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Robert Reich: Last Chance for Immigration Reform?

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NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Robert Reich: Last Chance for Immigration Reform?

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MARIA HINOJOSA: Hello, everyone, this week we're talking to Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. We wanted to get his take on the ever polarizing topic of immigration. Welcome, Robert Reich.

ROBERT REICH: Hi, Maria. How are you?

HINOJOSA: So the issue of immigration was passionately debated the entire week in the Senate, but Thursday night, the bill was dealt a serious, perhaps even a deadly, blow. The Senate fell short of voting to cut off debate which means that the measure cannot be brought forward to a vote. So, from your perspective, Robert Reich, what happened here?

REICH: It's a very divisive issue. It—it separates—it's not—well, it separates not liberals and conservatives and Democrats, Republicans, it covers everybody. Because nobody knows quite what to do about immigration.

There are enough anxieties in the American-born work force to spur a great deal of immigrant bashing. Given all of this anxiety, a lot of—our representatives in Congress—senators in Congress, could not come up with a deal that would more or less anger everybody just a bit. And please everybody just a tiny bit enough to craft a compromise.

HINOJOSA: When you put on your inside the beltway hat, Robert Reich, and you see the situation that we have right now in terms of the failure to act on immigration legislation, how do you see this playing out? I mean, are we really talking about perhaps waiting until the next presidency before there's any legislation on the table?

REICH: When you have something, Maria, that causes—stirs up so much emotion on—both sides of the political aisle—where the such strong positions all over the map—the easiest thing for politicians to do is to do nothing. So I would expect if—this immigration bill really does go down to defeat—we're not going to see any further attempts at immigration reform for some time.

Unless we have a president who comes into office with such a big mandate in terms of political capital that can be spent, that he or she is willing to try again and spend some of that political capital. I doubt it, quite honestly. I think that—this is the last opportunity we have probably for the next ten or 15 years.

HINOJOSA: You're talking ten to 15 years of nothing happening in terms of the issue of immigration? And so then what happens?

REICH: Well, essentially nothing. I mean, you—you know, there are a lot of areas in this country—of law and of policy where we do nothing. Look at the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" regime, with regard to gays in the military.

It's not really a—a legal position, it's sort of a understood policy. We have a lot of areas that are just too hot—for politics. And yet we decide we're just not going to touch it. And we somehow go on.

HINOJOSA: So what do we do about these—perhaps 12 million people who are living here without papers?

REICH: I hate the idea of having a whole—vast group of second-class residents of America—in terms of—undocumented workers. I don't like the consequences. I don't like the exploitation. I—I don't like the hypocrisy of America—doing that. Employers getting the employees they want.

Middle-class people getting the child care and elder care workers they want. At the same time, us being very pious about—securing our borders. And yet—that may be the way that we deal with this. By doing nothing. By living with our hypocrisy.

HINOJOSA: Do you believe in—in all of the information that you have at your fingertips—as a former politician and—and now as—as a professor at—at UC-Berkeley—when you—when people site these statistics and facts out there about what immigrants do in terms of the American labor market, from your perspective, what do they do? Are they good? Are they bad? And for those who lose, if there are losers, what's the answer?

REICH: In the short-term, new immigrants tend to be low-skilled and low-waged—whether they're here legally or illegally. And they do tend to depress the wages of American-born, low-skill, low-wage workers. The—the studies are a little bit all over the map.

But the studies tend to center around five percent. That is there is about a five percent decrease in the wages of native-born Americans who are in the low-wage market. But that fails to account for the long-term. What we know about immigrant is that the longer they're here, the better they do.

They tend to be ambitious. They tend to tell their children they have to work hard. The children tend to do better than their peers whose parents are native-born—low-wage, low-skilled. To summarize, over the time, immigrants are a big plus for the economy.

HINOJOSA: So what do you say, Robert Reich, to people who complain and say, "Look, immigrants are costing our economy much too much."

REICH: We have not talked yet about the drains on public services, including education. To some extent, health care through emergency rooms, local—local services—all sorts of local services including—garbage collection, everything—water, sewer. If you have a lot of people coming into the United States who are low-wage and low-skill, somebody's got to pay for them.

Somebody's got to pay for their needs. In the short-term, this means a lot of taxpayers are paying more. But let me emphasize, over the long-term, these people more than pay for themselves. Because they tend to do better over the long-term.
HINOJOSA: You've said that one of the things that could happen is that—the existing labor laws be enforced, that you have essentially—people out there who are checking to see the kind of wages that are being paid. And that if these checks and balances existed, that we would not have the problem with undocumented immigrants that we have now?

REICH: If we enforced our labor laws adequately, if we had enough inspectors, if we said—"Look, no employer is going to pay anybody lower than the minimum wage, nobody is going to treated in an unfair, unsafe, unhealthy environment—in terms of their workplace—" we would immediately reduce the magnet of all of these jobs to very low-wage, low-skill workers. And if enforced our labor laws, there wouldn't be those jobs.

HINOJOSA: When you look at—at both—illegal and legal immigrants that are coming here—particularly from Mexico, which is the country that I came from legally many, many, many, many years ago, you know, most of these people, they're stuck in low-wage jobs. They have—children at young ages.

I know that many of them are—are literally hanging their hopes and dreams every day on something happening in—in Congress. But what do you say to your regular American, fellow citizens who have a lot of misgivings about the presence of these—undocumented Mexicans and others who want to help but don't quite know what to do? Citizen to citizen, what do you tell them?

REICH: Well, I think we have to have a national discussion, a national dialogue about this. When Congress fails to move on something that is as important and urgent as this—it tends to be because we haven't had enough of a national discussion with each other. I think that we—we've got to be in touch with our own ancestry.

We have to acknowledge that most of us are the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grand—grandchildren of—of immigrants who came here—like this wave of immigrants. And our ancestors—many of them were penniless. Many of them didn't have much education. I know that my great-grandparents came to New York—without anything. They were illiterate. And we've got to understand that that's the story of America.

HINOJOSA: Former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, Robert Reich, now a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, thanks so much for joining us on Now On the News.

REICH: Thanks.

HINOJOSA: We want to know what you think about the immigration debate. Go to to send us your comments. And tell us what's on your mind. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, I'm Maria Hinojosa. Our program was produced by Karin Kamp.

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