TOPICS > Politics

Immigrant Workers

January 7, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The president’s speech quickly drew some strongly mixed reaction. We sample some of that now with two members of Congress: Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida; Democrat Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. And two immigration policy advocates: Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies; and John Gay, a vice president at the International Franchise Association and co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.

Now, Mark Kirkorian, you heard the president. He said that this new set of measures would be better for the workers who are currently illegal, better for the American economy, and make it easier to protect the country. Do you think that these measures have the potential for doing that?

MARK KIRKORIAN: No. It would be nice if that were true, but unfortunately this whole program is based on a series of unrealistic assumptions. It assumes that amnesty, and this is in fact an amnesty doesn’t create more illegal immigration, when in fact it does.

It assumes that temporary workers will actually go home, when in fact all of human experience shows that there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary worker. It assumes that we have the administrative capacity to manage a system like this and do the background checks and everything that are necessary in this new post 9/11 era. And we in fact don’t have such administrative capacity within the bureaucracy, and the result will be extremely widespread fraud and bad guys ending up getting into our country because of this system.

So I’d have to say that from the beginning to the end, this entire proposal is based on incorrect assumptions, and the result, if it were ever enacted by Congress, would be unfortunate and not in the country’s interest.

RAY SUAREZ: John Gay, incorrect unrealistic assumptions?

JOHN GAY: No, he’s absolutely correct. He made a forceful statement that the immigration system is broken and that’s clear. What could be more clear evidence of a broken system than eight to ten million people here illegally plus hundreds of thousands coming across our border illegally?

We don’t know who they are, we don’t know who are the bad guy among those. We know the vast majority just want a piece of the American dream. But from a national security perspective, this immigration reform proposal the president outlined could only be helpful.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what about the proposal answers the complaints that you yourself cited and Mark Kirkorian?

JOHN GAY: What about the proposal, what would it do? Right now the Department of Homeland Security is looking for a needle in a haystack in the United States of eight to ten million illegal entrants. If we could shrink that haystack by bringing those folks out of the shadows, have them face security checks, that can only help shrink the haystack so we can face the true threat to our country which is al-Qaida.

And again, you have hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border every year illegally, and the Department of Homeland Security has no idea who they are. Shouldn’t we have a system whereby the DHS can check those people before they get to this country so the economy can get the workers it needs and none of those folks have to die trying to cross the desert and DHS has a better idea of who is trying to come here?

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Gutierrez, for a while, Congress members, members of the Hispanic Caucus, have been calling for a way to revisit the questions of status and helping people who are here illegally. Does this do what you’ve been looking for — what you’ve been calling for for years?

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: Well, it begins the process, and I think that I was, as I listened to the president today, we could have written his description of the plight of undocumented workers, he even used the term undocumented workers. So I was happy to hear the president’s proposal and his description of the plight of undocumented workers and saying that the system is unfair, inhumane and one that needs to be corrected.

I guess, Ray, the devil is in the details. Are you going to be asked to wash dishes for three years, reapply to wash dishes for another three years, and then is your daughter and your children going to be able to experience the American dream and become a doctor? Are you going to be integrated fully into our American society as immigrants in the past have been integrated fully?

He described very colorfully, very passionately that this is a great country because we opened our doors to immigrants, the immigrants that came here at the end of the 19th century, and entering the 20th century and all that they made America strong. Are these immigrants any different today? I think not. They continue the vitality of our country and should be given a road to permanency. They should have to earn it, but they should be allowed to earn that permanent road.

RAY SUAREZ: Represent Diaz-Balart, is the road to permanency there that your congressional colleague is looking for?

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART: For many reasons this is a very important and a very, it’s a bold stroke of leadership on the part of the president for humanitarian reasons, for security reasons, for economic reasons the president’s proposals makes sense. There’s a lot of hope in this community that I represent, that is made up of many, many immigrants today, and there’s hope because of the president’s proposals.

Now, there are various proposals that are in Congress, some I’ve made myself or co-sponsored that do, after renewed temporary worker status, permit people to get on the road to permanency. But when you talk to immigrants today in the United States who are in the shadows of really an illegal economy, there’s great hope because they don’t want to be hiding.

They come here to work and to play by the rules, and to follow our laws. They want to be identified. And they want certainly to come forth and show that they’re no risk to our society. But they have to be given an opportunity to do so, so that’s why this temporary worker program that the president has brought forth today, for that and so many other reasons, is extraordinary, and it’s to be commended.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Representative Diaz-Balart stressed the humanitarian aspects, Mark Kirkorian. Are workers less prone to exploitation if they’re able to regularize, if they’re able to start paying payroll taxes under their own real names and with actual permits to be here?

MARK KIRKORIAN: Clearly if illegal immigrants are relabeled and amnestied as some kind of lawful workers in the United States, employers are going to have somewhat more difficulty in exploiting them as far as threatening to call the Immigration Service, that sort of thing. But the reason that there are large numbers of workers that are vulnerable to this exploitation is that we have a system that admits, that allows large numbers of illegal aliens into the country, essentially we look the other way, we wink at illegal immigration without actually legalizing it.

So the solution needs to be one way or another. In other words either the president’s policy of essentially opening our labor market to every person on the planet, that’s what we’re talking about, abolishing all barriers between Americans, the labor market and the rest of the world, or we start enforcing the immigration laws that we already have on the books. And the proponents of these measures often make the case that we’ve tried to enforce immigration laws, we failed, and that’s evidence that immigration is something we really can’t control, and so we simply have to manage it somehow.

The fact is we have done virtually nothing except at the border in enforcing immigration laws, and what we need to do is actually start in a consistent, fair but steadfast manner to enforce the immigration laws, and we will see that the illegal population will start declining from one year to the next instead of continually increasing.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Gutierrez?

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: I think we have undocumented workers in this country. 70 percent of those that work in the apple industry in the state of Washington are undocumented. We can go industry after industry, hotel industry. The reason we have undocumented workers in this country is because as President Bush so eloquently stated, Americans, those of us that were born here in this country, don’t want to do those jobs. That’s why you have dish washers and people who do our gardening and people who kill our poultry and make it available and pick our fruits in this country, and do the most menial jobs at the lowest wages with the longest hours, as has been the immigrant tradition to this country.

That’s why we have undocumented workers. And I think we have to understand one thing very clearly. America is gaining a more intelligent, a more educated work force while we are going to continue to create in the very near future hundreds of thousands of low skill, low paying jobs. We need to match those jobs, and we’re going to need to continue to have immigrants come to this country to fulfill those jobs. That’s just an economic reality that I think the president was very eloquent about.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that the case, John Gay, when the president stressed that it actually would crimp the growth of the economy if it was harder for workers at the low wage scales to get here? Could you give us some illustrations?

JOHN GAY: Yes, it does crimp economic growth when you don’t have the labor necessary to fuel economic growth. Go back to the 90s, roughly speaking there was ten years of uninterrupted economic growth then, we saw millions of foreign workers both legal and illegal enter the labor market, and we ended the decade with 30-year lows in unemployment. 3.9 percent nationwide, but in some areas as low as two-point something, one-point something, percent unemployment. True labor shortages. If we had more workers, we would have had more growth.

RAY SUAREZ: But we’ve also had high unemployment currently, Are they the wrong kind of workers to sop up the demand for their labor?

JOHN GAY: Well we’re in, we’re coming out of a recession now and we think that once jobs start being created we’ll be back into a labor shortage situation soon. But the challenge is to design an immigration system where the labor market is tested fully, so that if a U.S. worker is available, that that U.S. worker gets that job; if there’s not a U.S. worker available, that the employer be allowed to go abroad to fill the spot.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Diaz-Balart, you come from a high growth state, but you are also a member of the Republican caucus and a lot of your colleagues have been talking about their suspicions of making the door a little wider open; that it bids down the price of labor for low skilled workers, that it hurts Americans at the bottom of the wage scale. How do you answer them?

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART: Well, the conference, the republican conference will have a vigorous debate on this, and there will be some division. But the reality is that I think when people think this through and realize that what the president is doing is really recognizing the nature of our society. The greatness of America, is that we are a nation of immigrants.

And as was stated by various other guests, not only do immigrants do in many instances jobs that Americans don’t want to do, but it’s important, and the president has stressed, that there has to be a very firm policy to make certain that when American workers are available for a particular job, that the job goes to an American. But what we don’t want is to hamper our economy, and when there’s a willing employer and that employer wants to hire somebody who happens to be from somewhere else that he cannot, in addition to the humanitarian reasons, in addition to the security reasons — it takes I think a lot of leadership for President Bush to have done what he did today.

And I think the Republican caucus is going to recognize that and recognize that this is a fair proposal and it’s one rooted in decency, rooted in logic and one that will help our country. And obviously it has given hope to immigrants throughout the nation today.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Diaz-Balart earlier Mark Kirkorian said there’s nothing as permanent as a temporary worker. The president stressed the three-year windows. Do you envision people actually going home when their time is up?

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART: Well, the president also said he believes that it should be renewable, the period, he did say they should have an end. And he then called for reasonable, real incentives. For example, tax preferred accounts, savings accounts when you’re ready to go home, you can take your, what you’ve saved with tax preferences. These are imaginative proposals, real proposals that will have an impact and will encourage people not only to continue to help their family while they’re here, and that helps nations from through the hemisphere, it helps the stability of the hemisphere, but it will encourage people genuinely to then return to their home country, and remember what the president has in mind is a common market of the Americas where people from throughout our hemisphere are able to travel freely throughout the hemisphere.

The Europeans have made great strides in a common market, now a union in Europe. What the president has in mind is a common market of the western hemisphere to compete with our economic challengers and competitors like Europe, and the more we’re able to bring together this hemisphere as a unified market and to recognize that we are and that our strength is as an immigrant society, the stronger we’ll be as a competitor and the more just and humane we’ll be as a society.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick final thoughts, Representative Gutierrez, go ahead.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: Yes. I just think that, look, our immigration policy has to show some consistency. Just like Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart with a find it unacceptable for all Cuban Americans to return to Cuba after Fidel Castro is no longer there, we should find it unacceptable that Mexicans that have come to this country that have worked hard, paid their taxes, want to be Americans, fight in our wars, should have to return to their country — have their children here and then return to their country, work here, then return to their country.

No, America’s immigration policy has always been blessed with one thing, that if you work hard, you pay your taxes and you show good moral character, we accept you genuinely and completely into our great American society.

RAY SUAREZ: This is of course to be continued. Gentlemen, thank you all.