Advocates Gear Up For Immigration Debate
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
President Obama put a lot of political promises to the side until he could push health care through Congress. Now, even while the bruises from that battle are still fresh, another hot-button issue may be next: immigration.
Senators Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham recently proposed a bipartisan bill that calls for a tough but fair path to legalization for illegal immigrants, enhanced border security and biometric Social Security cards, among other changes.
In a moment, we'll take a look at the prospects of an immigration bill in the cauldron of the post-health-care, pre-election Congress and give you a roadmap to the looming debate, and we want to hear from you about how this issue matters in your life.
Whether you're in Tucson or Tacoma, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the haunting combat video of an Apache helicopter killing 12 Iraqis in Baghdad in 2007, including two reporters, a key episode in David Finkel's book, "The Good Soldiers." The Pulitzer Prize winner will join us.
But first, the next debate: immigration. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us here in Studio 3A. Ron, always nice to have you on the program.
RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And it seems like an awfully impassioned issue to strike in the run-up to an election.
ELVING: Yes, and especially given all of the passions that were expended with respect to health care in recent weeks and months and Congress not needing another passionate issue particularly for the moment.
They've turned their attention somewhat more to jobs and jobless benefits extension and things of that nature that are more clearly popular. They are also on the brink of taking on financial re-regulation. But this is the big one that is looming in the distance and which in some sense both parties would like to do but which both are highly afraid of at the same time.
CONAN: The third rail of politics, we keep talking. Well, it turned out to be health care. No, it's social security. It may well be immigration.
ELVING: It is certainly electric. It's certainly something people are afraid to take up in the months ahead of that November, 2010, election.
CONAN: Well, remind us. President George W. Bush proposed immigration reform. It seemed much more likely to pass with a Republican president pushing it and indeed a Republican senator, John McCain.
ELVING: John McCain and also another Republican senator, Mel Martinez from Florida. He and John McCain attracted a lot of Republican - at least -discussion and consideration and, in the end, insufficient support to provide enough votes to defeat the potential of a filibuster, in other words to get to cloture, to proceed to a formal consideration and vote on the bill back in June of 2007.
This was not an election year. This was a time when the future ambitions of John McCain and Barack Obama and a lot of other people who were going to be running for president, Hillary Clinton, were all part of the mix in the Senate, but there was a sense, there was a belief, that there was a right formula that could be found.
And Mel Martinez, who was then the Republican senator from Florida, has since resigned, retired, he was a critical part in all of that because he changed, to some degree, the Republican equation and attracted a certain amount more positive attention to the positive side of the bill, as opposed to the simply border-security-oriented side of the bill, which was always very popular among the Republican senators.
So for a time, there appeared to be almost a tipping point, almost that right mixture whereby Republicans and Democrats could mount the supermajority, get over 60 votes and pass it, but they fell short.
CONAN: Then in the elections of 2008, the Republicans allowed themselves to be portrayed, or actually put themselves in the corner of being portrayed, as the anti-immigration party.
ELVING: As a result of that vote in June of 2007, quite a deep divide immediately developed within the Republican Party. There were those who were happy that bill had died. There were those who thought it was a terrible thing.
Among those who thought it was a bad thing: the president; his brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida at the time; Karl Rove, their political advisor; and other people who felt that they were sending a negative message to Hispanics, to Latinos, to people who were immigrants of all different origins.
CONAN: Who might otherwise like to support the Republican Party.
ELVING: Who, in many cases, were otherwise attracted to the Republican Party, either on social issues or many times on economic opportunity issues and who they thought, that is the Bushes and Karl Rove, were a natural constituency for the modern, for the future Republican Party.
They were obviously turned off not only by the vote and the defeat of that legislation but also by a lot of the rhetoric because particularly House members here again, not so much the senators but many of the Republican House members, went out and campaigned on this one term, this one killer term: amnesty.
ELVING: Yeah, and I think everyone in the debate knows it very well. It has the potential to change people's attitudes in the midst of a debate. When you start portraying any path to citizenship for people in the country illegally as amnesty, the bill really loses support very quickly. Whatever you're proposing loses support very quickly. This is a term that galvanizes opposition to immigration reform in this country.
CONAN: So, Barack Obama is elected president of the United States, many Latinos think with their support, that they were the key difference that pushed him over the top and that he owes them an immigration reform bill. He says wait a minute, let's get health care through. Health care is through. If immigration does not get through in this Congress come November, there are going to be, depends on who you listen to, but fewer Democrats in the House and fewer Democrats in the Senate. Maybe the Republicans take over one or both bodies.
ELVING: That is a possibility. So the best chance for Barack Obama to move legislation, one would assume, on any subject would be in the remainder of this Congress, as opposed to waiting until the next Congress or beyond.
So if you assume that this is a magic moment at which a certain number of Democrats are available to vote for a variety of things, it would seem that the window of opportunity is closing. But that is assuming that you believe the window of opportunity is, indeed, open.
You're quite right about 2007, excuse me, 2008 and Barack Obama's election, though.
CONAN: In any case, so then you have the prospect of a bipartisan bill. Chuck Schumer, the voluble Democrat from the state of New York, and Lindsey Graham, the Republican from the state of South Carolina, have produced a bill they say could get support from both sides of the aisle and take the sting out of immigration reform for both parties.
ELVING: And yet the problem is that Lindsey Graham, at this point, is, in some respects, a bipartisan coalition of one. He does not have another Republican. John McCain is still in the Senate. Some of the other people who supported McCain and Martinez in 2007, such as Jon Kyl from Arizona, the other Republican senator from Arizona besides John McCain, have backed off, are not willing to commit to this.
John McCain is running for re-election this year and has a very tough primary challenge from the right. So he is no longer quite as eager to be front and center on this particular issue as he once was willing to be. In fact, as he was running for president in 2008 in the primaries, he was not willing to commit to a vote for his own bill in 2007. So this is a backing off that's been going on for some while.
So Lindsey Graham is looking a little lonely, and he himself has said that in the wake of health reform, where he and his Republican colleagues feel they were steamrollered by the Democrats, they are not in a mood to cooperate. They are not in a mood to give the Democrats any cooperation.
CONAN: There is also the phenomenon of the Tea Party movement, which many would see as if they are angrier about anything other than health care, it might be immigration.
ELVING: This would seem to be another one of the issues where there is a high degree of emotion among the people, the populist activists who are the Tea Party movement. They see this as a challenge to their place in American society.
They see it as a challenge to the rules as they understand them, the rules that in order to be a citizen, you must enter the country legally, and you cannot be rewarded for entering the country illegally, especially if you have been here for quite some long time and prospering. These are exactly the kind of people that these pieces of legislation try to help become citizens.
CONAN: Because they are people well-established in their communities, paying taxes and prospering.
ELVING: Productive parts of the community in a very real sense, and yet they are the people who have been, in a sense, scofflaws longest. They are the greatest offenders of the rules as we understand them.
And so many people in the Tea Party are energized by this issue, as by a few others.
CONAN: So given all of those predicates, let's throw one more into the mix: the possibility we could have a Supreme Court fight this summer, as well.
ELVING: Yes, and that's another huge distraction because that does tend to suck all the oxygen out of the room in the Senate.
CONAN: In the Senate, yeah.
ELVING: In the Senate and in Washington media, as well. It's going to be very difficult to get people to focus on that, and, as I said, they are going to try to do financial re-regulation. The Democratic leadership believes that's a winner for them. They think that they're closer to being on the pulse of the American people with respect to restraining Wall Street than they are with respect to immigration.
Now here again, there is a formula out there, everyone agrees, by which the Republicans' support for more border security and for opportunities for immigrant people can be brought to bear to support some kind of a compromise bill between the who parties, but that will take a certain amount of trust. And right now, there is zero trust between the two parties. And as Lindsey Graham himself has said, he cannot be a bridge of one senator between the two parties on so big an issue.
CONAN: Given all of that, what are the prospects that the Schumer-Graham bill is going to make it into a committee in the Senate and make it onto the floor?
ELVING: I would not be surprised to see it assigned to a committee. I would not be surprised to see it actually the subject of hearings. I would not be surprised to see it marked up. All of those things can be done essentially on the fiat of the chairman, as long as the ranking member does not pull all the Republican members out of the committee, which we have seen in recent months.
We've seen that on the Environment and Public Works Committee on climate change, but as long as that does not happen, and I wouldn't predict it, I think that they can get that far.
But going from committee to consideration on the floor and to cloture, those are huge steps.
CONAN: There is another set of issues that are also involved. During the previous administration, there were large numbers of raids conducted by federal authorities on places like meatpacking plants and others where large numbers of illegal workers were said to be working, and these were bitterly protested by their advocates. Are those continuing?
ELVING: Those raids have continued to some degree, although not necessarily at the same degree or in the same frequency, but there have been continued efforts to enforce the law as we have it.
And there is a high degree, I think, here of dudgeon of both sides, that for those people who are concerned that illegal immigration continues and that illegal immigrants remain in this country, 11 million, 12 million, various estimates.
CONAN: It depends on who you count.
ELVING: That's right, and in some respects, that fear focused on the health care bill, when people said oh, they're going to get these benefits, 11 million people in the country illegally will have to go on our health insurance -quote-unquote "our" - because there's nowhere else for them to go, and thats part of what this bill is about, it's a payoff to these folks.
That was a big part of the health care debate. So there's anger there. There's also a great deal of anger on the part of many immigrant groups, not just illegal immigrants but legal immigrants, as well, that this stigma continues, that this refusal to apply the same, if you will, social attitude towards these immigrants that was applied perhaps to those from other countries, from European countries a century ago, that remains and is quite strong, as well.
CONAN: And in 20 seconds, is construction continuing to put a wall between the United States and Mexico?
ELVING: In a sense, but it's really not proceeded at the same pace that it was in the Bush administration at all. That's been curtailed.
CONAN: Ron Elving, NPR senior editor, thank you for that background. Well, we're now set for resumption of the debate. We'll let you go, Ron. In a moment, we'll be hearing from George Grayson, who serves on the board of the Center for Immigration Studies; and Clarissa Martinez de Castro, who is the director for immigration and national campaign at the National Council of La Raza.
How does this issue affect your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
A number of bills have come up in Congress in recent years that promise to overhaul U.S. immigration policy: the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, sponsored by Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain in 2005; the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act of 2005; followed then the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Acts of 2006 and 2007. None of them made it to the president's desk, none became law.
Now, we're seeing a new push to tackle illegal immigration in Washington and around the country. We want to hear from you, how this issue matters in your life. Whether you're in Tucson or Tacoma or Toledo, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And joining us here in Studio 3A is George Grayson. He serves on the board of the Center for Immigration Studies. He's a professor of government at the College of William and Mary. Thanks very much for coming in.
Professor GEORGE GRAYSON (College of William and Mary): Very nice to be here.
CONAN: And let me also introduce Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of immigration and national campaign at the National Council of La Raza, also kind enough to be with us in the studio today. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. CLARISSA MARTINEZ DE CASTRO (National Council of La Raza): Delighted to be here.
CONAN: And as you begin with you, George Grayson. Where does this debate stand from your vantage point? Is it time for reform?
Prof. GRAYSON: The odds are very long against reform, as we heard earlier, but there was no mention of the House of Representatives, and there Nancy Pelosi is very protective of her freshmen and sophomores, many of whom voted for health care, after perhaps having their arms twisted, maybe even out of joint.
You see a lot of people walking around with slings on Capitol Hill now, and I don't think she wants to put them under fire on an issue that's not only controversial but there's a major chasm between what the elite in Washington think and feel about immigration and what the grassroots Americans think, because in virtually every poll, most recently a Zogby poll, we find that a strong majority of not just Anglo-Americans but also Hispanic-Americans and Afro-Americans believe that we should maintain our current laws or even strengthen them because they see individuals who have entered this country illegally as competitors for their jobs.
CONAN: Clarissa Martinez de Castro, we talked about that political window. November approaches. Is this the moment to push reform?
Ms. DE CASTRO: It is absolutely the moment. I always chuckle when I hear people say that, you know, Congress has tackled health care. It's too hard. They have too many things on their plate. How can we expect them to deal with this issue?
The reality is that if you look at our country right now, you are going to see people who are battling the state of the economy, trying to hold onto their houses, trying to provide for their children. I think that the American voter expects that if we can battle several problems at the same time, it's the least we can expect from Congress.
And so on that matter, I think Pelosi has indeed said that if the Senate is able to come up with a piece of legislation, that they will move it in the House, and we expect to see her do just that. I think that in the Senate, it was mentioned in the summary, there is also another time in 2006 which was also a midterm election year, when the Senate did manage to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
So there are people on the record from both sides of the aisle. I think that it is very rare to have an issue where the policy urgency, the moral imperative and the political smarts align, and this is one of them.
It has a history of being bipartisan, and I think if both parties keep talking that they'll deliver to the voters, that the voters want to see bipartisan solutions, that this is the opportunity for them to deliver on that.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation as well. Again, if you'd like to join us, how does this affect your life? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's start with Chip, and Chip's with us from Redwood City in California.
CHIP (Caller): Hello, thank you so much for the opportunity to make this comment. I heard earlier the linkage made between amnesty and a path to citizenship, and I just have to wonder if any of these people who are writing this legislation actually know any Latinos.
I have a landscaping business, and you know, and I hang with the Latinos, a lot of them, and I don't know one of them who is looking to become a citizen. What they would like is the right to work so that they can leave the country and go home and visit their family.
Our current immigration laws are basically keeping people in the country, not keeping them out.
CONAN: And do you hire these people?
CONAN: And do you have any qualms about that?
CHIP: No, not at all.
CONAN: And do they do good work?
CHIP: They do excellent work, yes. And frankly, the whole idea of competition for these jobs, and I imagine that may be true in other areas, but it is very rare that I get a white person or a black person or anybody else besides a Latino applying for this job.
CONAN: And some would say maybe you're not offering wages high enough.
CHIP: I offer very good wages, and I offer health benefits, and all of these people are paying their taxes. So that's not correct either.
CONAN: Well, thank you...
CHIP: But those are typical attitudes of the man on the street.
CONAN: Chip, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. And let me turn to you, George Grayson. If that were possible, if it were - people able to work in jobs that other people are not applying for, what's the problem?
Prof. GRAYSON: Well, I think it's nonsense to say that people won't apply for difficult jobs. You just have to have decent wages and safe working conditions and perhaps the opportunity to join a union so you can protect your position in society.
But driving up to Washington today from Williamsburg, Virginia, I stopped at a rest stop for a Coca-Cola, and the people who were cleaning that restroom facility, they were African-Americans and Anglo-Americans. And so I reject the idea in fact, I think it's a libel on Americans to say they're just jobs they won't take.
CONAN: Let me turn to you, Clarissa Martinez de Castro, and while, as Chip suggested, members in Congress, well, I'm sure they do know Latinos, they also know how to count votes, and that's a big issue here.
Ms. DE CASTRO: Absolutely, and I think that that's why I we're saying that the convergence here is also of how this is politically smart. The majority of Americans are actually in a much more pragmatic place on this issue than Congress is, and they are tired of a system that's been neglected for over 20 years.
What happens when you don't solve a problem? It gets worse. So right now what we need, and actually the economic time that we're living in provides the opportunity for us, not having the pressure of our economy needing workers immediately, to sit down and figure out what is the system that works so that it responds to economic needs but it also protects the wages of U.S. workers.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Michael, Michael calling us from Las Vegas.
MICHAEL (Caller): Well, thanks for putting me on. First-time caller here. I love your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
MICHAEL: So your call-screener said the main thing you wanted to hear is how is this issue affecting me personally. Well, we've got a really high unemployment rate here, and I've lowered myself all the way down to applying at fast-food joints, and I can't even seem to get a job at that, presumably because they're taken up by folks who snuck in at one point or another.
And for those of you who are offended by the term illegal immigrant, how about this one immigrante sin permiso. It's way more accurate than undocumented, because the Amish are undocumented because they're Amish, and you know, maybe it's not as insulting, and it's accurate.
They snuck into our country without permission, and now we don't need them to do all those low-paying jobs, and they're stuck here. I'd be happy to give them a one-way ticket all the way back to whatever country they came from: Poland, Ireland, China. And here's all the money you paid into Social Security with your fake Social Security number...
MICHAEL: ...just to be nice.
CONAN: Just to be nice. But you definitely feel direct competition.
MICHAEL: Yeah, amnesty sounded like a good idea when President Reagan had it in 1986, and they at least had the honesty to call it that then. I supported it then. And what happened after that? All the folks who were thinking about coming here saw that and said, oh, well, all we have to do is not get caught for five, 10 or 20 years and they'll give us amnesty and citizenship, just like my cousin Pedro in 1986.
CONAN: All right, Michael, thanks very much for the call. And Michael, Clarissa Martinez de Castro, he is not alone. There are people who feel this economic pain right now, and as you mentioned, the economy does not need a lot of workers now. Immigration, legal and illegal, has slowed. Nevertheless, the millions who are here remain a problem.
Ms. DE CASTRO: Absolutely. Look, the majority of Latinos who are actually U.S.-born Americans care very deeply about the economy. We are actually experiencing higher unemployment rates than many other communities.
Again, I think what we have and what has resulted in this undocumented population is that you've had willing employers and willing workers meeting each other outside of legal channels.
We have a real opportunity here to roll up our sleeves and create a system, which, by the way, is part of the problem of the last process, is that it didn't tackle this. How do you have a system for those future flows that is elastic enough to respond when the economy needs them and when we don't, but that also makes sure that we are not undermining U.S. wages? This is the opportunity we have right now. It is the right time to do it, and I think particularly the competition and the experiences that people are living make it so.
CONAN: George Grayson, if this can't be dealt with now, when there is not great pressure, what happens when the economy rebounds and all kinds of people are getting hired?
Prof. GRAYSON: I don't think it's going to be dealt with. That is, the last amnesty that we had, during the Reagan administration, was supposed to be the amnesty that would end all amnesties.
CONAN: Well, World War I was the war to end all wars.
Prof. GRAYSON: That's the sort of thing. And there were roughly four or 4.5 million illegal immigrants in the country at time - 3.6, 3.7 were given amnesty. But that just simply encouraged others from Mexico, from Central America, from Asia to think if we can get into this country, there will be another amnesty. And if the current legislation is passed, that will spark the hope in others who would like to come to the United States that, yes, in 10 years from now there'll be another chance to get on the path...
CONAN: Do you think there is a realistic prospect - as unrealistic as passing a bill might be right now, that the 10 or 11 or 12 million people in the country illegally are going to be thrown out?
Prof. GRAYSON: No, that would be absolutely horrendous. What we're finding is that with the sharp downturn in the economy and the roughly 10 percent unemployment rate, is that many illegal immigrants are returning home, lots returned at Christmas and decided not to come back. And in fact, there are Mexican families that are now sending stipends, remises, to their poor cousins in the United States.
CONAN: But a situation not likely to last if the American economy rebounds...
Ms. DE CASTRO: Exactly.
CONAN: ...as everybody expects it will.
Ms. DE CASTRO: Exactly. And that is the point, right? At the end of the day, when we get right down to it with, like, with your question, what are we going to do with these folks, just continue on a mass deportation and mass detention approach? A recent study calculates that it costs about $21,300 to apprehend and deport a single undocumented person. So I think that that's why the American public is looking in a much more pragmatic way and saying, okay, even if we thought that rounding up that many people made sense, it costs that much money. Are there other ways? We believe that we have an ability to restore the rule of law and to change the situation, so we start going after and ending illegal immigration. The time for solutions is now and Congress should not postpone this any longer.
CONAN: We're talking about the looming debate over immigration. Our guests are George Grayson, who serves on the board of the Center for Immigration Studies, also a professor of government at the College of William & Mary; and Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of immigration and national campaign at the National Council of La Raza.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And while we're talking about difficult practicalities, Clarissa Martinez de Castro, how are you going to get bipartisan support for such a bill if Lindsey Graham is thus far the only Republican in the United States Senate willing to come aboard?
Ms. DE CASTRO: Well, we know that there are other Republicans on the record, as I had mentioned, as having supported this in the past. There is no question that our politicians would rather avoid dealing with the issue, but we strongly believe that if Mr. Schumer and Graham put out their legislative proposal and get a hearing for it - which, by the way, Senator Leahy on the Judiciary Committee had said he will do, and Senator Reid had said he'll allocate time on the floor of the Senate - that folks will come along, because both parties, or at least element within both parties, want to get this done.
CONAN: Care to name names? Anybody you think that's going to - Republicans going to support this?
Ms. DE CASTRO: I think there's a number of folks on the record. We have seen people like Mr. Brownback, Lugar, Voinovich, and a number of others that I think if the call gets - if the question gets called, they will be there. They know this is an issue that should not continue to get postponed. And they also know that the restoration of the rule of law actually needs to deal with this undocumented population, making sure they're in the books, paying taxes, learning English, and that we need smart enforcement provisions because what we're doing right now is simply not working.
CONAN: Enforcement of the rule of law - that includes controlling the border, does it not, George Grayson? And there's been a lot of steps toward that, as we said, the - as Ron Elving told us earlier, the energy behind continuing construction on the border fencing in its various forms has slowed considerably.
Prof. GRAYSON: That's true, Neal. But something we never looked at or seldom look at in this debate is the situation in Mexico. Mexico is not Bangladesh. Mexico is the 12th largest industrial economy in the world. It's got gold, silver, gas, oil, beaches, museums.
If Taiwan could lease Mexico for 20 years, we would be talking about the colossus of the South. And yet the Mexican elite pays very little in taxes, allows the public education system to be colonized by an extremely venal union, and also provides miserable health care for the masses. The Mexican elite would far rather have U.S. taxpayers pick up the bill for health care, education and job training.
CONAN: Let's see if we got one more caller in on the conversation. Robert's with us with Winston-Salem.
ROBERT (Caller): Yes. How are you (unintelligible)?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
ROBERT: Good, good. I just want to comment that I work a lot with Hispanics and immigrants. And I don't feel like it's right to herd them up like cattle and send them back to their country. And, you know, I think they should be able to go to school. I think they should be able to go to our technical colleges and learn trades like anyone else. We brought them here when times were good to do our hand labor. And now that times are bad we just want to pack them up and send them back, and it's just not fair.
CONAN: Well, I'm not sure either of those things is quite accurate. They came here. We didnt bring them here in most respects. And I'm not sure anybody is arguing to pack them up and send them back.
ROBERT: Right. Well, I think, you know, that, I guess the argument is, do we make citizens out of them so that they may pay taxes and be part of our society, or do we continue to treat them as third class citizens?
CONAN: And, well, Chip, our earlier caller may give them a great break in his landscaping company, there are other employers who are not so progressive about the way they treat people who are vulnerable in our society because they have little recourse to any kind of help from the authorities and are frightened about what may happen in that respect. Any case, we want to thank our guests today for being with us. This is not the first or last time we will be discussing these issues as the debate either comes up or doesn't. A lot will depend on whether there's a Supreme Court opening or not.
Senator Leahy may be busy with the Judiciary Committee this summer. In any case, our thanks to Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of immigration and national campaign at the National Council of La Raza, and to George Grayson, who's on the board of the Center for Immigration Studies. Thank you both very much.
Ms. DE CASTRO: Thank you.
Prof. GRAYSON: Thank you, Neal.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.