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Manuel Vásquez Addresses Viewer Questions
Manuel Vásquez, photo by Robin Holland
November 30, 2007

Manuel Vásquez writes:

First of all, I would like to thank all bloggers for their contributions to this important debate. Rather than addressing every message, let me try to respond to some of the most substantive points made.

I. Reframing the Debate

1. The term "illegal" is factually correct, insofar as it accurately describes the fact that many immigrants have violated U.S. immigrations laws, either by crossing the border unauthorized or overstaying their visas. However, the word "illegal" has become so emotionally charged that it dehumanizes not only the unauthorized immigrant, who is objectified as nothing more than a faceless criminal, but those who use it uncritically. When we use the term unthinkingly, we lose the capacity to feel the moral dilemmas and the sometimes tragic predicaments behind much immigration. Further, the term "illegal" stymies all public debate, impeding the search for rational, pragmatic, and long-term solutions to our broken immigration system. [For a similar argument, see Lawrence Downes' recent editorial in The New York Times].

Several of the e-mails in this blog prove this point. Many messages raise legitimate concerns about immigration, both authorized and unauthorized. Others, however, reflect anger and even outright hatred more than a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue. Part of the problem is that the questions that framed the blog were from the beginning wrongly formulated, setting an unhelpful dichotomy: if you are against undocumented immigration you must be racist and if you are for discussing alternative scenarios or terms you must be unpatriotic or aiding and abetting law-breakers. I was very careful in my conversation with Bill Moyers not to use the term racism, because, as some bloggers noted, the term can easily be used to silence those who disagree with your point. In fact, I think the only time I used the term was to critique Latinos, for having prejudices against African-Americans.

My aim in raising questions about the single-minded use of the term illegal was neither to advocate an open-border immigration policy (I outline my position below), nor to undermine U.S. law. Rather, the problem with the term is that it demonizes undocumented immigrants while releasing us from the burden of reflecting on the role we have had in them being here. And it is not just the wealthy who for years have benefited from having their golf courses tended by undocumented immigrants. Most of us have eaten the tomatoes, strawberries, and peaches that they pick under back-breaking conditions. We have happily consumed the cheap chicken and the beef they cut and package under extremely dangerous work conditions.

Moreover, given passions attached to term illegal, it does not let "the better angels of our nature" enter into conversation as we struggle for more effective, practical, and humane laws. In my view, enforcement of 1986 laws may give us short-term satisfaction, but it is very unlikely to solve a problem that has grown not only in size but also in complexity. That's why I feel that it is urgent to have a reasoned discussion, but we cannot have it unless we move beyond labels. Otherwise, we will continue to shout at or threaten each other for simply disagreeing, instead of finding what one blogger aptly called "a middle-ground."

2. In his posting, Mike asked about "transnational citizenship." He wrote: "how do you think this vague idea could possibly work democratically? i mean sure you have the UN and the IMF etc. etc. but it's pretty obvious by now that those groups are fronts for multinational corporations that no matter what they say are hurting the average member of all countries." In immigration studies, the term transnationalism does not refer to a supranational notion of citizenship tied to rootless transnational corporations or a global capitalism that is undermining the working class in our small towns. I share the critique of globalization expressed by many bloggers. Transnationalism simply means that immigrants today can be fully integrated into U.S. society and still have intimate and durable relationships with their countries of origins, either by sending remittances or by keeping abreast of what is going on with their extended families and villages there. In that sense, transnationalism is not entirely new. For example, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe at the close of the 19th century formed landsmanschaften, mutual aid societies, that kept them connected with their shtetls in Russia, Poland, or the Ukraine. What is new today is that advances in communication and transportation facilitate and multiply these connections greatly. We also live in a post-civil rights multicultural era, when expressing and preserving one's cultural identity is considered a strength.

In this context, my challenge to "exclusive sovereignty" is a call for Americans not be threatened by immigrants' assertion of multiple belongings. They can love America (and be willing to bear arms to defend its constitution) without giving up their history, culture of origin, and social networks across borders. I recognize that not feeling threatened by this kind of transnationalism is very hard, especially since September 11. But we must not let this deep trauma distort the openness and pluralism that animate American democracy.

Serious thinkers such as Prof. Samuel Huntington worry that the influx of multiple cultures will weaken America's core Anglo-Saxon values. More specifically, he believes that a divided America may result from Hispanics who fail to assimilate, hanging on to Spanish in their ethnic enclaves. But the alarm against "unassimilable immigrants" has been sounded repeatedly in the past, even against immigrants who spoke English, as in the case of the Irish. With them the fear was that their Roman Catholicism would compromise their loyalty to the republic. It was only with the election of President Kennedy that this fear was put to rest. Looking back at American history, I am far more optimistic than Prof. Huntington that American culture has the resilience and creativity to absorb and mold post-1965 immigrants, just as these immigrants transform and enhance American values. I believe in what Prof. Richard Alba (see his "Remaking the American Mainstream") calls "the quiet tide of assimilation." Underneath the transnationalism of today's immigrants, there is a quiet but strong current that is bringing their cultures in convergence with America's own developing way of life.

II. Intelligently and Humanely-Regulated Immigration, Not Open Borders

Having said this, I find many arguments against open borders very persuasive.

1. There is the environmental cost of massive immigration, which as an active member of the Sierra Club, I believe has to be on the table as we rethink our immigration system. Erik F. wrote: "What is the environmental impact? What does a population growth of 100 million people in 40 years mean to the ecosystem of our nation? What kind of harm do millions of 'unauthorized' workers and their children do to the legacy of open space and wilderness far more inherent to our American identity than rapid and uncontrolled immigration?" I'm not sure where the numbers come from, but these are fair questions that point to the need to tackle the population problem not just nationally but globally, since, as any environmentalist knows, ecosystems do not recognize national boundaries in their interdependence. That is why I suggest below that we work transnationally to find structural solutions to the root causes of migration and population growth.

Despite the important questions raised by Erik F., thinking of the impact of immigration on the environment in the U.S. only in terms of demographics has serious limitations. First, the argument that large numbers of immigrants with high fertility rates are coming to use up the country's natural resources can easily slide into the metaphor of "invading hordes," which is very dehumanizing B immigrants are seen as a virus or a plague that has to be eradicated. This is why I called on our history of immigration to warn against falling into the nativist rhetoric that led to the exclusion of Asian immigrants in the late 1800's in the name of stopping the "yellow peril."

Second, beyond population growth, the health of the environment is closely linked to consumption. Many immigrants who come here do not have the re-conquest in their heads, but rather they are attracted by the great affluence that our society enjoys and displays worldwide through global media. Having a piece of the American Dream means engaging in some of the same unsustainable consumption patterns that most people in this society take for granted. Here the problem is not that immigrants are failing to assimilate, but quite the opposite: immigrants are adopting native life-styles that threaten "the legacy of open space and wilderness" mentioned by Erik F. Thus, both immigration and the environment have to be understood as part of a larger project of creating sustainable livelihoods. This project must engage everyone, U.S.-born and immigrant alike. The point, once again, is that I'm very suspicious of categorical statements and labels that blame undocumented immigrants without coming to terms with the fact that we are also implicated in the problem.

2. There is considerable debate on the impact of undocumented immigration on the U.S. labor market. Immigrants sometimes displace native-born workers, while at other times, they just replace native-born workers who have moved up the occupational ladder. Whether it is displacement or replacement will depend on multiple factors, such as the health of the particular sector of the economy, the local employment conditions, and the level of skill involved. The point is that, thus far, studies have not shown a clear national pattern. The picture is further complicated by the fact that undocumented immigrants consume and invest, often spurring the revitalization of depressed cities and towns. With urban and rural renewal may come additional employment for the native-born.

In response to Bunnie Jatkowski's posting, I think that there is enough evidence in the immigration literature to give us concern about the negative impact of undocumented immigrants specifically on natives without high school diplomas, particularly among African-Americans and native-born Latinos (some messages mentioned Cesar Chavez's position in this regard). This is why we need to get a real handle on unauthorized immigration, by a combination of enforcement --- with a heavy emphasis on employers --- and legalization (as above-board work permits) of a carefully balanced number. However, the deeper issue here is why our society continues to fail poor African-Americans and Euro-Americans, not affording them the opportunities for socio-economic progress. Blaming undocumented immigrants runs the risk of deflecting our attention from task of changing the structural roots of disenfranchisement.

3. An argument that I find most persuasive against an open-border policy in the present conditions is one that most bloggers ignored beyond the catch-all term of "brain drain": the impact of immigration on the sending countries. It is clear that for many poor families in places like Haiti, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, remittances sent by immigrants represent a crucial life line. By the same token, however, governments in these countries benefit greatly by the massive infusion of remittances, which serve to subsidize misguided economic policies that only enrich the national elites. Further, on the human level, mobility can and does erode family and community life. Our research team has heard from countless immigrants about the heartache of leaving children, spouses, and parents behind to come to the U.S. In many cases, our informants stated that migration was a last resort -- the survival of their families depended on it.

Coming to the U.S. brings opportunities but also grave dangers. For example, there are many mothers who, in order to ensure that their children get proper food, health care, and education, have no choice but to immigrate and leave their kids behind with relatives. Ironically, in the U.S., these women often work as nannies, caring for and forming loving attachments with native-born children. All the while, their kids back home are poorly supervised by over-extended grandparents and, thus, are vulnerable to all sorts of negative influences. A further example of the potentially deleterious effect of immigration on home countries: there are plenty of stories of how the money that immigrants send from the U.S. divides communities or is invested in conspicuous consumption, not in building human capital or improving collective well-being.

III. Potential Solutions

For all these reasons, rather than advocating for open borders, I would like to see an immigration reform that includes these dimensions:

1. In the short term, I find the proposal made Prof. Douglas Massey (Princeton University) attractive. See http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/04/opinion/04massey.html and http://judiciary.house.gov/media/pdfs/Massey070420.pdf

Expand the number of work permits to calibrate it carefully with the various needs of our economy. This task might be complicated, but if the Federal Reserve can set interest rates to respond to the delicate dynamics of our economy, why could we not attempt to have such a rational approach to our labor markets? We could also factor in here environmental variables. The point here would be to bring many undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and to afford them all the protections --- and also regulations --- that apply to native workers. This would mean that the race to the bottom in terms of salaries will be controlled, as would be the abuses behind the informal hiring of day laborers. These immigrants would also have the option of joining unions, as many janitors and other service workers have already done, even under the threat of deportation due to their current undocumented status. Thus, the issuance of work permits, if carefully monitored, would be a good move for all in the working class, not just immigrants.

Those requesting permits can pay a fee that would allow the U.S. government to run the program, which would include issuing tamper-proof and machine-readable identification cards that the worker must present to the employer. The fees can also be used to mitigate the effects on local communities of large influxes of immigrants. Schools and hospitals in these communities need resources. Part of the anti-immigrant sentiment has to do with the fact that localities have been left alone in the task of incorporating immigrants.

Once the number of work permits has been determined and issued, we can strictly enforce the law against hiring any undocumented worker. As Massey points out, while we need strong border enforcement to protect us against terrorists, relying on enforcement at the border to control undocumented immigration has not proven effective. The number of undocumented immigrants entering the country has continued to grow despite the ballooning budget allocated to the Border Patrol (since the early 1980's the agency's annual budget has gone from $200 million to $1.6 billion). A sole focus on building walls and militarizing the border further might play well as a politics of the symbol, but it is ultimately a waste of taxpayers' money.

Enforcement should target the employers --- when the job is not there, the incentive to come to the U.S. will be greatly reduced. Harassing undocumented immigrants in the streets may again give local populations the satisfaction of dealing with a problem that the federal government has not been able to tackle. However, there is already evidence that it is counter-productive. Many immigrants will hunker down, will sink in the shadows, not trusting the police, healthcare providers, and teachers, raising all sorts of issues of public safety and common well-being. Moreover, we are an open society, where the internal traffic of ideas, goods, and people is essential to democracy. Over-policing runs the danger of distorting this core value.

2. Mid term, I would propose a multi-tier system of legalization. Beyond the work permits, we could set up differential benchmarks that some unauthorized immigrants have to fulfill in order to become first legal residents and, an even smaller number, eventually citizens. I believe these differential paths to legal residence and citizenship are necessary not to produce yet another "bracero program," forming yet another underclass not invested in the institutions and future of our country. Besides, many undocumented immigrants have already built families and firm roots in the U.S. And, as I said in the program, deporting them runs the risk of destroying a whole generation of American children. Thus far, our immigration policy has placed a strong emphasis on family unification and not to allow families to stay together through a rational process of legalization just flies in the face of this. Even pro-enforcement conservatives such as Mike Huckabee have stumbled over this issue, sometimes wondering out loud how Christians who are for family values can be for breaking apart the families of fellow citizens.

I have talked to many undocumented immigrants and they are willing pay significant fines and/or engage in community work for having violated U.S. immigration laws. They are so invested in the American system that the cost of leaving would be utterly disastrous, and that's why they will stay despite the intense enforcement pressures. More important than reparations and penalties is the need to generate criteria to ensure that those we choose to legalize will be productive and creative members of our communities. Among the criteria would be how long have they been in the U.S. and how invested they have become in our system --- have they bought houses and started legitimate businesses that hired legal residents or native-born workers, paid their taxes, learned English, participated in community initiatives as part of their civic education, and maintained a clean record before the law?

Finally, having immigrated to this country with all my papers in order, I think it is fair to give priority to legal immigrants as they work toward their citizenship. The backlog at USCIS is quite daunting --- undocumented immigrants know this well. Interviews conducted by our research team reveal again that they are more than willing to wait and to fulfill rigorous but rational requirements during an extended probationary period. 3. Long term. For me, this is the crux of the matter, where we can try to fashion durable, structural solutions. I think this is at the heart of Joan Heck's pointed questions: "When do you put a stop to 'illegal' immigration? Do you wait until all of Central, South America is here?" Along the same lines, several of the bloggers, including Tom and Tere Luciani, asked rightly about how to exert pressure on sending countries like Mexico to create local social conditions that encourage their citizens to remain at home rather than having to leave their families behind and undertake a dangerous journey to the North. As Tom puts it: "How much responsibility do the illegals' countries of origin bear in this issue? If things are so miserable in some other countries such that large numbers of their people will risk treasure, freedom, or their lives to get to the US, shouldn't those countries fix their problems, and not rely on the US as a safety valve?" Without getting into the intricacies of Latin American history and politics, it is unquestionable that the root causes of immigration to the U.S. include national factors, ranging from the presence of authoritarian and corrupt regimes to policies implemented by elites that exacerbate socio-economic inequalities and spur destabilizing civil wars throughout the region. Without minimizing these factors, we also should not ignore that American geo-political interests have in many instances contributed to these civil wars. This was clearly the case in Central America, particularly in El Salvador and Guatemala, where U.S. support for repressive governments fueled massive migration from those countries. We face a tough dilemma. On the one hand, we cannot paternalistically come in and solve the internal problems of our neighbors, problems which the national governments should in the first place own up to. On the other hand, given our history of involvement in the region, we cannot but be involved, hopefully this time on the side of holistic development.

I agree with Cristina Briano who stated: "immigration is not [just] a US problem. It is a worldwide problem. It requires global solutions." Here I think resides one of the main weaknesses of strategies that stress only border enforcement. Given the complex roots of the problem and the extension of our borders, it is illusory to think that we can solve the problem of unauthorized immigration by ourselves, without creative collaboration with sending countries. This is where thinking transnationally is very fruitful. The problem is that the current models of transnationalism are really not up to the task. I concur with the critics of NAFTA and CAFTA among the bloggers. These treaties as they have been currently formulated are not conducive to holistic and sustainable development. In fact, these treaties can even be part of the problem, because, in favoring big agri-businesses, they have dislocated many Mexicans and Central Americans in the countryside, only providing additional employment in low-skilled maquilas.

A bold idea would be a Marshall Plan for the Americas, through which the U.S., working with corporations which have benefited from globalization as well as with governments and civil societies in the region, invests in a kind of development that puts human capital front and center. The promotion of women in the areas of health and education should be at the core of this new model of development. Studies have consistently shown that the single most important factor in reducing birth rates and improving living standards is making education accessible to women. So, going back to the questions raised by those bloggers concerned with impact of immigration and population growth on the environment, here we have a opportunity the address the issues at the source rather than simply depending on unilateral border enforcement.

The key in this Marshall Plan is not to rely primarily on Latin American states that are still weakened by corruption and authoritarianism. Rather, the focus must be on emerging civil societies, so that the citizens themselves hold these governments accountable and demand decent life conditions, including respect for the environment.

In this regard, I think the European Union offers an interesting model. Wealthier nations in Central Europe invested substantially in poorer countries in the Mediterranean like Spain, Greece, and Italy. The latter are doing quite well, so much so that there's now a free flow of goods, capital, and people in the region, without severe imbalances. Closing the gap between wages and life conditions in Latin America and those in the U.S. might not end all undocumented immigration North but it certainly goes a long way toward reducing incentives to move.

Obviously, a plan of this sort would mean rethinking our priorities in terms of foreign policy. The key problem with this proposal is that the U.S. is overstretched in many fronts, having to focus on "trouble spots" like the Middle East and North Korea. Nevertheless, in the new global architecture, investing wisely in the hemisphere makes sense strategically.

I know that for some of those advocating for immigration restrictions, the mere mention of the European Union raises the threat of losing U.S. sovereignty. However, in my view, economic cooperation need not lead to political or cultural integration. The Europeans decided to move in the direction of full integration. The Americas may wish to go in a different direction, enhancing some ties while preserving flexible boundaries that allow us to build on each other's strengths and coordinate regional solutions to intractable problems.

IV. Back to our Terms

I apologize for the length of this posting but I wanted to address the important issues that get buried behind the simplistic and loaded terms "illegal" and "amnesty." My proposals here are necessarily tentative and incomplete. My sense is that we will not find a silver bullet to deal with current untenable status quo in immigration. Every and any solution will have a cost. My hope is that we can come together to discuss the costs that we are willing to pay and those that we will not bear because doing so undermines America's historical values. Regrettably, we cannot engage in this necessary conversation in the present climate, when we are spending most of our time shouting at each other.

Sincerely, Manuel A. Vásquez

Guest photo by Robin Holland

Published on November 30, 2007

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References and Reading:
Hispanic Evangelical Offering GOP a Bridge to Future
by Charlie Savage, BOSTON GLOBE, March 6, 2006
"The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of a group he says represents 15 million Hispanic evangelical Christians, said his fellow social conservatives are making a historic mistake. By spurning proposals to give illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship instead of deportation, they are making it easier for supporters of abortion and same-sex marriage to win elections."

Latin American Immigrants in the New South
Visit the page dedicated to Vásquez's and Professor Phillip J. William's three year long study on Latino immigration in Atlanta.

Latinos, religion and change: Minnesota Public Radio
"A new report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that Hispanics are transforming the religious landscape in America, and that transformation may have political implications as well."

Moved by the Spirit; Hispanics Drawn to Festive Worship Fuel Rise of Charismatic Church Services (pdf)
by Tal Abaddy,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL, May 27, 2007

Pew Hispanic Center
"Founded in 2001, the Pew Hispanic Center is a nonpartisan research organization supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Its mission is to improve understanding of the U.S. Hispanic population and to chronicle Latinos' growing impact on the entire nation."

Religion Important, but Overlooked, Element in Immigration Debate, Experts Say
by Bob Allen, ETHICS DAILY, Sept. 20, 2007
"Religion has a major role to play in the outcome of immigration debate but is largely overlooked amid local tensions and failed efforts in Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform, three experts said in a telephone news conference Wednesday."

Speaking of Faith: Globalizing the Sacred
American Public Media presents a conversation with Professor Vásquez about how American culture will be changed by the religious and spiritual world views of the Latino immigrants coming into the country.

We Need Their Money
by Diana Furchtgott-Roth, NEW YORK SUN, June 22, 2007
"The first requirement of a rational American immigration policy should be that benefits exceed costs. On exactly this point, two days ago the president's Council of Economic Advisers released a study showing that the benefits of immigration more than outweigh the costs."

Watershed Moment for Immigration
by Michael Barone, NEW YORK SUN, November 5, 2007
"October 2007 may turn out to be the month that immigration became a key issue in presidential politics. It hasn't been, at least in my lifetime."

THE ECONOMIST: A blended people, Nov 8th 2007
"Over the next few decades the strongest force shaping American culture may well be Mexican."

Immigration Theory

In their conversation Bill Moyers and Manuel A. Vásquez mentioned the work of several recent theorists of immigration in America. Read more below:

Samuel Huntington

Samuel Huntington is a political scientist in the Department of Government at Harvard known for the "clash of civilizations" theory advanced first in a 1993 article for FOREIGN AFFAIRS and later fleshed out in a 1996 book, THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AND THE REMAKING OF WORLD ORDER. More recently, his 2004 book WHO ARE WE? THE CHALLENGES TO AMERICAN IDENTITY, presented the current wave of immigration as a fundamental threat to American identity.

"The Clash of Civilizations?," Samuel Huntington, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Summer 1993
Professor Huntington's original article that set forth the basic tenets of his "clash of civilizations" theory.

"Native Son: Samuel Huntington Defends the Homeland"
A 2004 review of WHO ARE WE? THE CHALLENGES TO AMERICAN IDENTITY by Alan Wolfe, published in FOREIGN AFFAIRS.

"Creedal Passions"
Also from FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Huntington's response to Wolf's critique and a contentious back-and-forth between the two writers.

Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam is a Harvard political scientist. He is best known for his 2000 book BOWLING ALONE: THE COLLAPSE AND REVIVAL OF AMERICAN COMMUNITY, expanded from an essay in 1995, which argued that the connections within and between social networks are eroding in America. His more recent work suggests that high levels of diversity can be linked to a degradation in societal solidarity and interpersonal trust.

""E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century," SCANDINAVIAN POLITICAL STUDIES, June 2007
The full text of Robert Putnam's article proposing that diversity causes a "hunkering down" effect.

"The Downside of Diversity," THE BOSTON GLOBE, Michael Jonas, August 5, 2007
An analysis of some of the reaction and controversy that accompanied the publication of Putnam's article.

"Bowling With Others," COMMENTARY MAGAZINE, James Q. Wilson, October 2007
Public Policy Professor James Q. Wilson on potential policy ramifications of Putnam's study.

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A different take on immigration from sociologist and religious scholar Manuel Vásquez.
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