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Mexican President’s Visit Returns Immigration to the Spotlight

May 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez gets two different views on the immigration issue and the prospects for reform from Luis Fraga, director of the Diversity Research Institute at the University of Washington and Jan Ting, former assistant commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, for two different views on the immigration issue and the prospects for reform, we’re joined by Luis Fraga, professor of political science and director of the Diversity Research Institute at the University of Washington, and Jan Ting, a former assistant commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during President George H.W. Bush’s administration. He now teaches at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.

Professor Fraga, yesterday at the White House, and again today on Capitol Hill, President Calderon bringing a message about immigration. Did he bring a different message, a different tone, a different language from previous Mexican leaders?

LUIS FRAGA, Diversity Research Institute director, University of Washington: I think, for the first time, this Mexican president actually clearly accepted the responsibility Mexico and its leadership has for reducing the incentives that Mexican citizens have to think of leaving their country and coming to the United States.

It is rare for a Mexican president to be as open and as blunt in the need for social reform, public policy, health care reform, all sorts of changes, educational opportunity, needed in their country to be able to stem that flow. That was different.

What was not different was his criticism of actions taken in the United States, and in particular his criticism of the law, recent law in Arizona.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Ting, what did you make of the speech?

JAN TING, Temple University Beasley School of Law: Well, I agree with what was just said.

I think both presidents missed the point that public opinion in the United States is sharply divided as to what the nature of the immigration problem is. One side thinks the problem is 12 million people who have to live without documents. The other side thinks the problem is that our existing laws are simply not being enforced by the federal government.

And that’s what drives elected officials in states like Arizona to be pressed by their voters to do something about this problem. There were recent polls that show a vast majority of the American people — more than 60 percent in polls conducted by The New York Times and The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent either support the Arizona statute or think it’s not tough enough. They want something tougher.

So, the country is not in a mood to support so-called comprehensive immigration reform, which I think is a euphemism for open borders, which doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. But I think we have to answer the fundamental question: Do we want unlimited immigration to the U.S. or not?

The alternative is a numerically enforced limitation. And if we are going to do that, you have to keep the people who are not selected out. And, if they come anyway, you have to remove them from the United States. Americans have a hard time making that choice.

RAY SUAREZ: Did we see that division on the floor of the — of the Congress today, Professor Fraga?

LUIS FRAGA: I think we did. I think we did, and the Republicans not standing up as much as the Democrats did.

But there’s a lot of bipartisan support for immigration reform. To get to Professor Ting’s comment about polls supporting the law in Arizona, it’s also the case that 65 percent of the American public for the last two decades has said, we need to change our immigration system.

There’s a clear need for immigration reform. There is a clear division in the country as to what it might be best for us to do, but there’s clear agreement as well, at — 65 percent of the public that says, we need to do something different.

The Arizona law is an indication of the frustration that state officials face, that many within the public think exists, and certainly that local officials face as they deal with the consequences of our broken immigration system.

I think our Arizona law is as much an indication of a desire by many different sectors of our society to have a reasonable, reformed system of immigration that makes sense.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Ting, is that right, that, at the same time as there is widespread support for Arizona’s SB-1070, there is also a sentiment out there in the country for immigration reform?

JAN TING: I think that’s wrong. I don’t think the immigration system is broken.

We admit every year into the United States — we give out more green cards with a clear path to full citizenship in larger numbers than all the rest of the nations of the world combined. So, our immigration system is functioning fine.

The only part that is not functioning fine, I think the majority of people in America would agree, and certainly the majority of people in Arizona, is, we’re not enforcing the laws that are on the books, which say, if you are not selected to come to the U.S., you can’t come, and, if you come anyway, you are subject to being removed from the United States.

Those laws are not being enforced. There is no — virtually no interior enforcement going on. We haven’t built the physical barriers at the border that we know work. And, indeed, the enforcement initiatives are being held hostage in the Congress to this larger, I think, delusion of comprehensive immigration reform.

The — the proposed solution to illegal immigration is to legalize the people that have come illegally. That’s like saying we’re going to cure the Greek debt crisis by loaning the Greek government more money. That’s not a solution.

RAY SUAREZ: Is — are we really talk being two different things, what to do from here on out and what to do about the people who are already here?

LUIS FRAGA: No, I think the two have to be considered together. And part of what I think Professor Ting omits from his analysis, and there are — there is no question that people are here without papers. There’s no question that individuals are here that, under our current rules, should not be here.

You have to include as well why people are here. People are here because American society needs their labor. Employers need their labor. And, increasingly, our American economy overall needs the labor of these individuals. Most of the folks who come here without papers come here to work.

And, in coming to work, they are contributing to our society. They are paying Social Security, if they are paid appropriately. They are paying — they are paying state taxes. They’re — even many of the undocumented pay income taxes through the ITIN numbers that our Internal Revenue Service allows them to use to pay their taxes.

So, there are magnificent contributions that these individuals make as well that have to be considered in the balance with the sort of concern that Professor Ting is describing, which is exclusively a concern regarding illegality.

Illegality is real, just as real as the overall social structure, the nature of relationships between our two countries, considering Mexico and the United States, that are clearly important for to us think about, not just in the short term, but in the long term as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Ting, did you find, as Professor Fraga did, that the president of Mexico made some acknowledgments about his own country’s role in this problem that are helpful and might move the discussion forward?

JAN TING: I didn’t hear anything new.

There’s no — there’s no question that employers in the United States welcome the cheapest labor that they can find. But it’s also true, as recently as yesterday that we’re confronted with rising unemployment in the United States and a crisis, an economic crisis, with no end in sight.

If illegal immigration is as good for America as my colleague implies, why don’t we just have open borders? Why don’t we let every would-be immigrant who would like to come here in search of a better life come here? Then we would get the best of all possible worlds.

I actually think a rational, coherent argument can be made for completely open borders. But I think the notion that we’re going to solve the problem of illegal immigration, if it is a problem, by legalizing the people that are here now is — has no merit to it at all.

So, we have just got to make up our minds. Is illegal immigration a problem, yes or no? If it’s not a problem, let’s let everybody in. If it is a problem, let’s deal with it. And you don’t deal with it by legalizing everyone. We tried that in ’86. It just led to more illegal immigration.

This comprehensive — so-called comprehensive immigration plan failed in 2006. It failed in 2007. If it gets pushed forward this year, it is going to fail again. If it gets pushed forward next year, it will not pass, nor will it pass in 2012.

So, beyond that, my crystal ball grows a little foggy. But, for the foreseeable future, there’s no prospect of so-called comprehensive immigration reform, including a large-scale legalization moving forward in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick response, is it as dead as the professor suggests?

LUIS FRAGA: No — no responsible leaders that I am aware of are calling for open borders. All leaders are calling for a regulated system that meets the interests of a variety of concerns here in the United States, the families that are here, the children that are here, the workers that are here, the economy that is here.

There is, I think, a very appropriate middle course.

RAY SUAREZ: Jan Ting in Philadelphia, Luis Fraga here in Washington, thanks a lot.

LUIS FRAGA: You’re very welcome.

JAN TING: Thank you.