Events

Congress and the Immigration Dilemma: Is a Solution in Sight?

March 12, 2007 // 3:30pm5:30pm

Panelists: Congressman Howard Berman (D-Calif.); Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa); Professor Daniel J. Tichenor, Rutgers University; Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor

Congressman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, remembers well the 1986 "Simpson-Mazzoli" immigration act that was supposed to take care of the problem of illegal immigration by granting "one-time" amnesty to those already in the country, tightening the borders, and cracking down on employers who hire illegals. "By the time the bill was enacted," says Berman, "the time to register for amnesty was too short for many to take advantage of. As a consequence, the numbers of illegal immigrants have massively increased and we're faced with an even bigger problem." Berman said attempts in the last Congress to deal with the problem so divided the parties and the two houses that nothing was done, though the House bill triggered nationwide protests among immigrant groups. He lamented that Republicans had scheduled hearings around the country to highlight the problems rather than trying to negotiate a solution in Washington. Berman suggests reducing the large number of undocumented immigrants by deporting those who have been convicted of felonies or are gang members; doing everything we can on the border; ensuring a guest worker program that does not displace Americans; and filling the gaps in employer verification of workers while protecting privacy.

Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) says he will never support a so-called "comprehensive" bill that contains any form of amnesty for illegal aliens that provides a pathway to citizenship because that will only erode the rule of law. King, who is the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, says he has been trying for two years to get the Administration to answer his questions as to whether there is now too much immigration and just how much legal and illegal immigration is too much? They finally answered that there is no way to put a number on it. King worries that that a heavy influx of illegal immigrants will alter American culture because we will not be able to adequately absorb and assimilate such groups. He proposes gaining operational control at the borders, including a concrete wall and a fence, increasing enforcement of employer sanctions, and ending automatic citizenship for children of parents illegally in this country. King disputes those who say we need a large immigrant work force to harvest our perishable commodities, since none of these fruits or vegetables are vital to our national security. We can always find substitutes, he said.

Daniel J. Tichenor, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers, said the immigration issue is especially difficult because there is such a diversity of views among the populace of how to deal with it. He broke these differing perspectives into four categories. The "cosmopolitans" who favor broader immigration opportunities and think alien rights should be expansive; the "nationalist egalitarians" who favor restricting immigrant admissions and opportunities to preserve quality of life and worker choice; the "free market expansionists" who think alien rights should be restricted but entry of immigrants should track work opportunities; and the "classic exclusionists" who oppose most immigration. Tichenor added that there are those who cross-over from one category to another while others change their minds over time. The important point to keep in mind, he added, is that these categories defy our conventional understanding of conservative and liberal or Democratic and Republican. The two pillars that have driven immigration over our history, he said, are labor and votes. Now both parties are vying for the votes and party allegiance of new citizens.

Gail Chaddock, a congressional correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor observed that the immigration issue is so complex that almost no one has a grasp of all of it. This became apparent during the debates in the last Congress in which even the principal sponsors of the legislation had not thought about the implications of some of their provisions. At one point one of the Members raised a parliamentary inquiry as to whether the matter on which they had just voted raised or lowered a particular penalty, and, after a pause, one of the bill's managers admitted, "Nobody knows." As a result of the complexity and confusion of the legislation, all sides resort to reducing the debate to one aspect of the bill that will capture public attention and support. "A lot depends on who controls the message" as to what the chances of success for passing any bill are. She added that in last year's Senate debate some 400 amendments were filed and over 40 were voted on, making the bill a constantly moving target that few understood. This year things are already being negotiated in a much more closed manner so only a few know what's going on. This may make controlling the message and passing a compromise easier. It can also spur others to take independent actions.

None of the panelists were willing to predict whether a balanced bill would be signed into law in this Congress, though most agreed it would be difficult if not impossible to do if it's not done before the 2008 election year. Chaddock noted that the lobbying on the bill so far this year is being done by various business groups and the immigrant groups are nowhere to be found. While many predicted at the beginning of the year that it would be easier to pass legislation acceptable to the Administration with the more sympathetic Democrats in power in Congress, some are now wondering how much bipartisan cooperation is possible with the presidential campaign already well underway.

 

EMAIL UPDATES

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

Experts & Staff

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.