Webcast Recap

One of the great challenges demanding legislative attention after health care and energy regulation is immigration policy. In anticipation of a coming greater focus on this issue, the Wilson Center hosted a conference on October 22-23 to bring together leading immigration experts—from both academia and the realm of policymaking--to discuss problems that will need to be addressed. The conference had support from the Carnegie Corporation and was co-sponsored by the United States Studies Program and the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, along with Columbia, Vanderbilt, and the University of Southern California. The program consisted of three panels and a concluding roundtable, plus remarks by guest of honor Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) and a keynote address by the Honorable Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico.

Panel 1: What's Broken and Why

Panelists: Mae Ngai, Professor of History and Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies at Columbia University; Marc Rosenblum, Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute; Ruth Milkman, Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and at UCLA; George Sanchez, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California

The conference opened with a discussion of the history of immigration in the United States and the missteps that have led to the current state of affairs. As Mae Ngai pointed out, an estimated 12 million people, or one third of the total foreign-born population, lack legal documentation. The cause of this, she said, is the "paradox" of the U.S. immigration system embodied in the 1965 Hart-Celler Act. According to Ngai, the ostensibly egalitarian approach of setting equal quotas for all countries has resulted in large numbers of undocumented immigrants from countries where the demand for US entry overwhelmingly exceeds legal limits.

Attempts at reform since Hart-Celler have proven inadequate, Marc Rosenblum argued. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) left out necessary provisions such as expansion of access to Green Cards for Mexicans and establishment of a reliable verification system. Instead, after IRCA policy has increasingly shifted to guest-worker programs for the highly skilled and border enforcement, measures that fail to alleviate the growing influx of undocumented low-skilled workers or the abuses they face.

As the US has followed these immigration-specific policies, Ruth Milkman said, parallel developments have exacerbated the plight of undocumented workers, including labor deregulation and de-unionization. She linked these problems to degraded working conditions and wage theft. Part of the crucial background of immigration policy in the US is the legacy of guest worker programs, particularly the Bracero Program, which lasted from the World War II era to the early 1960s. George Sanchez noted that while the program regularized migration for agricultural workers and established a long-lasting and symbiotic relationship between the US and Mexico, it also became a site of abuse of workers' rights. Whatever its drawbacks, however, it allowed for a relationship between the two countries that current policy does not allow.

Guest of Honor

Thursday evening's Guest of Honor, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), talked about his career as a public servant attempting to gain greater political power for Latinos. When he began in 1986, he said, there was no political support for defending undocumented workers. He expressed his frustration that although Latinos have now found their political voice, comprehensive immigration reform has still not been achieved. Echoing many of the other speakers of the conference, he emphasized the important role of language in shaping the debate, particularly his effort to discourage use of the phrase "illegal immigrant." He was disappointed, he said, to hear Obama use that phrase in his address to a joint session of Congress on health care. That disappointment is coupled with frustration over the White House's failure to lend adequate support to current efforts toward immigration reform in Congress. He closed with a poignant story about an immigrant in his constituency who came to him with a simple message: "Legalize me."

By Richard Iserman
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies