDINA:  And if I could add one other thing that came from the earlier discussion about taxes.  People talk about immigrants are not just simply paying income tax.  Every day, every time they go to a store, they pay sales tax.  They put gasoline in their little old broken down Jalopy.  They're paying gasoline taxes.  They are paying every tax that we do.  But that suspense fund that was discussed, our members -- SEIU members -- who are undocumented and maybe working under made-up Social Security numbers, they get deducted for Social Security every paycheck.  And their employer makes a contribution to Social Security.  When that money goes to Washington, they cannot match it.  And so it goes into a suspense fund which is 5 (hundred billion dollars) to $600 billion.  They will forfeit that 5 (hundred billion) to $600 billion as part of this deal.  So it's not just a $5,000 fine.  You're talking hundreds of billions of dollars.  Workers that come to this country under the Y visa will still be obligated to pay Social Security taxes.

PRESTON:  Those are the temporary workers.

MEDINA:  The temporary workers -- but will have no access to any benefits.  So they will have ongoing fines, if you will, through the back door.  So these immigrants are going to be more than paying their fair share to become participants of this society.  And I remember there was something when I was in the 8th grade that I read about taxation without representation.  (Laughter.)  You're not supposed to take people's money like that.  Well, that's still going on.

PRESTON:  John, do you want to say a comment?  I'm about to turn it over to questions.

TRASVINA:  Just the one area we haven't talked about is the employment verification system.


TRASVINA:  And that affects everybody in this room.


TRASVINA:  Under the new law, if it is enacted, every employer will have to check everybody's -- all employees', not just new hires -- all employees' work eligibility and identity within three years, all new hires within 18 months.  There's a provision in the bill that will allow employers to keep fingerprints of employees.  This is a system that every time INS brings out their new system, their new basic pilot system -- when I was at the Department of Justice, INS gave me a briefing on one of their pilots in Chicago.  They had just trained employers the month before.  Every employer they took me to to see it got it wrong in ways that we would say is clearly discriminatory.  So we know, based on employer sanctions, that these type of systems are discriminatory, and we also know that they're inaccurate and not up to date.  And it's one thing -- if you don't send a wedding invitation to the Social Security Administration, they're not going to know if a woman you've changed your name.  And it's one thing if Mary Jones goes in and says well, not I'm Mary Smith.  The employer says okay, that's fine.  If it's Maria Gonzales becoming Maria Rodriguez, I can guarantee you there will be a different result.

PRESTON:  All right.  So I'm going to open it up for questions.  Please stand and wait for the microphone.

And Julia --

SWEIG:  You didn't call on me, but I just -- I'm sorry. 

PRESTON:  You have (pride ?) of place.  (Laughs.)

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much, Julia, and thanks to all of the guests.

A couple of us yesterday were talking about the Lou Dobbs phenomena in this country.  And I guess listening to the three of you and the panel this morning I wonder if all of you or one of you could maybe answer a question and then comment if you'd like.  Would this debate, from your perspective, be any easier if we didn't have the sort of rabid perspective introduced into it that his -- I know we're on the record, I'm not ashamed to say that -- that he introduces?  Which is to say, does he embody a perspective, a dynamic that's out there in the country?  Or does he make it worse or both?  And since he probably won't go away anytime soon, I guess the deeper question I'd like to ask is, have there been any efforts, for example, from the leading media figures in the Latino media?  For example, has there been sort of a private sit-down between Jorge Ramos and you all and Lou Dobbs and others to sort of, you know, get behind closed doors and have a discussion about where this might go and what role some might play?  Because it's such an important phenomena that I think makes your work just a hell of a lot more difficult.  So I guess I'd like you to comment on the media dynamic in that.

MR. VARGAS:  Well, Julia, it's a phenomenon, because it's been with us throughout our history.  It's the reason why the know-nothing party was called the know-nothing movement because, I mean, that's what it's based on -- anti-immigrant and pro-English.  Same thing with the anti-Chinese movement in the 1880s and anti-German later on.  So what's different today is just through technology it's a lot easier for the message to spread.  And it is a message of dollars and decibels and ratings.  We know that.  I don't think the conversations that people have had with him have really gotten too far.  I understand that he is now a life member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists having donated $5,000 to that organization in the last month.  So I'm not really sure whether that's going to change him or whether that will change the organization.  But I think that we're focused on getting a message out, and it is difficult.  While a lot of my colleagues have said I'm not even going to go on that show, I think we need to confront the issues, not so much on the person but confront the issues and be there to present another side.  If some people who watch his show are reachable, that's great.  But we have to engage in a way of really sticking to the issues.

MR. VARGAS:  Well, it seems to me that Lou Dobbs is a know-something, which is really polls.  And with a certain part of the population, that line works well.  But as John said, that's been the history of this country that there's always been a very minority that is anti-immigrants, anti-foreigners, anti-everything.  But all the polling that we have done and all the polling that I've seen by other organizations show that well in excess of 75 percent of the American people say that when asked about questions about immigrants and about paying their taxes and about holding a job and bringing the family, people say yeah, they should legalize.  They should be able to have their contributions recognized.  So I think the overwhelming sentiment of the American people is fairness, and they're supportive of this kind of reform.  And the Lou Dobbs of the world just (skew ?) by making a lot of noise.

PRESTON:  I'm going to call on myself to answer also that question.  Which is that I think part of -- I mean, I think Lou does speak for many Americans.  You know, since I travel out there in the country, there is a lot of hostility out there.  And part of it has to do with the fact that such a large proportion of this wave of immigration are people that don't have legal status.  And this has been something that has been very, I think, divisive at the community level, because Americans don't understand it.  Suddenly, you know, there's a whole new set of neighbors in the community.  And yet there's a distance there, because the neighbors are unsure, and there's a lack of legal status.  So I do think that, you know, solving the problem of illegal immigration is a very important thing to do at this point in terms of dealing with his sentiment.

Was there -- I'm sorry -- yeah.

QUESTIONER:  There's a famous thesis out there that there's something different about this wave of immigrants compared to immigrants before, coming from up at Harvard.  We've seen this out there, and it's many of these debates including Lou Dobbs.  I'd love if you could comment.  Is there anything different about this wave of immigrants in terms of integration, in terms of the immigrants?  And if it's not the immigrants, is there something very different now about the private sector, the non-profit sector or the public institutions and the commitment of the government with this wave of immigrants versus ones we've seen over the past century?

PRESTON:  Arturo?

VARGAS:  Well, with regard to Mexican immigrants, what's different I would say is the fact that we have a country that is next to this country.  So it's a border that continues to refresh the culture.  So this whole notion that people do not want to learn English I think ignores the fact that you have with constant immigration a constant refreshing of the culture, of the language.  But it is true that even among Mexican immigrants, Spanish has been replaced by English by the third generation.  It happens in my family.  My nieces and nephews cannot have a conversation with my parents, because they both speak two different languages.

PRESTON:  Over here -- yes.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  I wanted to add this caution, because we're talking from unions and --

PRESTON:  Could you stand up and say -- just say who you are?  Sorry.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Arlene Davila.  I wonder because you're talking from the perspective of unions and advocacy, right, if you could speak about the state of black and Latino relations in regards to the immigration debate.  Because there's sort of vibe that the whole immigration debate is changing the discourse around civil rights, right.  That whereas these communities have, you know, forced coalitions around education, jobs, health care and so forth, immigration is sort of a Latino issue which really it is not.  But nonetheless, there's a sense that the relationship between the black and Latino in regards to potential coalitions have been shattered, specifically in regards to the (narrative ?) concern that was raised earlier.  Because I also see in public discourse this kind of use of African-Americans, right.  Like well, we're not anti-immigrants, we're just protecting African-Americans, right.  So I just wonder if you could just sort of talk about that from the perspective of your organizations that have historically worked with these populations or tried to engage with these populations in dialogue around issues of civil rights.  Thanks.

PRESTON:  Eliseo.

MEDINA:  Well, let me just say our union is -- we're one of the largest Latino membership organizations in the country.  We're also one of the largest African-American membership organizations.  And there is a lot of that going on in the community, because it's been positioned as a zero-sum game, you know, where somebody's got to win, somebody has to lose.  And there's this discussion going on with the African-Americans that immigrants are here to take their jobs, and that it's going to drive their wages down.  And we are working very hard to say that in this country, you know, low wages don't discriminate.  If you don't have health insurance, it doesn't matter what language you speak or the color of your skin.  And here's a question of where we need to unite to fight together to improve the conditions for everybody rather than fighting with each other for jobs that are minimum wage with no benefits or anything.

And so there's been a lot of ongoing conversations with organizations like the NAACP, with the Urban League, with the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, about how we may -- (inaudible).  And more importantly, we want to try and figure out what programs we can do together so that we learn, not by talking but by doing.  And so this civic participation campaign that we talked about earlier is also going on in the African-American community.  And in many of the cities of this country where there's a big African-American population, there's a corresponding, growing Latino population, and we want to be able to have projects in all of these cities together so that people begin working together around common issues.  And I actually think that that's the way we're going to be able to deal with this.  But it is a real issue, and we're trying the best we can to confront it.

MR. VARGAS:  Could I just throw in one thing?  First, I want to -- the earlier question about what's different today -- the world is different today as well.  Previous immigrants that came from Eastern Europe were an ocean away, and contact with that home country was virtually impossible.  Today, it's instant.  People can have instant communication around the world -- you know, voiceover Internet which is used extensively by immigrants -- instant communication with relatives in China and Korea and in all parts of Latin America.  That's also very different and has created a different dynamic, because global communication today is instant.


QUESTIONER:  Good afternoon.  Jennifer Sciubba with the Department of Defense.

And I want to ask a question that might take it a little bit different direction.  When I speak to my counterparts in Europe, they are very interested in this issue.  And what they say to me is you guys really care about Muslim integration in Europe and how that affects our foreign policy.  What we want to know is, how does citizenship and integration in the U.S. potentially affect U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America and towards Europe and kind of shifting alliances?

MR. VARGAS:  Well, it's been Mexico's dream -- I'm sorry, John.  It has been Mexico's dream to create a pro-Mexico lobby among Mexican-Americans in replicating the Jewish model in terms of having a pro-Israel lobby amongst Americans who are Jewish.  But that really hasn't materialized the way that Mexico would like.  So I don't think it really has affected foreign policy. 

TRASVINA:  You have to understand also, the U.S. and Mexico have been neighbors and good neighbors and a positive relationship and supportive in wars and other times for generations.  What we've had recently is a policy from this administration of confrontation and conflict rather than cooperation.  So there are a lot of things that the new Mexican attorney general is doing and the new president is doing to try to cooperate with the U.S. in terms of extraditions and other matters.  Some of our most important issues relating to Mexico don't come on immigration policy, but they come on trade, they come on banking, they come on foreign investments.  The remittances, for example -- Mexico's promotion of the remittances so that they are matching funds from the government -- so two by one, the three by one policies -- so that the remittances can go not just into consumer goods but into infrastructure development in Mexico, will help reduce the need and the desire of people to come here.  So there are many foreign policy implications.  Foreign policy implications, for example -- and getting back to the issue of African-Americans and Latinos.  The difference in our policy of when Haitians come to Florida or when Cubans come to Florida -- very stark difference.  People see that as a racial difference.  It's an ideological difference, but it's there.  So there are many implications to our foreign policy.  And in part, some would say that our foreign policy is eased because of the ease of people coming over and being sort of a releasing pressure on Mexico.

PRESTON:  Yes -- back there with the white mustache -- yeah -- here.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, I'd like to just ask the question -- sort of a different variation of the federalism problem.  Because of this conflict between having a lack of a national policy and having sort of this slow creep of, if not 50, maybe 3,500 policies all over.  And whether or not what the immigration debate is about is, in part, an effort in this policy area as well as in other policy areas to try to once again deal with the federal standards in relationship to other levels of government.  And therefore, I wanted to really cut it in a different way with regard to what's different.  And one of the things that seems to be that's different is that the other immigration history was urban -- for the most part -- urban based, though not entirely so because of immigrants to the upper Midwest.  But here we seem to now see a policy in which the urban areas are directly affected but are now often bypassed in terms of both suburbia and even rural areas or exurb areas.  And many of these problems -- school, taxes, local resentments, the Davenport issue, small cities -- is very different now.  So my question is, one, is the demographic-geographical change.  But also in the earlier session, the question was raised about how would people vote, whether it would be Democrats or Republicans.  I don't if it was this session or that session.  The other immigration was very important as a dynamic for the development of the party system and the political parties -- machine politics, reform politics.  So my question is, how is the demographic changes, perhaps through this complex federalism government party system, playing itself out?  And might we be seeing now a big change factor in the party systems as well?

MR. VARGAS:  Well, there is a significant difference between now and the last time the Senate really looked at immigration.  I worked for Senator Simon at the time.  He was on the Immigration Subcommittee.  It was the smallest subcommittee in the Senate -- three senators -- Kennedy, Simpson and Simon.  Nobody else wanted to touch it.  But at that point, it was a regional issue.  Today, every senator and close to every House member has an immigration issue within their district.  (Inaudible) -- opened up an office in Atlanta six years ago just because of the tremendous growth of the Latino community in small towns throughout the Southeast.  Siler City, North Carolina -- made famous because that's where Andy Griffith did Mayberry (RFV ?) -- Siler City elementary school is 50 percent Latino today.  The kindergartens in California -- 50 percent Latino.  So you look around the country, it's truly a national issue.  And every business, every community, every family is affected by immigration.  I think you will see a difference.  The difference comes in both positive and negative.  Positive because there are not the long-term animosities against immigrants in a lot of these new communities.  In Iowa, for example, while there were some tensions early on, Governor Vilsack was very positive of supporting immigrant integration.  And that has changed, that has revived some cities and towns in Iowa where, prior to that time, the high school kids would graduate and go off to the university or go off to Illinois and never come back.  Now the communities are once again building.

On the other hand, all it takes is a few people to move into a community and suddenly there's an immigration problem.  Valley Park, Missouri is a good example.  It's only about 8,000 people in that town.  It's one of the towns that passed and has had struck down, or at least restrained, their anti-immigrant ordinance.  Their ordinance said that immigrants are a drain on the public hospitals.  Well, there are no public hospitals in Valley Park.  There's a hospital in Valley Park.  And yet, they said we have a problem.  So the changing demographic is positive, because it allows new relationships to form.  It's also negative, because the extremes can jump in and take the issue away.

PRESTON:  All right.  So I think that's going to be the last question that we can take.  So I encourage people to come and chat afterwards.  And thank you very much.  Thank our panelists.  I really think it was very informative.









Top Stories on CFR

Genocide and Mass Atrocities

Thirty years ago, Rwanda’s government began a campaign to eradicate the country’s largest minority group. In just one hundred days in 1994, roving militias killed around eight hundred thousand people. Would-be killers were incited to violence by the radio, which encouraged extremists to take to the streets with machetes. The United Nations stood by amid the bloodshed, and many foreign governments, including the United States, declined to intervene before it was too late. What got in the way of humanitarian intervention? And as violent conflict now rages at a clip unseen since then, can the international community learn from the mistakes of its past?


The IMF and World Bank’s spring meetings will focus on the prospects for a soft landing after years of global economic turbulence. But major challenges remain, including growing climate finance needs and persistently high global debt levels.

South Korea

The center-left Democratic Party added to its legislative majority after the recent parliamentary election, which would deal a blow to President Yoon Suk Yeol’s domestic reform agenda and possibly his efforts to improve ties with Japan.