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Wake Forest tackles immigration debate

by Amy Kingsley

The US immigration system is broken, and in order to fix it, we must offer the public a debate more meaningful than the divisive rhetoric of pundits and politicians. That was the message of a three-day conference at Wake Forest University organized by professors David Coates and Peter Siavelis that drew more than a dozen scholars, policy advisors and activists to the Winston-Salem campus.

Renowned intellectuals representing fields as diverse as law, sociology and economics weighed in on the causes of immigration, problems with the current system and the potential for reform at the event, titled “Immigration: Recasting the Debate.”

Federal officials estimate that between 10 and 20 million undocumented immigrants live and work in the United States, and more than 300,000 of those live in North Carolina. Last year President Bush proposed a comprehensive immigration reform package that would have legalized millions of people living in the country, but the bill died in Congress. Since the bill’s failure, border enforcement agents have cracked down on illegal immigrants by stepping up raids and deportations.

“There are twelve million unauthorized immigrants in this country,” said Gordon Hanson, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego. “We’ve arrived at this situation because of conscious choices we’ve made. We may not like the consequences, but there is a logic to the way illegal immigration works.”

Hanson spoke during the third session on Oct. 4. He and Alejandro Portes, a sociologist from Princeton University, explained why immigrants – many of them from Mexico – come to the United States for work, and why they keep finding jobs. Their session followed two morning discussions about global migration and US immigration history.

The newest wave of immigration is unique for a couple of reasons, said Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo during the second session. One of them is the mobility of immigrants within the United States. Instead of congregating in border-states, recent immigrants have moved into the Midwest, Southeast and New England.

“Mexicans are going everywhere,” she said. “We’d be hard-pressed to find a place where Mexicans aren’t.”

Increased border enforcement that began during the 1990s had the unintended consequence of trapping some immigrants who would have traveled back to Mexico in the United States. The North American Free Trade Agreement weakened Mexico’s agricultural economy, she said, leaving a surplus of labor that migrated to farms north of the border.

Luis Fraga, a political science professor from the University of Washington, was one of the principal investigators of the Latino National Survey. According to his research, Hispanics are assimilating faster than other ethnic groups that have migrated to the United States. He said the debate about immigration boils down to a public conversation about who will be included in mainstream society. The United States has a history of incrementally offering full citizenship to its residents based on the prevailing public mood, he said.

Hanson elaborated on Sotelo’s explanation of migration. The economist said Mexican migration north roughly correlated with a population dearth that threatened to throttle the booming American economy. In 1982, Mexico defaulted on its international loans, and its economy stopped growing.

“It takes a great deal to get people to leave home,” Hanson said. “There are large wage differentials between the two countries, and the collapse of the Mexican economy created negative expectations for Mexico’s youth about their future in Mexico.”

At the same time Mexican youth started looking across the border, American youth were educating themselves out of low-skill jobs, Hanson said.

“All of this makes it sound like adjusting to illegal immigration is an easy process,” Hanson said. “It’s not. It creates friction and conflict because of the demand for resources.”

Although illegal immigrants are ineligible for most forms of public assistance, immigrant families still use medical resources and public schools. Illegal immigrants pay a relatively small share of the taxes that support those institutions, Hanson said. On the local level, that creates two categories: the winners and the losers. Immigrants, consumers and employers win this economic game while other low-skill workers and taxpayers lose.

Portes said all periods of high immigration have witnessed fierce nativist backlash. He cited Lou Dobbs’ CNN program “Broken Borders” as a modern-day example.

“Immigrants are not an invasion,” Portes said. “Employers invite them in.”

During the last 20 years, Mexico became the labor reservoir for the United States, he said. During the same time, immigrants established networks all over the country to ease the transition of family members and friends into the United States. Illegal immigration has become a professional operation – another consequence of increased border security – empowering coyotes and drug dealers.

“Keeping the clandestine population bottled up here is leading to the depopulation of towns in Mexico,” Portes said. “One-third of the towns are losing population, which is certainly counter to the goals of improving the Mexican economy.”

Portes suggested reviving a large-scale temporary worker program. He said bringing the labor market above ground and regulating it, and restoring the cyclical pattern of migration, will benefit immigrant families on both sides of the border. Emphasizing enforcement, which will push immigrant families further into the shadows, will encourage “downward assimilation,” Portes said. Such policies would deprive young illegal immigrants of opportunities, forcing them into lives of crime.

Jose Isasi, the CEO of Que Pasa Media Network, talked about his experience as a Cuban immigrant and the experiences of other immigrants in Winston-Salem and North Carolina.

“God blessed me by being Cuban,” Isasi said. “When I step in here, there were no immigration problems. Cubans have a blessing, not the same kinds of problems that Mexicans have.”

To illustrate the kinds of problems Mexicans and immigrants from Central America face, Marisol Jimenez-McGee, the advocacy director for El Pueblo, pulled up a chart of wait times for permanent residence by country. Immigrants applying for legal status can expect to wait at least six years, she said, and some have been waiting for more than a decade.

“People ask, ‘Well why can’t they come here legally? Why can’t they get in line like my ancestors did?” McGee said. “The line is wrapped around the building and it hasn’t been moving for years and years.”

McGee said North Carolina’s booming economy is attracting immigrants, and that companies here have taken an active role in recruitment. She said she’d heard of a billboard in Oaxaca advertising Siler City to Mexicans.

“North Carolina became this beacon of light that said ‘We need workers,'” she said.

In addition, the state’s shift to an intellectual economy means that there are fewer native workers left to fill menial jobs.

“Every time you bring in someone who’s going to think for a living,” she said, “you need three to five people who are going to lift for a living.”

At a recent forum organized by the conservative John Locke Foundation, McGee said speakers proposed enacting laws that make life in North Carolina almost impossible for illegal immigrants. Policies like deputizing local law enforcement to act as immigration authorities and depriving illegal immigrants of drivers licenses are intended to drive illegal immigrants from the state, she said.

The organizers invited three representatives from public policy think tanks to explain on Oct. 5 their solutions to the immigration problem. Robert Rector from the Heritage Institute favored an enforcement-heavy policy because illegal immigrants drain public resources. Daniel Griswold advocated implementing a guest worker that doesn’t tie immigrants to certain jobs or employers. Ross Eisenbrey from the Economic Policy Institute said the US should grant citizenship to illegal immigrants already in the country. After the policy session, attendees split up into concurrent workshops and reconvened for the closing presentation. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) canceled his scheduled keynote address at the end of the conference. Instead North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican, delivered some off-the-cuff remarks. Burr did not take a hard stand on immigration reform, but his remarks hinted at sympathy for illegal immigrants and frustration with the current system. Burr, who was supposed to introduce Martinez, recalled his colleague’s immigrant background.

“Mel Martinez came here from Cuba when he was fifteen,” Burr said. “I will never have the perspective of what that opportunity meant for him. But I know I shouldn’t limit the next Mel Martinez from experiencing that opportunity.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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