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Aspen Ideas Festival: Immigration Reform

I jogged (yes, me, jogging!) from Tim O’Reilly’s talk to a session on immigration reform at Aspen. I was still late, so I arrived during David Kennedy’s historical perspectives on American immigration. He reminds us that, despite our myths about people coming to the US out of a love of freedom, before World War 1, 44% of immigrants to America went home. Immigration was at a historical high, which dropped sharply between the wars and after WWII. During that period of time, less than 5% of population was foreign born. We tend to think of this as “normal” in terms of our national history, but it may just have been a historical anomaly.

For the last four decades, we’ve been living under immigration reform undertaken in the Johnson administration. We’ve now got roughly 36m Americans who are foreign born – that’s less in percentage terms than we had in 1910, around 13%. Around the world, we’re a less popular destination than we were 100 years ago – then, 40% of global migrants came to the US, while now it’s about 18%. And we’re low in immigrants compared to Canada (19%) or Australia (24%).

People migrate now for the reasons they did years ago. He quotes an old Roman saying, “Where there is bread, there is my country.” The industrialization of an economy tends to send people looking for new lifestyles and often towards becoming migrants. What’s different, in part, is that so much migration is coming from one state, Mexico. There’s the possibility of a “chicano Quebec”, a cultural state within a state. And the notion of illegals is pretty new – before 1924, there really wasn’t illegal immigration to the US since migration was legal.

Alan Greenspan suggest that there are major economic imperatives to act on immigration reform. He’s careful to pull immigration into two problems – one affecting low-skilled labor, and another involving some of our most skilled jobs. In the low-skilled sector of the US economy, there’s a very strong concentration of illegal immigrants. Roughly half of this at-risk group are illegal immigrants. On the high end, 40% or more of our science PhDs are foreign born, and many of the entrepreneurs are foreign born. This is an indictment of our primary and secondary schools, which are inadequate to cope with our labor needs. Greenspan tells us that we tend to overfocus on the low-skill illegals. “If we fail on the high-skill issues, we’re going to have a very hard time reestablishing hegemony.”

Alex Aleinikoff tells us that we’re still a nation of immigrants, but that the system is basically broken. We shifted enforcement of immigration to the worksite, but we’ve got no deterrance there. In the meantime, we’ve got ossified categories of permitting skilled labor, and long backlogs in reuniting families.

We tried to fix the system a couple of years ago, with a Republican president and a Democratic congress. It failed for a set of reasons – strong opposition from the right on legalization (with rhetoric around the idea of “amnesty”), opposition from important constituencies like AFL/CIO who didn’t want a guest worker program, and very little effort to create a “theme” that got Americans to embrace the idea of immigration change.

It may be hard to work on immigration in the current environment. But we’ve got a Democratic congress and President, a recognition of the importance of the Latino vote, and an economic crisis, which can be a double-edged sword. It sounds difficult to legalize 10 to 12 million workers in a situation of 10% unemployment, but with this unemployment, illegal immigration is falling sharply.

Greenspan reminds us that we tend to argue against immigration for economic reasons. We worry that immigrants lower the salaries of American wageworkers. But academics are pointing out that these sectors of our economies are shrinking – we simply don’t have many low-education, low-wage jobs… and there’s a set of jobs we need to fill and might be in trouble if we lost our illegal migrants.

Alexander points out our odd belief that people come here undocumented to avoid paying taxes. This isn’t true, and immigrants pay payroll, real estate and sales taxes. But by legalizing immigration and linking it to taxpaying, we could turn this into a tax and law enforcement issue.

Kennedy (I think) tells a funny story from southern Arizona, a massive fence with a six mile hole in it. “It looks like border patrol by Christo.” The wall ends at the Indian reservation, which won’t let the border patrol build a wall or enforce border security.

As it turns out, walls may have a paradoxical effect. When we tighten border security, transaction costs rise. The effect? People still immigrate, but they stay… and they try to bring in their families. It’s a perverse consequence of increased border security.

We get GREAT questions, including:

– Ambassador Karim Kawar, whose biometrics firm IrisGuard uses iris scans to enforce deportation from the UAE – why is the US using this sort of technology?

– A Kansas schoolteacher wants to know how to give bilingual students more time to graduate

– A Mexican-American advisor to Calderon who points out that we need to think of the US and Mexico in dialog – we supply guns and buy drugs, and we need to take ownership of parts of our border security problems.