Commentary | Immigration

New perspective needed on immigration

Last February, EPI co-hosted the Thinking Big, Thinking Forward conference to explore some of ways that economic and political change had created an opportunity for a more activist government and increased long-term public investment to foster economic growth and basic social decency. Six months later, as still-rising unemployment and all-around economic uncertainty raise more questions about U.S. immigration policy, the comments that University of Southern California Professor Manuel Pastor made at that conference bear repeating.  Pastor, an EPI board member who teaches Geography, American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, argued that the U.S. needs to view immigration as part of the solution to its economic challenges, rather than the source of its problems. In calling for immigration reform and a better system for integrating immigrants into U.S. society, Pastor shared the story of his 93-year-old immigrant father, as well as his own own. The address he presented at the Thinking Big conference is reprinted below.

I’m going to explain why immigration is a structural solution for the long run rather than a structural problem. I’m going to talk about why we need a comprehensive approach that stresses not just immigration reform, but also immigrant integration as the key task that will arise in the wake of immigration reform. And in the words of a great Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, I want to talk about why we can’t wait.

Now, immigration is frequently perceived as a structural problem, particularly in times of economic crisis. But it bears remembering that we, over the last fifteen years, absorbed about 7.2 million undocumented workers. And it was not workers crossing the border in search of employment who triggered this crisis. It was Wall Street bankers who crossed the borders of common sense in pursuit of profits.

So if we look at the evidence, what the evidence tells us in general is that immigration is a boost for economic growth in this country. We do have to worry about the distributional impacts of it. One of the most famous researchers looking at this distributional impact is George Borjas at Harvard University. He found out that, over a period of twenty years, immigrants caused about a six percent drop in the wage for low-skilled U.S. born workers. Other economists pointed out that he had not corrected for the positive economic growth impacts of immigrants. And so, he’s revised those estimates down to a three percent decline in the wages for those lacking a high school education in the U.S.

David Card of U.C. Berkeley has found a zero percent effect or perhaps a negative one percent effect. So let’s split the difference and say it’s a two percent effect over twenty years. This suggests that a ten percent increase in the minimum wage could erase a century of immigrant competition. And that suggests that we just might be barking up the wrong tree in terms of what the reforms are that we really need in our labor market.

Now, it’s very interesting when you look at the popular perceptions with regard to immigration. For the most part, whites … as we say in California, Anglos … tend to be the most concerned about it. Latinos tend to be the most supportive of it. African Americans are someplace in the middle. When you look at the economic effects, whites actually benefit most from immigration because it’s essentially complementary labor and lowers consumer costs. Latinos are for the most part hurt by it because they compete in exactly the same labor markets. And African Americans have both positive and negative effects.

Now, this suggests that African Americans may be the only rational political actor in the U.S. system. And this was a large part of my reason for voting for Barack Obama.

Now, the big change that people worry about, of course, is the coming change in demography. The U.S. will be a majority minority population by the year 2042 with most of that growth coming from Latinos, and not so much from immigration as from U.S. born births.

Now, this is a concern that people have. And they look at it as a threat. I understand. We went through this in California. We became a majority minority state. I remember the exact day it supposedly happened. You know how demographers seem to able to predict things like the exact day the 300 millionth baby was born? Well, it was December 15th, 1999, and I kept getting phone calls all day long from reporters who were quite anxious about this change. They just kept saying: What does this mean? What does this mean? And finally, I said, well, I don’t know. But we’re having a salsa party at my house tonight to celebrate. In the spirit of the new California and the new America, everyone’s invited. They just need to learn a new step.

And part of learning a new step is learning a new step around this issue of immigration which is also coming our way as a nation. We just released a report yesterday in Los Angeles on immigrant integration in the county. We had labor leaders. And we had community leaders. And we had city leaders. But we actually staged it at the Chamber of Commerce with business leaders who recognize their need to have these workers.

Building these collaborations and new coalitions is particularly important in a place like Los Angeles County. In our county, one-third of residents are foreign born. Nearly half of our workforce is immigrant. Two-thirds of our kids are the children of immigrants – and ninety percent of those are U.S. born. How they do and how their parents do will determine the future of that region. And, in fact, it will determine the future of the United States.

Because if we look at the real demographic challenge that’s facing the United States, it is not this growth in a minority population that is most pressing. It is, as my (University of Southern California) colleague Dowell Myers constantly points out, the demographic change that is coming with the retirement of the baby boomers. And this is really not just a single event, but a tsunami. Now, I’ve never experienced a tsunami. But I’m told that the scary thing about a tsunami is not that it’s a single wave, but that it’s a wave that has power to keep stretching, so that the wave continues. And what we’ve got with the baby boom retirement is about a 17-year tsunami of retirements that is going to create a huge dependency ratio and a need for younger workers.

And this, Myers argues, suggests that we need to take a different approach, an approach that begins to look at immigrants not as outsiders or outcasts, but as part of the solution to our real demographic dilemma: how do we begin to have a workforce that can support our nation into the future?

So what does that mean as we begin to take a look at policy questions in this period of momentous change? It is certainly clear to me at least, that we’re going to need comprehensive immigration reform. And the elements of this have been clear for quite some time. Normalization or a path to legalization for the 12 million undocumented residents who are in the U.S. and the 7.2 million workers who make up about five percent of the labor force in the United States. And the debate is going to be about really how onerous we make the penalties, how hard we make the path, how tough the requirements are in terms of proving residence.

Let me just suggest that we need to lean on the side of making those requirements a bit easier.
So we can help people come out of the shadows and into labor unions where they belong.

The second thing that we need to do, of course, in any comprehensive immigration reform is to begin to think about what are the mechanisms for determining appropriate flows into the future? Now, a lot of this has to do with issues of family reunification, and keeping that family principle alive is incredibly important for immigrant rights activists. There’s also a very clear need to deal with the backlog of applications of people who’ve been here for some time who are applying for permanent residency and so we need to address the inefficiencies of our immigration system.

But the crucial thing is setting the right numbers for the future. Now, this is a tough task. It’s a tough task because immigrant rights activists are worried about setting numbers that are too low and that will therefore trigger another wave of undocumented immigration. But I think there can be productive conversations about what the mechanisms are to determine the labor needs in the future. It’s really great to see that the Economic Policy Institute is collaborating with National Council of La Raza and a number of other immigrant rights activists about thinking about what is a mechanism that is based on a more scientific determination of the labor needs of the entire society.

What we do know is that labor standards need to be a part of this. What we do know is that we need to eschew the kind of guest worker programs that involve restricting people from being able to move from one job to another, that in very many ways create a sort of second class set of workers.

Now, the third thing that we know will be part of this is the enhancement of border security and employment controls. For those who’ve been uncomfortable with this, this definitely will be part of what we do. Now, I confess to being a little bit beyond my expertise here. I’ve never been a border guard. But I do know two things about what we’re doing right now. I know that the verification systems that we have right now are onerous and they are discriminatory. I don’t know how many of you have gone through this. But half of my staff has gotten hung up in our hiring. And by a remarkable coincidence, all of them are of color. And all of the white staff have gotten through without many hassles. And all of the staff is U.S.-born so I think you see the concerns.

The second thing we need to do is to put really an end to these kinds of indiscriminate raids that are going on at workplaces. [applauses] These are a threat to workers. And they’re also a threat to communities. Let me just share one story and then one fact. We moved to Los Angeles from Santa Cruz, California recently. It’s a beautiful place to live, Santa Cruz. A great place to raise kids. I feel like I’m selling the place to people. It’s beautiful.

But one striking thing happened in my last year there: the President of my kids’ PTA got deported. He had been in the country for thirteen years. He owned a business, owned a home. He and his wife were two leaders in the PTA. He was actually the President of the PTA. And his daughter was one of the stellar students in the high school, particularly amongst the Latina immigrants. And so he applied to try to get legal residency. There was a hang-up in his application. And he and his wife got picked up and deported. His daughter and their other younger children were left behind.

These stories are happening all over the United States right now and they are serious violations of our sensibilities. I mean, this was really one of the best citizens we had — didn’t happen to be a citizen formally, but he was active, engaged, contributing. And we need to think about what that means on a broader scale.

The Migration Policy Institute just reported that of the 97,000 people who were caught under what was supposed to be a fugitive alien program to deport dangerous criminals who are immigrants – and I think everybody would agree on taking those out of the country – 73 percent of them had no legal charges against them at all, except for being in the country without papers and winding up getting picked up in sweeps of fugitive aliens.

So this is actually well trod territory in terms of policy. But what’s missing is that we don’t know how to do it politically. And I want to suggest that one of the ways to do it politically is to think about what happens if we achieve reform. Because if we achieve reform, we have to figure out how to make sure the communities progress. And that really drives us to the issue of immigrant integration.

In an earlier era, we could rely on the strength of unions, as well as city governments that would hire immigrants and strong businesses that would create a path for people to move forward. Many of those institutions are weakened. So what are the institutions that we need to put in place?

Progress is occurring. There is something called the Peter Pan fallacy – coined by my colleague Dowell Myers – to capture the notion that we think that all of these immigrants are young, that the guy that you meet in front of the Home Depot will be in front of the Home Depot for the next sixty years, right? But in fact, immigrants are making progress in terms of income. They’re making progress in terms of learning English. They’re making progress in terms of acquiring homes. And the real question is how do we make sure that that progress moves forward into the future?

For this, we need to stress the tasks of immigrant integration. And when we stress the tasks of immigrant integration one of the things that we’ll discover is not only are we preparing for a better future for all of us, but we’re really shifting the frame. You know, when we started talking about the living wage, it became really hard to argue against it, right? “I’m against a wage that supports a living.”

When we started talking about working poverty instead of just poverty, it became harder to talk about dismissing the poor because of their supposed lack of effort. When we talk about immigrant integration, we’re building on two great American values, ourselves as an immigrant nation and ourselves as a nation that values integration.

So why can’t we wait? Candidate Obama promised action within 100 days on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Let me say that everyone understands staging and timing. We understand that what may happen this year … and we can hope for this year … is that the Dream act gets passed, that the ICE raids stop, that we begin to speed the processing of applications for those who are already here – and that we begin to create the ground work for comprehensive immigration reform.

It’s essential to keep a light on these issues as part of the longer term need for economic restructuring. Immigration reform and immigrant integration really are part of addressing our long-term demographic and economic challenges.

Immigrants have also become an important part of the progressive coalition. Immigrant voters helped the Western states move to the Democratic column. And dividing our fates in hard times will not serve any of us.

So this is why we cannot divorce immigrant integration from a larger restructuring. And it is why those of us who are concerned with immigrants and immigrant integration cannot divorce ourselves from the larger tent that is being formed here. If you ask what is an immigrant agenda, it includes EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act). It includes infrastructure. It includes health care. Because all of those things will be good for immigrants and for their children and for their communities.

Let me close. This issue is deep and heartfelt for so many of us in many different ways. My father is 93-years-old. Next month, he’ll be 94. We got him to vote for Obama. He came to this country in another period of hard times, the 1930s, with papers that were, let’s say, imperfect. When World War II came, he was given a choice of being deported or joining the U.S. Army to fight in Eu

He couldn’t figure out what to do. So he gave a penny to my cousin Carlitos who flipped it. And my dad and the penny went to the war. And they both came back safe. And a generation later, his son is a Professor at the University of Southern California.

That’s a great story. That’s an American story. And told that way, it’s the wrong story. Told that way, it’s the wrong story.

Because what it makes it sound like is like an individual family and what we say in Spanish are their ganas – or desires to succeed. But in the 1930s when my dad came and was undocumented, he was in a union and he was protected. And when he went to the war and came back, he had a GI bill which facilitated him being able to buy a home in an inter-ring suburb of Los Angeles. And it enabled him to go to a community college called Los Angeles Trade Tech to learn about electricity.

And when he learned about electricity, he went from being a janitor to being an air conditioner repairman. And we went from being poor to being working class. And we lived in a place where the schools were decent – because we were investing in them. And I had a chance as a young man to go the University of California. Because there was Affirmative Action to take a chance on kids like me that did not fit the typical profile.
That’s the American story. It is a story of individuals. And too often those of us who are progressives forget about individuals and just talk about structure. It is a story about individuals.

But it’s also a story about the public policies that make it possible for individuals to realize their dreams. And it’s about the social movements that make it possible for those public policies to come into place – the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, the veterans movement – all who work to put all of those things together. If we want to rebuild America, we’re going to need new public policies and new social movements. And immigrants and immigrant integration and immigration reform are an important part of that.