Volume 5.2 1997
This page was last updated on 03/15/99
IMMIGRATION CHALLENGES FOR PUBLIC POLICY MAKERS: AN INTERVIEW WITH DEMETRIOS PAPADEMETRIOU
Demetrios Papademetriou emigrated from Greece to the United States in 1965. He earned his Ph.D. in International Relations and Comparative Politics at the University of Maryland-College Park. He has taught at the University of Maryland, Duke University, and with the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research. He has served as the executive editor of the International Migration Review (1980-1983). From 1984 to 1988, he managed a research company called Population Associates International. From 1988 to 1992, he was Director of Immigration Policy and Research in the Department of Labor. Since 1992, he has been a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is currently the Director of the Endowments International Migration Policy Program.
Since the late 1980s, immigration has become an increasing focus of controversy in industrialized countries throughout the world. Do you see any common set of underlying issues concerning immigration that may explain the rise and spread of the controversy over it?
Over the last seven or eight years there has been an increasing sense of vulnerability on the part of the advanced industrial world to unwanted, and in many cases unpredictable, flows from the Third World. Most of these flows never materialized. The fears were, in fact, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the immigration process with respect to how immigration flows start, how they establish themselves, how they grow, and how they become significant for any of our societies. But why the fear? The reason that we in advanced industrial societies have become so fearful of flows from the Third World is because we have felt much less certain about where we are headedwhether we are speaking in economic terms, geopolitical terms, political terms, or in a very fundamental way, cultural and social terms. The sweeping changes that we have experienced over the last decade, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and vast new experiments in liberalizing international trade, have created immense uncertainties. The social and labor-market implications of the globalization of capital and commodity markets have contributed to an extraordinary backlash and have become major political forces in all of our societies. All of those things have created sort of a sense of unease, fear, angst. Immigration has both been caught up in and contributed to this anxiety. And politicians have been all too eager to try to exploit that for political gain.
What do you see as the major differences in the public responses to immigration between so-called "classic" lands of immigration, such as the U.S., and countries such as Germany, which has officially defined itself as "not an immigration land"?
Now, speaking in late 1996, the differences are probably not nearly as sharp as they have traditionally been. Only a few years ago, perhaps as late as 1993, one could have articulated rather precisely what the differences were. On the one hand, classic immigration lands have traditionally relied on formulas that selected immigrants to come into ones society, formulas that reflected their fundamental belief in the value of immigration for the future strength and economic robustness of the country. Immigration societies recognized that their countries, in a sense, literally grew with immigrationnot only in numbers, but also in dynamism, in ideas, in energy, etc. Coupled with this strong faith in the social and economic benefits of immigration, these societies also shared a distinct and proud commitment to meeting humanitarian needsas reflected in the admission of refugees. On the other hand, many of the European countrieswith some important exceptionsbasically saw immigration as a temporary phenomenon whose main value was to act as an economic (really, labor-market) catalyst that had served its purpose by the early 1970s. Although these immigrants contributed in important ways to the economic well-being of their hosts, both the majority of the host populations and their leaders have remained skeptical about the value of immigration. As a result, in Europe, immigration is seen as something that is to be tolerated at best. One fundamental reason for this difference in attitude is that classic lands of immigration have traditionally been able to generate nearly endless opportunities for immigrants to succeed and advance. By contrast, European countries have typically triedalmost systematicallyto define opportunities available to immigrants much more narrowly, to contain the number of such opportunities, to create narrow parameters within which immigrants must operate. As a result, immigrants become much less the instruments of change and growth in European societies than in our own.
So far I have been speaking about differences up to about 1993. Looking from the vantage point of the last few years, I would be hard pressed to make the argument that, in comparing Europe and the United States, there are as many differences as before in our behavior and public attitudes toward immigration. The immigration provisions of the 1996 welfare reform bill and the immigration legislation that the U.S. Congress adopted in the waning moments of the 1996 legislative year hardly reflect much faith in the continuing value of immigration. A case can thus now be made that there is more of a convergence in public attitudes toward immigration in both types of societiesa convergence rooted in a fundamental ambivalence about immigrationthan in any other period. This ambivalence is something that we certainly need to watch as time passes. For instance, Australia has just announced a new policy whereby only Australian citizens will be able to bring in their foreign-born spouses relatively unencumbered. This is an extraordinary change for a classic immigration country. At the moment, I cannot think of any other country, including Germany, that has even contemplated introducing such requirements. Germany is another case in point. The Germans, like almost every other country in the world, are deeply puzzled by what the U.S. has done in its new welfare legislation. So, it could be that at least in 1996, we all approached the lowest common denominator in our view toward immigrationa point where there is an extreme degree of skepticism about the value of immigration as an institution. What I cannot predict at this time is whether this skepticism is a temporary and time- and place-specific phenomenon or whether it in fact defines a new general attitude toward immigration.
The issue of illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. is a major point of friction between the two countries. The International Migration Policy Program has been trying to foster a dialogue among policy makers, labor representatives, and industry officials in both countries. How is the issue of illegal immigration perceived differently by Mexican and American leaders?
In this area, the Program has tried to create an opportunity for high-level officials, as well as private-sector leaders from Mexico and the United States, to meet, exchange perspectives, and argue these perspectives in a neutral setting. We want to encourage them to develop ideas on how the immigration relations between the two countries can be managed best in a place where people do not have to commit to or sign their names to anything. We hope that this working group can serve as an incubator of new ideas and that, after the necessary discussions, these principals can take some of these ideas and experiment with them in their formal relationships. None of these experiments is a large initiative. Nevertheless, a lot of the things that we hear aboutsuch as the citizens advisory bodies that the U.S. INS Commissioner has created and the Mexicans are reproducing, much greater formal and informal cooperation between the two countries, the bringing of Mexicans to help in the training of the U.S. border patrol, and a number of human rights protectionshave come out of this groups discussions.
In addition, we have also come up at the request of both sides with a set of ideas (a six-point plan) of how we might be able to manage better the overall border relationship. There are several components to this idea. The six-point plan that we have put on the table includes managed labor programs and regional development in Mexico using resources from a variety of multilateral financial institutions. It also includes a very robust effort to facilitate legal entry going both ways. Although I personally believe that some of these ideas ought to be tested experimentally, no one believes that their introduction is politically viable at this time.
Well, what are the core areas of dispute between Mexican and American officials?
First I want to emphasize how few disputes there are. It is extraordinary to me that people who in their public life must antagonize each other on this particular issue can nonetheless share such an extraordinarily common way of looking at the problem. Both sides are convinced that this latest backlash against immigration from Mexico is simply a temporary and undesirable turn in American domestic politics and that the relationship between the two countries must survive. The shared commitment to that relationship explains why there is an awful lot of the same cooperative kind of language used by both sides in publicwhether it comes from the Mexican President and Secretary of the Exterior or the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Mexico speaks about how important the United States is to it, and the United States talks about how reliable Mexico is as a partner. Thus, there is a full understanding that every effort must be made to avoid damaging the relationship between the two countrieswhether the issue is drugs, illegal immigration, smuggling of all types, etc.
Nonetheless, there are fundamental differences. One of these differences is that Mexico, with some justification, continues to hold to a belief that Mexicans are in the United States, regardless of status, because the United States economy values their labor. With less justification, Mexico argues that it does not have the right constitutionally to try to prevent the exit of its people.
On the American side, thoughtful people, including everyone in the consultative group, acknowledge that the U.S. economy is so totally intertwined with the Mexican economy, in terms of its dependence on Mexican labor, that until recent years, U.S. policy and practice actually encouraged the entry of Mexicans to a considerable degree. But now both public officials and private sector leaders emphasize that this appreciation of Mexican workers has diminished substantiallya questionable premise at bestso that recently the United States has decided to try to control, even to stop this practice. Irrespective of past practices and policies, American officials see their right to reduce the admission of undocumented persons as one of the governments sovereign prerogatives. The American public has clearly become very intolerant of illegal immigration, and their leaders are responding to this intolerance.
Proposition 187, enacted in California, was designed to discourage illegal immigration by denying undocumented aliens access to governmental benefits and health services. Since its passage, the proposition has had the unintended effect of encouraging the widespread naturalization of legal resident aliens. Do you believe that such measures provide an effective deterrent to illegal immigration?
Not really. We have no evidence that it wouldeither from the literature on how the decision to emigrate is made, or from the anthropological literature as to what it is that immigrants of all types value most about, and how different factors affect, their decision to come to the United States. The search for economic opportunity is undisputedly the most important motivation for their being here. Now, Im not going to sit here and argue whether in the future, perhaps, a small proportion of immigrants, illegal immigrants in this instance, might say, "Well, since there will be no opportunities for my children over there, maybe Ill tough it out a little bit longer on my own, and I will not ask my family to join me until sometime later when Im more comfortable." But, to argue that there is a direct relationship between withdrawing those benefits and illegal immigration really stretches beyond what is reasonable at this time.
Now, you mentioned the effects of this kind of legislation on naturalization. Lets be clear on this: The surge in naturalization is a rational response on the part of legal immigrants to protect themselves from 187-type initiatives, but also from the recent welfare reform initiatives. In other words, what we did not really take into accountor we did, but certainly our political leaders, the congressional leaders, did not care to listen to it at the timewas that a push for naturalization would be the obvious consequence of these initiatives. People would rush to protect themselves by obtaining American citizenship. If they did not anticipate that, then our leaders are probably far less thoughtful than even some of us give them credit for.
Are there other types of deterrents that might have a significant effect in discouraging illegal immigration?
Yes. In combination with the changed overall climate toward immigration and the strong hostility toward illegal immigration, measures such as more robust and systematic border control activities, employment-place enforcement activities, and removals can together serve as significant deterrentsespecially if they are consistent and reinforce each other and are sustained. The number of aliens being deported is running higher this past year. We removed about 67,000 people, and over 100,000 people left voluntarily after they were apprehended. These removals are interior apprehensions, not just the ones who were caught at the border or at Kennedy Airport and were turned back soon after. If this overall intolerance toward illegal immigration is maintained and pursuedin other words, if funds continue to be available, if the next administration seems to have the same commitment to pursuing this course as the current administration, if the Congress continues to turn the screws on this issue by refusing to adjust the welfare legislationif, for the first time ever, we become truly serious and put real resources into employment verification and workplace enforcement systemsthen there could be a fairly sharp decline in illegal immigration. But what do I mean by sharp? Lets not forget that between 40 and 50 percent of the universe of illegal immigration is composed of visa overstayers. These people will remain largely unaffected by most of the measures that I have outlined. That leaves you with only about 50 to 60 percent of total illegal immigration. Out of this, probably 40 or 45 percent comes through the Mexican border. Even if you were to reach a 50 percent success ratea totally improbable eventif you were to stop 50 percent of the people coming through the Mexican border illegally into the United States, your overall effort, at extraordinary cost, would have the effect of reducing illegal immigration by about a quarter! Do the math.
You have been active in promoting reform of the U.S. immigration system. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the current system?
I wish that this conversation were occurring last summer, before we had welfare and immigration legislation, which have modified what I am about to say in many fundamental respects. The greatest value of our system is that it represents a bargain whereby immigrants who come to the United States are truly on a path to prospective full membership in our society. In other words, people come here legally and, the day that they step on this soil, they have fundamentally the same civil, human, labor, and social rights as everybody else. This created an environment where the possibilities were limitless, endless, and the main limitations were education, energy, and the ability to speak the language. And, systematically, immigrants sought to erase all of these difficulties, particularly for their children. This country offered them full equality, but few promises beyond that. By educating themselves, by speaking English, and by committing to the values of this society, they could advance themselves here. Incidentally, the fear that politicians routinely exploit that the new immigrants have not been assimilating linguistically as well as their predecessors did is simply not based on fact (see the path-breaking work by Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut).
Nonetheless, the immigration system that has developed since 1965 does suffer from certain weaknesses because we fail periodically to go back, reexamine it, and fix it. The only way that we can have a robust system is by periodically reexamining our assumptions and our rules. And we havent done that. Lets take our family reunification policy as a case in point. It has been obvious for ten or fifteen years that regardless of how we may feel about the importance of the family relationship or about how closely family members must be related before they should be eligible for admission, the fourth family preference category (that of brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens) should be eliminated altogether on pragmatic grounds. The pragmatic argument is that there are about 1.8 million persons waiting in this category and that the category increases by 100,000 to 150,000 people each yearyet we can only accommodate about 60,000 a year through the immigration formula. You dont need to be a mathematician to figure out that this category is untenable. So, why perpetuate a cruel hoax with this particular category? If you know that a large proportion of these people, unless they are very young people today, will never be able to get a U.S. visa, get rid of the category.
The labor certification system is another example of an area in dire need of an overhaul. Study after study has shown that the system is inefficient, ineffective, costly, useless; it serves nobodys interests well. The system rests on a totally faulty premise, that somehow an immigrant is the best-qualified applicant to take a job that exists today but cannot come in and get that job until a visa becomes available! This may be years from now! Furthermore, bringing immigrants through the permanent system for jobs that may disappear next month or next year is shortsighted. Jobs disappear! We are in a constant state of change. A year from now, three years from now, the very industry for which we brought in a permanent immigrant because we couldnt find an American worker may no longer exist. If that person cannot adapt, he or she may eventually become a burden on society. But instead of scrapping this system, what do we do? We continue merely to up the ante. Every time that we want to reform it, we try to make our labor-market categories a little tighter, which is precisely the wrong thing to do! Real change is extremely difficult, because you have created institutional interests in favor of the current system whether in the labor unions or in the Department of Labor or among certain industries. There has been a complete lack of courage.
How would you propose to fix the system?
One of the ideas that we have recommended is to develop a system whereby people should come here because prospectively they will contribute substantially to the United States. Applicants should be tested on the basis of simple criteria that assess their potential contribution through such proxies as education, age, experience, and personal and professional adaptabilityas well as on the basis of whether an American employer needs their services.
Have major elements of the system that you and your colleague have proposed been adopted in other countries and, if so, how effectively has the system worked?
It would be fair to say that what we did with our systemSteve Yale Loehr and I (see our book Balancing Interests, 1996)was to adapt a hybrid of the Canadian and Australian systems to what we consider idiosyncratic circumstances in the United States. Like our proposal, both of these systems use a points system where people are awarded a certain number of quality points on the basis of certain personal characteristics they have. But we adapted our proposals to the realities in the United States. The most important such reality is that we are the most desirable country in the world when it comes to the highest type of talent. We do not need to test prospective Einsteins, who are leaders in their field, against any labor-market standard, as some of the other countries are doing. Once we establish that somebody is that special, we should bring him or her into the United States immediately. In fact, in 1990, we introduced the concept of what I call Global Citizensstars, or prospective stars. And we allow those people to come to the United States, without an employer sponsor and without much red tape. We propose to expand that category further. In addition to that, we have a second class of people who are solid scientists, engineers, etc. This category applies to applicants who have the characteristics that will serve the United States well in the next ten or twenty years. Because, remember, employment-based immigration should not only be about the job that youre going to take upon coming to the United States. Thats the failure of the present system.
Could you give an example of some adaptability criteria?
Yes. Facility with languages. People who have worked in multinational teams in their own countries. People who have consistently invested in the acquisition of skills and advanced degrees. We give points to such individuals. But most of these things can only be measured in an approximate way. So, these are in addition to the standard criteria: again, education, experience, age, etc.
Why use age as a criterion?
Because you want to have people who have most of their productive lives ahead of them. This is the forward-looking aspect of the age component. But there is also a defensive aspect to the age criterion. You want to avoid allowing in people who will become dependent on the system in only a few years and, at the opposite end of the age continuum, to create a bit of breathing space for American graduates of universities, people in their early twenties. So you try to make it more difficult for those who try to bring foreigners who are over 55 or under 26 or 27 or 28.
I take it that the Australian and Canadian systems, in addition to their point system, try to fill labor-market niches through a labor certification process?
Yes, they do. There is a special component of that type under both systems. In the case of Australia, since the unions there are part of that countrys social partnership, they have a very heavy hand on how you select those people for special labor-market niches. In Canada, there is a similar system.
How would you test your proposed system?
I am fundamentally a believer in pilot programs, particularly the ones that are self-sunsetting, three, four, five years later. In other words, they sunset unless there is a new act of Congress to keep them alive. I favor such programs because they afford an opportunity to test an ideaand adopt or reject it before it develops a strong constituency. So, within four or five years, if the experiment doesnt work, we have not invested so much in it that we become inflexible; we have not created new bureaucracies; and we can kill it.
In the past, research studies showed that aliens typically contributed more to the government in taxes than they received in public benefits. Recognizing that there are many exceptions to every generalization, do you believe that this is still true today?
Yes. I have seen all the "evidence," such as it is, produced by those people who make the argument that somehow this is no longer the case. And without becoming ad hominem at all, they come primarily from a retired economist who has never had much of his work on this issue published in a refereed economics or any other journalthis is Donald Huddle. Dons work has been sponsored by something called the Carrying Capacity Network, which is an organization that is very much interested in severe limits on immigration. Even with the heroic assumptions that Huddle makes, and they are truly heroic, his case remains unpersuasive. Many other highly reputable researchers, such as those of the Urban Institute, have really discredited these findings. Even someone like economist George Borjas, who might go to extraordinary lengths to try to attribute to immigrants a part of the cost for their use of everything, including public roads and parks and probably the oxygen that they utilize, would be hard pressed to satisfy people in his own profession that in the end, when all of the consumption taxes and tax contributions, when all of the benefits to the economyboth the benefits that go to the employer and the benefits that go to you and me as consumers in terms of lower product and service coststhat somehow the net is not positive. Even in other countries, with more generous public benefits than the U.S., such as Germany, research has shown the net is positive. And Germany is a country where, once they take you in, once you pass the extraordinary thresholds they create, they truly treat you like everybody else in terms of welfare benefits and health insurance benefits, etc., and their costs are nonetheless consistently positive.
The big discussion in the U.S., because of the federalism issues, is that many of the tax dollars that these people pay tend to go to the federal government, while the fiscal costs are incurred primarily by localities, which are responsible for paying for many services. So, although the federal government turns around and gives some of that money to the states and the state turns around and gives even less money to the localities, these transfers dont cover the service costs. It could very well be that fiscally, not economically, in terms of expenditures for services, localities, particularly localities that have immigrant populations that are very large and very uniformLos Angeles, for instance, where you have essentially a very large immigrant population thats poorly educated and is truly embedded in the low wage sectorthe fiscal net is negative.
But let us not forget that the distribution of immigrants in terms of skills, education, income, etc. has a barbell shape. On the left side, you have the very educated: for instance, Indian and other Asian and European immigrants in the United States have rates of college and post-college education that are two or more times higher than the average for the American population. Think about it! Yet we forget about all of this. The Canadians, the Europeans, and the Asians comprise, after all, nearly three-fifths of all immigration to the United States. We forget about that side of the bell, and we also forget about this thin bar in the middle where you have the rest of us. We always focus on the other side of the bellwhich is obviously, honestly, more troubling than the left sidewhere you have all of the people that have human skills and characteristics and education that are not particularly encouraging. But, again, as I said, when you do all of your math right, then you will come up with positives.
Large-scale migration, from rural regions to urban centers, has always accompanied the industrialization process. This kind of demographic revolution can be highly destabilizing by undermining the fabric of rural life and overwhelming cities with swollen populations that they cannot begin to adequately feed, house, or employ. Consider as a case in point the contemporary example of Mexico City. What strategies, if any, can Mexican authorities adopt to cope with its overpopulation problems?
Well, thats a million-dollar question. Its not just Mexico. I know that you are not using Mexico as the place, just as an example. The only solution is to reduce the rate of rural out-migration by creating viable, vibrant local communities, smaller places that have cultural lives, that have economic opportunities, that have strong local institutions, including police forces, good education systems, etc. In other words, I would focus the energies and the funding of the central government in Mexico, but also that of international lending institutions, in helping to build local infrastructure. The goal should be to give people living in rural communities realistic survival opportunities where they are. If you do not create that, people will move. Once they moveand particularly when they move to places like Mexico City where opportunities may actually be even worse than in the countrysidethen you probably have already taken the first step toward potential international migration. In addition, of course, you have also taken the first step toward potential social unrest and instability. So, if there were a way for us to go back and rethink all of the international lending that we do, and to put substance into all of the international trade accords to which most of us by now subscribe, we could try to think about infusing social, cultural, and economic life back into regions other than the capital regions of some of the biggest developing countries on this earthand that effort may gradually have positive migration consequences.
Your program has recently launched a massive, multiyear study of immigration in cities around the globe. Could you describe the impetus behind this study, its goals, and its general outline?
Well, the impetus was very simple. I reached the conclusion about three years ago when I was discussing this concept with my then colleagues, Doris Meissner [current Commissioner, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service] and others in and outside of government, that we could not possibly continue to be a successful society in the twenty-first century unless we resolve the puzzle of integration. And the more I studied other societies, the more convinced I became that none of us had the slightest answer, the slightest idea, of how to do integration well. Whether we consider the laissez faire policies of the United States, the aggressive multicultural policies of Canada, the pseudo-multicultural policies of Germany, the activist multiethnic/multilingual policies of the very open-hearted Australia of the late 1980s and 1990snone of us had the slightest idea of the long-term implications of what we were doing. I became increasingly concerned about what effect this failure to understand what we were doing or what we should be doing would have on our ability to survive as a successful society.
The studys goals are to begin a systematic building up of our knowledge of what happens when immigrants interact with previous immigrants, with minorities, with majorities, in our largest cities just as these cities are undergoing their own extraordinary transformationswhich include the total decimation of industrial jobs under pressure from trade liberalization and general economic restructuring, and the political and social abandonment of the cities. These changes have been more intense over the last ten or so years than they were in any other decade over the past thirty or forty years. At the same time that these changes have been occurring, there have been significant numbers of immigrants coming in. I want to find out how this process should be understood down at the field level. We have teams from eleven different countries that are going to look at the same types of questions, in order to figure out, first, what it is that is happening down there on the ground, and then to begin comparing notes among ourselves. We want to identify the best policy practices, whether its a small idea that somebody has in London or in Berlin or whether its a new training program that someone in Los Angeles is developing. We then want to put those ideas in the middle of the table, so that policy makers can pick and choose, and say, "Thats an interesting idea, its not too expensive, I think it could work at my place." We hope to establish a new framework for creating new knowledge and exchanging it among researchers and between researchers and policy makers that might allow us to see what ideas might be transferable across different systems.
Since the end of World War II, there has been a global trend toward lowering trade barriers in international exchange of goods and services and of capital. We see this trend most visibly manifested in international agreements like GATT and NAFTA. As long as an increasing number of states are opening up their domestic markets in goods and services and in capital to international competition, why not open up their domestic labor markets to allow the freer movement of people across state lines, as among others, the Cato Institute has proposed?
This a very tough question. There are an awful lot of people who are committed to the liberalization of world trade. Their advocacy has resulted in agreements like GATT and NAFTA. But the fact remains that I doubt that anybody has thought through fully all of the social implications of this trade liberalization. I am a proponent of trade liberalization. I defended both GATT and NAFTA during their ratification processes. But, in its extreme form, trade liberalization puts some of the least competitive industries in our societies in head-to-head competition with similar industries in places that have no labor standards and that virtually pay nothing, or next to nothing, in wages. If that is indeed the case, then the garment worker in a horrible sweat shop in Los Angeles is competing directly with someone who is doing the same job in Cambodia. When Cambodia becomes too expensive, investors are going to move to the next country that is paying even less. And if competition really gets tough, we can always have China that can literally fill all of the needs of the world market in most garment trades with labor that is "free." Free labor is, of course, the forced labor of jailed people.
So, I am not quite sure that I know what the answer to this is. Certainly, the answer is not for us to hide behind a protectionist veil. But it seems to me that we are going to have to think hard and address some of those extreme examples that I have used. I do not know whether the answer is what Mr. Reich is proposing at the Department of Labor, in other words, that we should have some sort of a range of labor standards that should be applicable to all nations before they can participate in the world trading community.
I think that we also ought to have a somewhat freer movement of people. I suspect sometimes that the Cato Institute and the Wall Street Journal are not talking about slightly freer immigration, they are talking about much freer immigration, almost free immigration. The reason we cannot have that is because we are not just economies, we are also societies. Societies imply that there is a certain organization, whether its a social organization, political organization, or a cultural organization. A vast and continuous migration influx really puts those kinds of organizationsand the institutions they spawn and that support theminto disarray. So, there is an immigration rateI do not know what it isbut a rate beyond which you begin to develop a strong reaction against immigration. It could very well be that what we have seen over the last three or four years, going back to your first question, is precisely that reaction to an almost relentless amount of continuous new immigration.
The International Migration Policy Program conducts high-level scholarly research, holds seminars for policy makers, and organizes working groups on various migration issues, bringing together representatives from government, industry, labor, NGOs, and the academy. The Program gives you a wonderful vantage point to view the interaction of power and ideas and the clash of principles and interests. What need do you see your Program filling in a policy-making community?
I think we serve a modest but hopefully important function. We provide a place where ideas can be debated, where arguments can be had, where research can be interpreted and receive a new hearing, and where people can come and participate in off-the-record discussions about the newest findings and approaches. We, of course, have our own viewpoints, our own takes on the various issues we deal with. The way the process has worked is that when someone is serious about immigration and is a new kid on the block, whether he is an assistant secretary of something or a commissioner of something or a senator or a congressman or a senior staff member, he comes here for a discussion of the fundamentals of immigration, the politics of immigration, the analytical aspects of immigration, a discussion of what this is all about, what the critical issues are, or where the various interests fall in the debate. And we provide a constant filter, during their careers in Washington, as to the kinds of things that puzzle them or the ideas that come to them from other sources. In that sense, we are advisors. We are the people who, without taking a direct role in trying to tell people what to do, play the important function of vetting ideas and offering advice. Howeverthis is the nature of powerafter these people establish themselves, they often become very vested in either institutional ideas or very interested in things that appeal to them more in terms of their own philosophy. And, then, our role changes. Our role becomes that of the sympathetic critic. Sometimes the inside critic, sometimes the openly public critic. It is a function that we also do particularly well, although I suspect that we do too much of the inside stuff. In the end, we become referees of ideas. We probably played this role more effectively three or four years ago and earlier, when, in a sense, immigration policy was made and unmade on the basis of elite consensus. So, when the circle was really much narrower, places like this probably had more influence than they have today.
What happened to the elite cohesion or consensus over immigration policy?
I think that there has been too much dissonance over the past three or four years. Too much bad news about immigration. The systems weaknesses have been endlessly highlighted. A lot of questions have been raised about the fundamental value of immigration for this country. All of these things have chipped away at that consensus to the point that now I find the elite terrifically fractured in terms of where it stands on immigration.
What are the largest misconceptions about immigration that you find among policy makers today, here in Washington?
The misconception that the issue is so difficult to handle that it cannot be managed, whether it is the immigration formula per se or whether it is illegal immigration. As a result of this feeling politicians have developed what I consider a terribly irresponsible tendency to come up with extreme measures. Think of the last three times that we passed immigration legislation. Each one of those times we produced several hundred pages of "landmark" immigration legislation. Largely, they have been shots in the dark; largely, they have been political kinds of documents. Every time the Congress decides to pass another "landmark" immigration bill, I know that at a certain level, when I read it, I will visualize this image in my head of the collective hands of Congress going up in the air and saying, "We dont know what were doing! But weve got to do something!" And this is not the way to conduct our business in what amounts to a policy area that fundamentally affects American society, the American family. There should be a more methodical, a more orderly, and a more managed way of doing things.
You are an immigrant to the United States. How has your immigrant experience affected your understanding of the immigration process and your approach to migration issues?
This is an impossible question. The truth of the matter is that what Im about to tell you may be totally atypical. I came here as one of a cohort of seven people under a fancy program that was an offshoot of the Marshall Plan. My experience has made me appreciate what this country offers to a foreigner, to a stranger. This country offers endless opportunities to go down all the way or to go up all the way. From my cohort of students from my high school days in my home town, some went to the United States, some went to Germany, some to England, some went to France. Practically none of the people who went to other countries has done nearly as well as the least successful of the group that came to the United States. And I ask myself, why? Those of us who came to the States were not smarter than our fellow high school students, we were not more energetic than they were. Therefore, the difference, I say, did not come from what we brought to the country, but rather from what the country offered us. The only limits are your own limitations. The European countries do not do that. Therefore, immigration for them is not as much of an advantage as immigration can be for us. Now, would I say the same thing if I was dark-skinned, visibly a foreigner? I simply do not know. Many of my countrymen coming here are a little darker, a little smaller, a little more Southern European-looking. Theyve done tremendously well, too, but one cannot generalize from that small sample.