Reframing The Immigration Conversation For 2014 As Congress returns from winter break, Speaker of the House John Boehner has called comprehensive immigration reform a priority. Host Michel Martin talks with immigration policy advocates Mark Krikorian and Ali Noorani about the political prospects for reform this year.

Reframing The Immigration Conversation For 2014

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, high unemployment in the U.S. is an ongoing political issue - one reason lawmakers right now are starting to talk about extending long-term unemployment benefits. But younger workers have been particularly hard hit during the world-wide economic slowdown. We're going to take a look how youth unemployment around the world is affecting political discussions. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to continue the conversation we started a few minutes ago about immigration policy here in the U.S.. We're speaking with Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. That's a group that tends to favor a more restrictive immigration policy. And Ali Noorani is executive director for the National Immigration Forum. That's a group that tends to favor a more expansive immigration policy. Mark, let's go back to you. Before the break, you were saying that one of the problems you have with the way we talk about immigration policies is that it kind of treats immigrants like - either like a vitamin B pill for the economy or some sort of - like the moral yardstick. Could you just explain a bit more about what you were saying?

MARK KRIKORIAN: Yeah, you hear this a lot, especially from people on the right and the corporate side of the high-immigration lobbying push is that, you know, Americans are lazy, or they're not working hard or they're - whatever it is - and that we need immigrants not because they're individual people who are good and bad like anyone else, but because they're somehow, you know, a necessary labor input or morality booster. And...

MARTIN: To fix us.

KRIKORIAN: To fix us. Exactly. We're broken, and there's an, you know - there's an undercurrent of a kind of racial message there, too. And, yeah, basically to fix us. And the problem is that whatever problems we have as a society, guess what? Immigrants are people, too, and they and their kids, especially, end up experiencing whatever those problems are.

MARTIN: So what's your organization's first priority when it comes to immigration reform, and do you feel that it really is on the table this year?

KRIKORIAN: Well, first priority has to be whatever the rules are, they need to be enforced. That's the key issue. The second point is that the numbers are simply too high. We're taking well over a million people. The Senate proposal would double legal immigration. And frankly, as far as the youth unemployment issue discussion later in your show goes, this hits young people as well as less-skilled people the worst. What we're doing is, at the worst possible time, creating situations that's even worse for people who are most vulnerable.

MARTIN: Ali Noorani, what's your organization's first priority when it comes to immigration reform, and do you think it's actually a real possibility on the table this time?

ALI NOORANI: Well, first of all, we are really quite optimistic that 2014 will be the year that the immigration system is fixed. And we would like to see, first and foremost, a tough earned road to citizenship for the undocumented population. We'd like to see a legal immigration system that actually meets the needs of our economy and our families. And just to get to this issue of whether or not immigrants - we see immigrants as objects - for me, you know, immigrants are my parents, my grandparents.

For the majority of Americans, it's the same story. It's - immigrants are who we are. It's who our children go to school with. It's who we go to church with. So the oversimplification of this debate to just an economic input is wrong. And I agree with you - with Mark on that. But it's a much bigger question than what the input is. It's about who we are as a nation. And as a nation, we're a nation of laws, but we're also a nation of immigrants.

MARTIN: Mark, how about that?

KRIKORIAN: Well, you know, we're a nation of a lot of things. We're a nation of pioneers as well as immigrants. We're a nation of, you know, all kinds of - I mean the idea that, you know, poetry and a plaque on the inside the Statue of Liberty somehow has to shape our policy is a mistake. Now the question is not are we going to have immigration, yes or no?

There's no question we're going to have immigration. That's just a big, modern society's going to have immigration. The question is how much, and who do we pick, and how do we enforce the law?

MARTIN: On what? Using what framework, since you said that you object to the notion of immigrants as either the vitamin B pill for the economy or kind of our moral...


MARTIN: I don't know...


MARTIN: ...Moral chastisers or whatever.

KRIKORIAN: Not to give you...

MARTIN: How would we - how would you reframe this?

KRIKORIAN: Not to give you the whole spiel, but most immigration flows are family skills and humanitarian. And I would - and under my, you know, scenario, that would be the basis of our immigration policy. But we would - I would define it much more narrowly than we do now.

MARTIN: So you would...

KRIKORIAN: Husbands, wives and little kids of American citizens, for instance. But that makes up 400,000 people a year already. So the point is even a narrower definition of immigration - cutting it in half - which is what I would suggest, is still a lot of people, more people than any other county in the world takes in.


NOORANI: Well, no other country in the world is like America. I mean, no other country is a place where everybody wants to go. The fact is we need an immigration system that regulates that flow, and that's exactly what's missing at this point. We don't have enough legal entry visas so that, you know, if a person wants to join a family or to compete for a job, they don't actually have - we don't have enough opportunities for people to legally enter the country.

MARTIN: Enough by whose standard? Who decides what's enough?

NOORANI: That's a very - and that's a really good question. I mean, the problem right now is that those standards were set 15-20 years ago. The Senate bill, in fact, set up a system so that the amount of legal immigration fluctuates with the economy. When economy's great, there's more immigration. When the economy is in the bottom, it starts to restrict it.

MARTIN: How would - is there a way in which you would reframe the conversation we are having about immigration? I mean, Mark started our conversation by saying very nicely that he kind of objects to the way we are having this one. That, you know, having these stories, kind of sympathetic or even unsympathetic immigrants - these individual stories he feels sidetracks us from the kinds of conversations we should be having. Is there a way in which you would wish to reframe the way we talk about these issues going forward?

NOORANI: Every time we talk about immigrants and immigration policy as people, Americans say, you know what? This is something that I believe in. This is something we have to fix. This is a system that is broken, and it's hurting me because this is about my neighbor, my neighbor's families, etc. Every time we talk about immigration policy as an abstract set of laws and regulations, people don't understand it.

They write it off, and they get very dismissive. So I can understand, from Mark's perspective, why he doesn't want to talk about immigrants as people because it actually - it resonates with the public. It resonates with folks because they - all of a sudden, they go to the restaurants, and say you know what? That guy making my taco, I wonder where he's from.

MARTIN: But he could personalize it using the guy who sneaks across the border and then goes on to commit, you know, violent felonies and then sneaks back across the border. I mean, he could do that, too, right?

NOORANI: I mean, there are going to be stories from across the spectrum. I mean, the challenge here is that we have to understand the full range of the stories, not just the bad ones, but also the good ones and then create a policy that actually moves us forward.

MARTIN: OK, let me ask Mark. Is there a way in which you want to reframe the discussion?

KRIKORIAN: You know, I think the key issue - and this is - both reframes, but also, I think, gets at the political obstacle that Ali's allies are having - and that is that much of the public, including myself, is actually open to the idea of legalizing long-term illegal immigrants who aren't criminals and maybe have kids here, that kind of thing. I mean, you know, I'm not committing myself to anything, but that's a plausible thing. I don't like it. It's expensive. It's distasteful.

But sometimes you have to do, you know - you deal with reality. The problem - and the key problem is no one believes the promises that our political class will enforce the laws in the future. Everybody assumes, including the Congressional Budget Office, that we will have millions of illegal immigrants in the future after an amnesty, too.

MARTIN: May I request - I'm not going to say force you to - to engage in an exercise that I know many people feel is meaningless and stupid. But forgive me, I'm going to do it anyway. May I encourage you - or request that you predict - is 2014 a year in which we will see some significant political movement on this issue or not?

KRIKORIAN: Well, there will not be a bill on the president's desk by the end of this year. No.

MARTIN: A bill? What, different bills?

KRIKORIAN: The House may pass a bill that the Senate then doesn't deal with - that kind of thing could well happen. But there will not be a bill on the president's desk for him to sign.


NOORANI: I think that this - 2014 is the year. I mean, the politics, the policy are all lining up the right way. And the people are serious about getting things done - want to get this done.

KRIKORIAN: Ali said that last year, too.

MARTIN: All right, well, we will see. Ali Noorani's executive director of the National Immigration Forum. Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you again for a civil and - discussion on an issue that often very isn't. So thank you both very much.

KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Michel.

NOORANI: Thank you.

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