Roundtable: LA Capitol Controversy, Immigrant Students

Tuesday's topics: Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's expensive remodeling job in the state capitol; illegal immigrants who are top high school students face a future without college; and should the Army increase its ranks or withdraw from some of the countries it currently deploys troops to? Guests: Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University; and Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco orders an expensive remodeling job for the state capitol, and what to do about an Army that may be stretched too thin.

Joining us today to discuss these topics, from Audioworks in New Orleans, Louisiana, is Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. At our bureau in Chicago, Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender. And Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education and co-director, immigration studies at New York University, is in so--excuse me--is in East Hampton, New York.

Thanks for joining us.

Professor MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO (New York University): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So let me just start with you, Mary Frances Berry. You are in New Orleans.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): Hi.

CHIDEYA: The Louisiana governor is trying to get her Martha Stewart on and really spend a little over half a million dollars, $565,000, on remodeling the state office. Is this the right time for that?

Prof. BERRY: Well, it's not the right time. And down here, you know, being down here, it really is a tale of two cities, those who have and those who don't and those who are struggling and everybody's working hard trying to put things together all along the Gulf Coast and here in the city. The governor--I understand that they made this contract before Katrina happened, and they claim that if they don't spend this $564,000 that they'll have to pay it anyway because they already have the contract. But she's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. In a way, it may be better if she just simply ate it and didn't do it because she has enough problems now with people saying that she's inept, incompetent, out of touch and doesn't care, which I'm not sure is absolutely true.

CHIDEYA: Roland, how do you perceive this? And is this is a situation where she really is being taken to task for something she didn't have much of a hand in?

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Executive Editor, Chicago Defender): I think she would be an improper steward if she did not use the resources that were budgeted, that were bid out. The point that they made was that they could potentially be sued because it was bid out and they were moving forward. Look, I've covered city hall, I've covered county government. It's always easier to write these kinds of stories, say, well, in tough budget times you're spending $500,000 in remodeling an office, but there are practices and procedures. And, frankly, had they been sued and spent more money on lawyers' fees, then you would have jacked it up even more so. And so, look, you bite the bullet, you spend the money, you deal with the media stories, us talking about it, but the reality is it was a project that was already moving forward. And so you simply move forward and say, hey, that's just the way it is. And you move on.

CHIDEYA: Marcelo?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: It's another unfortunate footnote really to the series of catastrophes that will be known historically as the mismanaging of the Katrina aftermath. So on the one hand, there are these budget considerations and legal considerations that need to be taken into consideration; on the other hand, these cosmetic changes at a time when the state is looking into having to lay off over 20 percent of the work force at a time of deep budget cuts doesn't look good.

CHIDEYA: Marcelo...

Prof. BERRY: The bottom line...

CHIDEYA: Go ahead, Mary.

Prof. BERRY: Farai, the bottom line is that probably what she should do, whether there is a contract or not, is simply say no, we won't finish it. If we are sued, we'll have to deal with that and we'll have to claim that given this crisis, we shouldn't have to pay. We'll make those arguments. In a PR sense, given what's going on down here, that probably would be her best option. But Roland is right. If, in the end, she ended up paying more because she lost the lawsuit, that would be another story, but at least that would be down the line.

CHIDEYA: Mary, let me ask you. You're in New Orleans right now. Are people talking about the government in a way that indicates folks are still mad that they haven't gotten what they think needs to happen in New Orleans?

Prof. BERRY: Yes. People are--the mood here is local people did what they could for each other. They did what they could for each other. They helped each other. And people are glad to see each other, the ones who are still alive, and to try to fix this place. But they feel like they were let down by government at all levels, not just the governor but, you know, the federal government, everybody let them down...

Mr. MARTIN: The mayor.

Prof. BERRY: ...up and down the line. The mayor is sort of like--on the one hand, he talks a lot, sometimes he's irascible, he wants people to come back, but what are they coming back to? So the mood is that the people here--and I have a place down here so I spend a lot of time here, and we didn't get as much damage as a lot of people--but the mood is we're all doing what we can do to help each other, but the government just simply is clueless or doesn't care or maybe they think we are a Third World country and like it and won't do what they should do and we can't trust them. The latest thing is the levee board where the governor seems not to be supporting getting the kind of real serious levee inspections. And some people even wish that we had governors like Edwin Edwards or the long line of corrupt governors in Louisiana who ended up going to jail but at least were efficient.

CHIDEYA: They were efficient at getting money for the...

Prof. BERRY: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...projects. But, Roland, let me ask a different take on this whole thing. What about the media coverage? You're running the Chicago Defender, historical black paper. Has the media sufficiently followed up on Katrina and is a story like this really that important in the big scheme of things?

Mr. MARTIN: Again, the way the game works in the media, it's a hot story when it's on everybody else's front page. But after the first month, two months, everything begins to subside and you still have some reporting out there. You don't have the intensity that you had before because it's not as easy. It's not as an emotional story. You don't have the faces, you don't have, you know, the horror. You don't have the images. Frankly, for some media people, whether we like it or not, it then becomes a boring story. Might as well go ahead and say that because that's what folks think. So now it becomes a more bureaucratic story. Now it becomes a process story. And, look, Americans don't really like process. We want to see the end result. We want to see the opening of a building, we want to see the opening of stores in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we want to see the town actually finish being rebuilt and, you know, having the ribbon cutting. And we don't want to go through the hard work beforehand. So that's one of the reasons why you've seen such a change of pace. And so it has been the job of black newspapers, of alternative newspapers to continue to beat the drum in asking those critical questions because the national media does move on. What's the story now? What's taking place with the miners? That's the hot story of the day and that's how the media works. We move on to the next hottest story.

CHIDEYA: Marcelo, this may be a little bit of a departure, but you are running an immigration studies wing at New York University. A lot of people who I've talked to who are Katrina survivors see themselves as immigrants, in a way, to new parts of the United States. How does a discipline like immigration studies deal with the fact that you had a really specific culture in New Orleans and a lot of the people who've left are really committed to keeping that culture alive?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Yeah, in many ways it's more of a refugee story than an immigration story. Immigrants willingly choose to move to another city, to another state, to another country to pursue their interests. In a sense, what we've seen in the Gulf is really the involuntary movement of people due to these series of catastrophes: first, the destruction of the city and then these inadequate responses that we've seen throughout. But in many fundamental ways, what we're dealing with here is with the shock of dislocation, they need to find jobs, they need to find stability, they need to get the kids back in school. They need to have some kind of order, some kind of a socially predictable life where returning to the daily routines of life becomes the fundamental task for the displaced person. So in many ways, it is in fact a refugee story. It is a story of people having to move to other cities, Houston, other states, to look for stability, to look...

CHIDEYA: Well, you know...

Mr. MARTIN: Now, Farai, I...

CHIDEYA: ...the word `refugee' has become so politicized; I don't know if that's what you were going to talk about, Roland.

Mr. MARTIN: No, I wasn't.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: I mean, think there is a point I think Mary Frances Berry made. There was a meeting at the White House a couple of weeks ago where they assembled all of these folks--Bruce Gordon was there, Donna Brazile was there and others...

CHIDEYA: Right.

Mr. MARTIN: ...laborers and business, where they were talking about this whole issue of retraining. And, you know, I've been driving home that point really the week after the hurricane by saying, look, if you have chronic unemployment and being--you talking about low skill sets, service sector jobs, I said use the community college system to be able to retrain these folks as plumbers, electricians, dry-wallers, all the kinds of jobs that are needed right now in New Orleans. And so people will have that skill set. Finally, folks have, you know, after three or four months, say, `Wow, let's use our community colleges to do exactly that.'

See, this is how--in terms of media, how we can push a particular issue or a drive a story because you can talk about rebuilding all day, but the people who were unemployed, the people in the Ninth Ward and other places, if they don't have a skill set, you're back at the same position. And so...

CHIDEYA: And...

Mr. MARTIN: ...it's how we redefine this issue. As opposed to just rebuild, but you also have to retrain and then put them in a position to be able to get work, there or wherever they're living now.

CHIDEYA: Professor Berry...

Prof. BERRY: And you should know that there is an ongoing story. There are changes. I mean, that's why the New Year's Eve celebration was important with al the people who showed up to say, `We're here.' That's why all the people who are back with the signs up outside, `I'm back and I'm working and I'm doing'--there are jobs here. There are lots and lots of jobs, employers with signs up wanting to hire people all over the place. Stores are opening. Even the movie theater in town is planning to reopen. So there is life here. And there was a big story in The Picayune yesterday where there is something like 165,000 people here as opposed to 75,000, given all those who've come back. And all up and down the coast people are coming back, the ongoing story.

But I think the next big story is going to be whether the levees get fixed and what happens by next hurricane season.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes.

Prof. BERRY: That's going to be the next big story.

CHIDEYA: And I'm sure that hurricane season is going to creep up faster than people anticipate.

Mr. MARTIN: About three months away, I think.

Prof. BERRY: Right.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: About three months away.

CHIDEYA: Let me transition to another issue. Katrina--the two big stories really of last year were Katrina and Iraq. Now the question has arisen, because of the troop staffing in Iraq, of whether or not the Army is large enough. If we're going to engage in multiple conflicts around the world, arguably the Army just doesn't have enough soldiers. Of the Army's one million soldiers, fewer than 400,000 are combat troops and only 150,000 of those are on active duty. Now should the Army increase its ranks or should the US pull out of some of the conflicts that we're engaged in in the world? Marcelo?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: I think this again points to the limits of a unilateral force in an increasingly global age of conflict where we are going to need to increasingly coordinate our security interests, our military presence, the display of force within a multilateral framework with partnerships that will contribute their fair share to the kinds of collective security considerations that we're going to be facing. So here really we're talking about two separate set of issues. One is what is the appropriate number of troops that we should be able to deploy worldwide. And the second issue is what are the alliances? What are the partnerships, genuine partnerships we're going to be needing if in fact we are to manage multiple conflicts in multiple parts of the world?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I find it interesting we're talking about increasing troop levels when the biggest problem that we've had in the past six years has been a lack of adequate diplomacy. I mean, sending in troops is really your last option. Unfortunately, we have become a country, an administration that chooses to go the military route first rather than diplomacy. And so it needs to be a double conversation because that's really one of our greatest problems. I know folks are out there trying to float this whole notion of a draft, and I'm telling you right now, that is not going to happen. If they try to institute a draft in this country again, I think you're going to see the kind of revolt that both parties does not want to see.

Prof. BERRY: There's an absolute limitation on how many people can be persuaded to volunteer for the military service. If you read some of the poignant stories of people who did volunteer, 18- and 19-year-olds and the like, they're doing it because they believe that in fact if we have to go over there to fight the Iraqis because they came here on 9/11, which is not true of course, or they will come here, there are only so many people who believe that, which is why it's so hard to recruit people, no matter how much they pay them, what incentives they give them. So the United States is going to be forced to find some military force somewhere else from some other country that they can use to in fact help to go off on these adventures, or we are going to be reduced to trying to use multilateralism and diplomacy more than we have right now.

CHIDEYA: One last speed round question. This is about undocumented immigrants who are trying to go to college. They can't, under federal law, get financial aid, but now some lawmakers in Congress have developed something called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act or the DREAM Act. It would allow undocumented students who arrive before they turn 16 and have lived here at least five years to become temporary legal residents and eligible for college aid. With immigration such a divisive topic, does this DREAM Act have a fighting chance and should it, Professor Berry?

Prof. BERRY: It is not going to pass. It doesn't have the chance of a snowball in hell. And also the point should be made there's a lawsuit in California right now from out-of-state American students suing because the University of California admits undocumented students with in-state tuition. And they're complaining, `Why should people who are undocumented pay in-state when we're paying out-of-state?' And there are lawsuits that are being developed in other states that have this. So the bill isn't going to pass and the problem in the current environment that we have will not, but it ought to. There--something ought to be done because these people are here, they're going to be here, they have potential, we're not going to stop them from coming, and it's in the national interest to educate them.

CHIDEYA: Marcelo?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: I agree. And furthermore, really these children are not going anywhere. These children, these youths who come to the United States often not really knowing that they don't have the papers to be in our country, these children are going to grow up to be citizens of the United States one way or another, let's face it. They're not going anywhere. They're not going back to Mexico, they're not going back to El Salvador, they're not going back to Jamaica, they're not going back to Nigeria. This is really the human face of a failed migration policy. We have hundreds of thousands of undocumented alien children and youth in our schools today and many of these children are facing very dim prospects as they make the move to college or to the labor market.

CHIDEYA: Roland, very briefly, what about Mary Frances' point that, you know, black students will say, `What about me?'

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I'm not even looking at it from a perspective of what black students will say. This is indeed what happens. This--I mean, the children are having to deal with the sins of the parents. And that is that illegal immigration. I don't think it's going to pass. I mean, you're not going to find huge supporters of illegal immigration in the United States Congress. But again, this is what happens when you have illegal immigration. And so this is the back end. If you don't address the front end, this is the story that we're going to be telling 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now.

CHIDEYA: All right. In Chicago we have had Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender; in New Orleans, Louisiana, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director, immigration studies at New York University in East Hampton, New York.

Thank you all so much.

Mr. MARTIN: Thanks, Farai.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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