TERRY GROSS, host:
We asked Mark Krikorian for his reaction to Jose Antonio Vargas's story about life as an undocumented immigrant. Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates low immigration and strict enforcement. His books include "The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal."
Mark Krikorian, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Center for Immigration Studies): Thanks for having me.
GROSS: So what do you think should happen to Jose Antonio Vargas now that he's admitted that he's undocumented?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, it's not so much that he's undocumented, it's that he's an illegal immigrant. He has fraudulent documents. He has, he came here not as a very young child. I mean he came here as a child, there's no question, but his, you know, he came here as - with an identity formed as a Filipino. In other words, he came at what was the age, 12 or something like that. That's still pretty young, clearly, but the moral case that you can make for the Dream Act or something like the Dream Act, and there is a moral case to make for it, really only applies, it seems to me, to people whose identities have been formed here, who have no memory of any other country, who really are, as some of the advocates sometimes put it, Americans in all but paperwork.
This doesn't really cover a lot of the people that would be covered under the current version of the Dream Act, including Mr. Vargas. The man has real abilities and real skills and, you know, he should go home to his country of citizenship, the country he grew up in for most of his childhood.
GROSS: Do you think the United States should force him to go there?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Sure. I mean he's an illegal immigrant, so obviously you don't have to arrest the guy. I mean it's hard for him to hide. There's - you give people like this something called voluntary return. You know, you have to leave in 90 days or in six months or something like that. So you pack up your things. You resolve your affairs and you can go home. I mean he's got a skill that's clearly usable in much of the world, including the Philippines. They have large numbers of English language media. The man has real skills and real abilities and he ought to use those in his own country.
GROSS: The argument, one of the arguments on the other side is, look at how bright he is, how skilled he is, how articulate he is. Why wouldn't we want him to remain in the United States? Isn't that exactly the kind of talent that we want here?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: But see, the argument, it seems to me the strongest case you can make for something like the Dream Act, which he's now started an advocacy group to promote - in fact, his New York Times article really was part of his advocacy campaign. It wasn't a kind of spontaneous, you know, baring of his soul. The strongest argument you can make for something like the Dream Act, as I said, is for people who prudence suggests we should allow stay because their identities had been formed here, they really are, psychologically speaking, Americans. Because understand that what we're proposing here is an amnesty. We are in other words legalizing illegal immigrants at the expense of legal immigrants who did not sneak in or were brought in illegally into the country, and that - it seems to me that's a pretty high bar to meet.
And it just doesn't seem to me to say this man has or any person involved here has certain skills and they'll be able to, you know, they'll be able to earn a living. They'll be able to distinguish themselves. That's just not, it seems to me, not enough of a rationale to forgive violation of the immigration laws with all the consequences that come from that.
GROSS: So if Jose Antonio Vargas were to stay in the United States and to actually proceed on the road to citizenship, who would that be hurting?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, in any individual case, who knows? This is like to say if, you know, does any individual snowflake hurt anybody? Well, no individual snowflake is responsible for the avalanche. And it's hard, there's no way you can say this person, you can identify this person and do a news story on him, who was harmed by permitting a particular illegal immigrant to stay. Because the effects that illegal immigration has is more diffuse, it's on a whole variety of - whether it's taxpayers, whether it's students who can't get into, say, a community college because an illegal immigrant under the Dream Act took that space. So the effects and the harm is very real.
GROSS: What are some of your other concerns about the Dream Act? You mentioned one. You think that only people who came here illegally when they were infants or very young children should qualify for the Dream Act, people who didn't already have any identity as a native of their country. Other concerns?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, the other concerns stem from actually legalizing or amnestying the kind of people you're describing. In other words, even if we were to reduce the - lower the age at which a person had to come here first to qualify, say to age seven, but even in that situation, this is still an amnesty. You have to be honest about it and I'm for it under certain circumstances but it is an amnesty and amnesties have two important consequences. One is they encourage further illegal immigration by sending a message that if you keep your head down long enough, eventually you or your children or somebody will be able to get legal status. It serves as a kind of magnet for new illegal immigration.
And the second effect that all amnesties have is that they reward people who broke the law. And so the two important things that any Dream Act 2.0 would have to deal with would be these questions. One, what kind of enforcement measures would you add to a bill like this? And then secondly, how do you make sure that none of the adults involved ever are able to benefit from this? In other words, by being allowed to stay legally somehow or another, being petitioned for a green card, that sort of thing.
For instance, with regard to that problem, there's really two ways you can address it. One is you legalize the kids but you don't give them green cards so that they can become citizenship. You give them some kind of long-term non-immigrant visa, it's called. In other words, like a temporary visa but one that's renewable indefinitely as long as you stay out of trouble. That way they wouldn't be able to petition for any relatives.
The alternative is you change the whole chain migration system with the categories that we have now so that you would reduce, sort of narrow the definition of relatives that you could actually petition, that anybody could petition. The whole point, though, is to minimize the downstream effects and the downstream rewards that the amnesty would create for adults who really were responsible for breaking the law.
GROSS: Now, you describe your think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies, as a low immigration pro-enforcement think tank. What does that mean?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, it means that we think numbers overall, immigration numbers overall should be reduced. Enforcement is part of that, but it's only part of it. People often focus just on illegal immigration and illegal immigration is obviously a significant problem, but our take on it really is that a modern society has no need for any immigration. We don't actually need immigration. I mean our land is settled. We're an industrialized, postindustrial society. And so the question is, we need to start, from our perspective, start at zero, like zero-based budgeting, and then say are there groups of people whose admission is so compelling that we let them in despite the fact there's no need for this sort of thing? And not to give you the long spiel on it, but that would amount to husbands, wives and little kids of U.S. citizens, who've never been limited in the past, aren't ever going to be limited in the future. But that's a lot of people. That's 350, 400 thousand people right there, handful of Einsteins, real Einsteins, and a modest number of real refugees who will really never have anywhere else to go.
GROSS: But America is really a country of immigrants. It's a country based on immigration. My grandparents were immigrants. What about your family?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Sure, mine were too. I mean I didn't even speak English until I went to kindergarten because my parents, even though they were born here, spoke Armenian to me and English to each other. I mean, you know, a lot of us obviously had immigrant origin, but to say that America is a nation of immigrants is only partly true. We're a, we are partly a nation of immigrants but a number of things have formed what we are. We're also a nation of settlers and pioneers. But you know, we don't have covered wagons crossing the Great Plains anymore. And the idea that immigration, which was an important element of the second half of the 19th century, informing who we are as a country now is somehow essential to our sort of sense of self indefinitely into the future, it just strikes me as anachronistic.
GROSS: I'm sure a lot of people are thinking here's a guy whose grandparents were immigrants, his family has benefited from all America has to offer, and now that he's American he wants to shut the door to a lot of other people in -who are now in comparable positions.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: There are in fact a lot of people in comparable positions to my grandparents and yours, but America is not in a comparable position. Well, the difference really is from 100 years ago, is not really the immigrants. They're really not that different today from my grandparents and yours. What's different is our country. I mean we have matured as a nation. We've become a middle-aged country, if you will. And I can say this, having just turned 50 myself. We've outgrown mass immigration. It was an important part of our adolescence. just as settling the frontier was, but you know, we've left it behind.
An analogy I used in my book actually, my editor made me take it out so I always bring it up every time I talk about it, is to donuts. When you're 11 years old, you eat all the donuts your parents will let you eat and they're probably good for you at that point. When you're 50 years old, you can't eat donuts like that anymore. There's nothing wrong with the donuts. They're the same doughnuts. But your metabolism has changed and our body politics' metabolism has changed significantly so that we need to now start looking at what's good for our grandchildren, not what was good for our grandparents.
GROSS: I know - I know your group is very concerned about immigration from Mexico, particularly illegal immigration from Mexico. I don't know if you saw the article in The New York Times this week that began by saying the extraordinary Mexican migration that delivered millions of illegal immigrants to the United States over the past 30 years has sputtered to a trickle, and research points to a surprising cause - unheralded changes in Mexico that have made staying home more attractive.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Yes, I did read that, and I think that's part of what's happening, is Mexican fertility. You know, the number of kids that the average woman has has declined dramatically. It's about the same as it is for the United States now. Although when Mexicans come here, their birth rates go way, way up. We've reported on this in the past. But there's no question that changes in Mexico are part of why we see a smaller flow, at least for now. But it's also because of our economic problems, obviously, because of the violence in Mexico making actually traveling here, especially through the northern part of the country, much more dangerous, and it's because of, frankly, it is because of better enforcement here that has led to people thinking twice about crossing the border, or has led some significant number of people to think about packing up and going home.
So this New York Times story from this week focused, I think, on one part of what we're seeing, but just one part. I think they made a bigger deal out of that one development than it really warrants. I mean my point here is that this problem has not gone away. It's not something that we're just going to outgrow quickly. We're going to have a significant pressure for immigration from Mexico for a long time in the future that we're going to have to respond to one way or another. And in a couple of years, when the economy picks up more, assuming we don't run into a real Depression, you're going to see stories, you look back at stories like this and they're not going to be, they're not going to age very well.
GROSS: So do you think there should be a Dream Act at all or do you think there should be a Dream Act but just a narrower version of it?
Mr. KRIKORIAN: I can see an argument for a narrower Dream Act that has various other things attached to it, like enforcement. Yes, I mean I can't speak for my organization, but if I were in Congress I conceivably would be able to vote for something like that. Yes.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Okay. Well, happy to do it. Happy to do it. I always like your show.
GROSS: Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. You'll find a link to their website on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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