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Issue No. 109 (July 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Liberal vs. conservative vs. holistic immigration reform

We can’t have an effective immigration reform bill without honoring everyone’s deepest interests

This month, the highly touted new immigration reform bill -- product of Herculean Senate labors over the last half year -- was finally laid to rest amidst much recrimination not only by exhausted Senators but by over 300 groups that were trying to get Senators to write their positions into the bill.

The Senators tried. The so-called “Gang of 12,” supporters of the bill ranging from Sen. Kennedy (D-MA) on the left to Sen. Kyl (R-AZ) on the right, and a galaxy of the Senate’s best and brightest aides, worked virtually around the clock to make all the compromises they could stomach. But in the end, all that did was make an already jerry-built 400-page bill less acceptable to all.

Clash of positions -- or integration of interests?

The problem was not with the intelligence or good will of the players on one side or the other in the immigration reform debate.

The problem is that virtually none of the players, from the Senators on down, were willing to let go of their positions long enough to honor the interests -- even the carefully-considered and heartfelt interests -- of those who disagreed with them.

As a result, new positions that might have integrated everyone’s deepest interests were rarely conceived and never presented as such.

In the end, all the “key players” got to feel righteous. And important. Only recent and potential immigrants, the American economy, and American culture lost out -- nothing new there.

What is truly maddening is that it didn’t have to be that way.

All the players in the immigration debate, from the Radical Left to the Libertarian Right, have legitimate interests that deserve to be accommodated.

And many players came up with policy proposals that could -- among them -- have accommodated ALL those interests.

In other words, we could have produced a holistic immigration bill.

This article is about that lost opportunity -- and how to revive it.

First I’ll tell you what the immigration bill actually contained (most media outlets did an unusually poor job of that), then I’ll tell you what the key players in the immigration debate really wanted (i.e., I’ll give you their interests, as distinct from their positions), and then I’ll tell you what a holistic immigration bill honoring everybody’s interests might contain.

What the proposed immigration bill called for

There were six key provisions (just skim this section if it’s too detailed for you):

1. Border security

Install 370 miles of triple-layer fencing along the Mexican border, plus another 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the border, plus 15,000 new Border Patrol agents (currently there are about 11,000).

2. Employment verification

Institute an electronic employment verification system to verify that all new hires are legal.

3. Language

Declare English our “national language.”

4. Illegal immigrants (aka undocumented immigrants, aka illegal aliens)

Allow most but not all of our approx. 12 million illegals to obtain legal status, as follows:

(a) those who’ve been here five years or more would be allowed to remain and apply for citizenship -- after paying at least $3,250 in fines and fees, paying any back taxes owed, and learning English (already a general requirement for citizenship, at least on paper);

(b) those who’ve been here two to five years would have to go to a point of entry at the border and file an “application to return” presumably allowing for immediate re-entry (an “application to return” is essentially an application for permanent resident status, the ubiquitous “green card” -- proof you can live and work in the U.S. indefinitely and apply for citizenship within 3-5 years);

(c) those who’ve been here under two years, supposedly about two million people, would be ordered out of the U.S. and be subject to deportation;

but all illegals who’ve been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors would be deported no matter what.

5. Temporary guest workers

So-called temporary guest workers, unlike regular immigrants (aka permanent residents), would have NO path to citizenship. But they’d be allowed in, as follows:

(a) skilled guest workers would be let in at a rate of 115,000 / year, well above the prior maximum rate of 65,000 / year;

(b) low-skilled guest workers would be let in for two years at a rate of 400,000 / year, more if the economy demanded it (an amendment lowered that to 200,000 and eliminated the adjustment for market conditions). They’d have to stay away for a year before returning for another two years; then they could repeat that cycle for a third and final time.

6. Family matters

A merit-point system would evaluate future immigrants and give more weight to employment skills, education, and English-speaking ability than to family ties.

The positions and their interests

Dry as the recitation above may seem to you, every aspect of the immigration bill was (and remains) embroiled in controversy.

But there was method to the melee.

Listen to the politicians and organizations and activists long enough, and the arguments sort themselves out into five political positions, each with distinct and (as I see it) admirable and even valuable -- even indispensible -- deeper interests, as follows:

Radical Left on immigration

Prominently in this corner are National Immigration Forum, National Council of La Raza, and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) -- Washington DC-based groups that conducted nightly conference calls and strategy sessions while the immigration bill debate was in full swing.

At other times they might not have fit into the Radical Left camp, but this year they were pushed by a variety of militant grassroots groups like the Center for Community Change (which helped organize and bankroll last year’s huge immigrant marches) and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of L.A.

The political positions of these groups tend to strike others (particularly on the right) as extreme and incendiary -- for example, some of them support providing in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

There are also authors, such as Hector Tobar, who rambunctiously celebrate an emerging “anti-WASP republic” in parts of the U.S., a “new American identity” that Mexican immigrants are said to be spearheading (see especially Tobar’s book Translation Nation, 2005).

The more you look into these positions, though, the more they appear to reflect two deeper interests -- first, the very common-sensical demand that we treat all our immigrants (legal or illegal) with dignity; and second, the equally common-sensical demand that we grant Hispanic immigrants the right to help our culture evolve just as blacks, Jews, Italians, and other identifiable groups helped our culture evolve.

Rebecca Rotzler, co-chair of the Green Party, beautifully expressed the dignity interest when she said (about Mexican and U.S. citizens), “We are all the same people.” And if you read Tobar’s book, you’ll see that his idea for a more Hispanic America is by no means alien -- it would include more informality, more warmth, more of a sense of community; all values that many of us have been growing (or trying to grow) in this country since the 1960s.

Liberal Left on immigration

These forces are led by politicians like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-AZ); by some elements of labor; and by environmentalists less roused by the environmental impact of immigration than by empathy with immigrants’ hunger for a better life.

Liberal Left activists want to make it easier for ordinary Mexicans to cross into the U.S.  For one thing, they’d like to “reduce border-crossing deaths,” as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network puts it. And most share the ACLU’s opposition to the creation of any federal database to verify work eligibility of job applicants.

Behind such positions is a deeper interest in fostering popular tolerance of and respect for Mexican immigrants. You can see this in repeated liberal assertions that Mexican immigrants are assimilating faster than conventional wisdom assumes (for example, the intermarriage rate among Mexican Americans is said to be very high -- more than a third of married U.S.-born Mexicans are said to have non-Mexican spouses). And you can see it in liberal claims that Mexican immigration is just another chapter in the age-old coming-to-America story. For example, Peter Skerry, a professor at Boston College, has repeatedly asserted that Mexicans are no more ambivalent about America than were earlier and ostensibly whiter immigrant groups.

Populist Left on immigration

These forces are led by a handful of Senators, including Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT); by a big chunk of organized labor; and by environmentalists worried about the impact of a border fence or of millions of new first-world consumers.

Their positions include opposition to the guest worker program -- not just the one for less skilled laborers (Bingaman and Dorgan hacked away at that), but also the one for skilled workers (Sanders sponsored a successful amendment requiring employers to pay $5,000 for every skilled guest worker they hired, with the money to go to a scholarship fund for American citizens).

Behind such controversial positions is an obvious and overriding interest in fostering the well-being of the American worker . . . and who can quarrel with that?

Populist Right on immigration

In Congress, Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Judd Gregg (R-NH), and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), have taken the lead. Their work is made easier by the 24 / 7 efforts of groups like NumbersUSA and Federation for American Immigration Reform, Web sites like Grassfire.org and VDare.com, and talented journalists like Peter Brimelow (Alien Nation, 1995), Pat Buchanan (State of Emergency, 2006), and Heather Mac Donald (at the City Journal Web site).

Gregg’s attempted amendment to the immigration bill expressed a characteristic position: border security would have to be tightened and workplace enforcement would have to be perfected before any guest worker program or legalization of unlawful immigrants could begin to happen.

At the grassroots, Brimelow’s call for “linguistic unity first and foremost” has struck a chord, as has Buchanan’s call for a temporary moratorium on immigration because of fears of “cultural genocide.”

Behind the attention-getting and (to some) obnoxious nature of such positions is an obvious underlying interest in the health and integrity of American culture. The concern is that we’re losing the only thing that binds us together, a common culture, a culture that fosters such traits as respect for law-and-order and easy identification with great Americans like George Washington and Mark Twain.

Free-Market and Libertarian Right on immigration

Senate advocates include Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Kyl (R-AZ), and Mel Martinez (R-FL); other powerful supporters of this camp include the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, a sizable chunk of the Council on Foreign Relations (see esp. the report Building a North American Community), and national business organizations like the American Farm Bureau, National Association of Manufacturers, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

One typical position is adamant support for expanding the guest worker program. The maximum position is free border access across the entire North American continent (“full labor mobility,” as the CFR report puts it).

Although populists have attacked such free-market-oriented positions in the strongest terms, it’s important to observe that behind such positions is an admirable interest in preserving the U.S. as a land of opportunity for all. Some free-market supporters are explicit about that interest. For example, David Theroux of the libertarian Independent Institute recently argued that it’s unfair and absurd to penalize poor immigrants who are willing to get ahead by working hard.

Legislate on the basis of the interests!

We will never be able to reconcile all the different positions on immigration hinted at above. They contradict one another at every turn!

However, there is no reason why we can’t design an immigration bill that reconciles all the interests above. They are not contradictory; they are in fact complementary. CHEERS to

  • the Radical Left for urging that we treat all immigrants (legal or illegal) with dignity . . . and for granting Hispanic immigrants the right to help our culture evolve;
  • the Liberal Left for fostering popular tolerance of and respect for Mexican immigration;
  • the Populist Left for focusing on the well-being of the American worker;
  • the Populist Right for focusing on the health and integrity of American culture, including our respect for law and order;
  • the Free-Market Right for seeking to preserve the U.S. as a land of opportunity for all; and
  • the Libertarian Right for seeking to do the same

If our legislators could see beyond their (comfortable and intellectually stimulating) positions on immigration to their underlying interests, and to other positions’ underlying interests, then they might design something like this. . . .

Bridge-building policy options:
What a holistic immigration bill might contain

1. Border security

It is important to enforce our laws and protect our citizens. But a longer fence along the Mexican border would be ineffective in keeping out determined illegal immigrants (let alone determined terrorists and criminals), and so would a new phalanx of border guards. Immigration historian Roger Daniels conveyed our situation without illusions when he wrote,

The fact of the matter is that the land borders of the U.S. . . . measure 5,525 miles and have never been controlled. British and Canadian troops, hostile Indians, Mexican revolutionaries, bootleggers during prohibition, drug smugglers today, and, of course, immigrants since 1882, have violated American borders with relative impunity. The publicized Border Patrol operations concentrating on specific points are able to curtail unauthorized border crossings in a given area, but [those] who really want to get in, simply go somewhere else.

So should we give this round to the Radical and Liberal Left? Not at all. Remember, this is a win-win immigration bill. The protective function of a longer fence and a small army of border guards can much better be met by providing all U.S. citizens and immigrants with foolproof identity cards (see #2 immediately below).

2. Employment verification

The old Select Committee on Immigration and Refugee Policy (1979-81), headed by Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame, urged research in technology to develop a forgery-proof identity card; and now that technology is at hand. According to Eitan Hersh of the Progressive Policy Institute,

A sophisticated electronic employment verification system that uses scannable ID cards with embedded biometric technologies would in effect erect a “virtual wall” preventing unscrupulous employers from hiring illegal aliens. . . . In other words, when immigrants arrive they [could] be issued [cards that would] not only list the holders’ physical descriptions next to a digital photograph, but also include biometric coding for either fingerprints or a retinal scan.

Illegal immigrants would have a lot harder time living and working here unnoticed. And to increase security for all Americans, we could all be given such cards. They’d make it harder for criminals and terrorists to operate.

Although some feel smart ID cards are another step down the slippery slope to totalitarianism, I think the benefits -- in the U.S. in the year 2007 -- outweigh the risk. Drivers’ licenses and state-issued non-driver IDs already contain biometrics (height, weight, etc.); adding encrypted data from finger or retina would simply make it harder -- monumentally harder -- to obtain fake IDs or misuse others’ ID. That sounds like a very good thing to me.

3. Language

Although the immigration bill’s call for making English our “national” language is purely symbolic (i.e., meaningless), the spirit behind that call should be respected; without a common culture this country will quickly come to feel like the old Yugoslavia.

Inculcating a common culture means teaching immigrants English -- and it means more. In his book Mexifornia (2003), conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson urges “rapid cultural immersion” for all immigrants, even a “domestic Marshall Plan to inculcate the norms and values of traditional education -- a core curriculum that emphasizes the American heritage and unifies us through civic responsibility rather than divides us through an obsession with race.”

Hanson’s sense of urgency is by no means limited to those on the right. For example, the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a coalition of immigrant-advocacy, religious, and labor organizations, not only implores the U.S. to provide adult immigrants with “quality English instruction,” it also urges ongoing “support for the successful integration of newcomers in the communities where they settle.”

If Hispanic immigrants are genuinely being integrated here and continue to push U.S. culture in the adventurous new directions sketched out by authors like Hector Tobar (above), then everyone will understand that our culture is being enhanced rather than destroyed, just as other immigrant groups have enhanced it over the centuries.

4. Illegal immigrants

Conservatives are right when they say people shouldn’t profit from wrongdoing. But our illegal Hispanic immigrants are a special case.

Everyone close to the immigration issue knows that, for the last two decades (i.e., since the last immigration “reform” bill), the U.S. government has winked and nodded at the influx of illegals. Even the Republican mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, recently stated, “They are here -- yes -- against the law, but they’re here with the complicity of the U.S. government.”

Under these circumstances it makes no sense to put the illegal immigrants that are here now through the costly and humiliating charades that the Senate immigration bill has in store. We should permit them to apply for permanent resident status at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices in the U.S., and encourage them to apply for citizenship in 3-5 years just like other permanent residents.

Note the grand left / right bargain here. Our current crop of illegal immigrants would not be punished in any way for being here illegally. They could apply for permanent resident status and point to their experiences here as proof of their willingness to work, be good neighbors, etc. But they would get no time credit for being here illegally; they’d have to wait 3-5 years for their citizenship hearing just like everyone else.

Note, too, that in the future there would be no such thing as “illegal immigrants.” Mexicans (or anyone else) who entered the U.S. as visitors and tried to work would be stymied by the electronic employment verification system, since it would be impossible to obtain fake electronically-verifiable ID (see #2 above). Even sneaking across the border wouldn’t help illegals since they’d never be able to shake their illegal (undocumented) status.

5. Temporary guest workers

The Senate bill would let in hundreds of thousands of temporary “guest” workers per year. That’s a polite euphemism for workers who have no path to citizenship, and across the political spectrum activists and policy analysts are speaking out against this:

  • “It would create an underclass of temporary workers with few rights,” says an editorial in the Radical Left magazine The Nation (June 11, 2007)
  • It “would be damaging for the environment, since [temporary guest workers are] subjected to extremely hazardous working conditions that citizens wouldn’t tolerate for a minute,” says visionary activist Glenn Hurowitz (in the Baltimore Sun, May 22, 2007)
  • It “would create a second class of citizenship, which is little different from indentured servitude, a practice that was long ago prohibited in the U.S.,” says former Reagan and Bush-I White House policy advisor James Pinkerton (in Newsday, March 15, 2007)

One alternative might be to admit few guest workers. Perhaps then wages would rise for the lowest-skilled jobs. Many on the Populist Left and Right are in favor of this.

But most studies have concluded that, as the moderate-to-liberal Merage Foundation puts it, “Immigrants do not exert a significant [wage] impact on natives, including native workers with lower levels of education.” Merage concedes that economist Giovanni Peri at UC-Davis found that immigration may have reduced the wages of native-born high school dropouts by 1.2% between 1990 and 2000. But as policy analyst David Theroux stresses, that has to be seen in the context of lower consumer prices across the board -- including for the poorest Americans.

Given these findings, a second alternative recommends itself. Eliminate all guest worker programs, as many Populists might want -- but restructure the immigration quota system (i.e., boost the number of permanent resident slots) to approximate the annual employment-based demand for non-native workers in each job category, from high-tech to construction to hands-on agriculture.

That way all our future immigrants would not only be permanent residents on a (presumably culturally enriched) path to citizenship. They'd be needed economically.  Nothing could come closer to meeting the deepest interests of all parties to the immigration debate.

Fortunately, a variety of activists and policy analysts are already calling for something like this -- see, e.g., the Unity Blueprint for Immigration Reform. “Why not meet the demand with a corresponding number of permanent resident visas?,” Blueprint supporter and Mexican American Political Association president Nativo Lopez asked at an exasperated moment last month. “But, that would be too reasonable and rational.”

6. Family matters

It makes no sense to make it challenging for immigrants to bring their immediate families here (spouses and children under 21). But the immigration bill’s merit-point system could do just that.

Talk about a policy that offends the deepest interests of left and right! Everyone knows that people are typically happier and more productive when their immediate families are around.

A more difficult question is what to do about extended family members, such as siblings and parents.

It may make sense to have the merit-point system err on the side of letting them in. For as Tamar Jacoby of the conservative Manhattan Institute explains, “Newcomers’ extended families often function as a social safety net, helping them do better than they would as individuals struggling alone.” I see this every day in my own apartment building, 105 units of swarming, largely immigrant humanity in inner-city Oakland CA.


The Senate may have missed its opportunity to forge a holistic immigration bill . . . for now.

But as this article surely shows, the tools for forging such a bill -- diverse legitimate interests and bridge-building policy options -- are at hand.

Where is the national political organization that’s savvy enough and competent enough to seize this moment?



This article makes use of the “win-win” approach to dispute resolution (which I was trained in at Center for Dispute Settlement in Washington DC). Win-win is memorably explained by William Ury et al. in Getting to YES (2nd ed. 1991, see esp. chaps. 3 & 4) and is given a more grassroots and politically focused treatment by Mark Gerzon in Leading Through Conflict (2006). Both authors are centrally involved in the emerging political organization Reuniting America, though I’m not yet convinced that the win-win philosophy is truly in charge there.

For deep background on immigration, see two obvious “labors of love” by the historian Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (2nd ed. 2002) and Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (2004).  For the immigration question from many Mexican immigrants’ point of view, see Gabriel Thompson, There’s No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants (2007).


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