ND Expert: Q & A on immigration reform

by Shannon Chapla

Allert Brown-Gort

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Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, is a citizen of both the United States and Mexico and an expert on immigration policy, civil service reform and the political views of Mexican nationals in the United States. He has written and been interviewed extensively on immigration reform and has served as an advisor to the U.S. Senate on Hispanic issues.

How would you characterize the current immigration debate?

Immigration has essentially become a bad word. It no longer conjures images of Ellis Island. We now default to talk of undocumented immigration, security threats and people taking jobs that Americans want. The reality is pretty far from that. Not all immigrants are undocumented. Far from it, in fact only slightly over a quarter of immigrants currently in the United States are undocumented. At the moment, we have zero net migration with Mexico and one of the reasons is there are essentially no jobs of the sorts that immigrants typically take. And regarding the question of whether immigrants take jobs from the native- born… We really have not seen a lot of native-born wanting or taking over the jobs that immigrants typically have. It isn’t only a question of salary. It’s more about benefits.

Why is the issue so complicated?

One of the things we forget is that immigration is a constant in humanity and one of the reasons we’re not all still in Africa. There was immigration before there were nation states, and there will be immigration after the next political arrangement. The question is how do we manage it? Is immigration a good thing or a bad thing? It’s not easily explained. We often say immigrants don’t pay taxes. Well, they do. We often say immigrants are a net gain to the economy. Well, yes, but for whom because the pie doesn’t grow for everybody the same way and that’s an important consideration. And in general, I think all societies need to come to some sort of understanding about their comfort level with the rate of migration. It doesn’t work to say we only want highly educated Europeans to come here, because, highly educated Europeans are otherwise engaged. If the jobs exist for somebody else, then those are the people who are going to come. There is clearly a demand, and so much of immigration is tied to the great economic flows of the world. We can’t just talk about it as a supply issue. Demand and supply must be in balance.

Why has immigration reform become a political football?

The costs are very easy to identify, but the benefits of immigration are generally very diffuse. For politicians, there is little credit for doing the right thing and a great deal of potential gain by demagoguing the issue. I think the genesis of the controversy was when members of Congress wanted to separate themselves from President Bush during an unpopular election, and the one place they could draw a clear red line was to focus on immigration. It has continued to be an issue, particularly with the Republican Party. If we juxtapose that with the growth of the immigrant community, especially the growth of the children of immigrants, I think it’s going to have some long-term effects on the Republican Party.

What is your solution for immigration reform?

I would involve the Department of Labor in two different ways. First, I would strengthen the provisions for enforcing current labor laws. People are convinced that undocumented immigrants are here because they will work for employers that want to exploit them. Now, there is some of that, undoubtedly. And so, I think one of the ways to deal with that is to empower the Department of Labor to enforce labor laws vigorously for all workers. If employers are staying in business by exploiting workers and that’s why they’re hiring immigrants, they will no longer be able to do that. American-born workers would then be free to take or not take jobs, and if they’re not showing up, the Department of Labor could then work with Homeland Security to offer the necessary number of visas. This would be a type of guest worker program. And as we know, most guest worker programs empower employers, which can lead to exploitation. If workers hold the rights to the visas, they can be free to seek employment in places that won’t exploit them. Such a system would also protect America’s lowest-paid workers, many of whom are in direct competition with immigrants.

What would you say to those who think we simply need to strengthen the borders?

It’s a fool’s errand. When is the border sufficiently strong? How do we make it sufficiently strong? The issue is not the border. The issue is all of the other elements within the country that are creating the situation, and we must deal with the underlying issues. It’s a little bit like saying, I have a brain tumor and the brain tumor is giving me a headache, so I’m going to treat it with an aspirin. It might do something for the headache short-term, but it’s not going to fix the brain tumor. As long as we focus on the border, we’re completely missing the target.

What do you think of laws and pending legislation in certain states that allow police to check the immigration status of people they stop?

I think for most people who are never likely to be stopped by the police, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But it ignores the fundamental problems with immigration. We conflate “undocumented” with “legal immigrants,” and we conflate both with “Latinos.” Popular opinion is that if you’re Latino, you’re an immigrant. If you’re an immigrant, you’re undocumented. If you’re undocumented, you’re a criminal. If you’re a criminal, we don’t want you to be part of our society. This mentality ignores the fact that Latinos have been here since before this country was this country. But more importantly, it ignores the fact that over 75 percent of Latinos are US citizens—over 60 percent from birth and another 12 or 13 percent by naturalization. Do we want to set up a system that will systematically make people feel they are not a part of their own nation? The largest benefit of immigration is the children. We have Americans being born right here. This makes us different than many other developed societies. Japan, for example, and really all of Europe, have desperate demographic problems because there are just not enough babies. The United States does a remarkable job of integrating people from all over the world and producing Americans within a generation, but these laws threaten the system. Do we really know what an undocumented immigrant looks like? Or is it just anyone who looks vaguely Latino? Does that mean if I’m an undocumented Canadian, I get a free ride? One might argue that the majority of the undocumented are Latino, but Latinos are also all sorts of other things. I believe our children are the most important thing to our country and our future, and this directly impacts them and their view of who they are.

What are some of the contributions immigrants make to this country?

We tend to think about immigrants as poorly educated, low skill, and so on. The reality is “low-skill” is a proxy for “low educational attainment,” not because they don’t know how to do anything. They really know how to do a lot. We have to remember that immigrants bring us both the least-educated and also the most-educated, so immigrants are overrepresented in people with more than a college degree. And in terms of PhDs, they’re wildly overrepresented, so the higher up the scale you go, the more immigrants you get. Do we want to keep attracting the best and the brightest from the world over? Quite clearly, we do. Immigrants are mostly self-selected to be very entrepreneurial. These are people who literally fling themselves into space to find new lives, and in some ways they are the harbingers for the economy to come. If we examine the cities and industries that attract immigrants, we can determine where the movement is, and part of the reason is immigrants by their very nature are much more mobile. They’re new to this country so they’re not tied to any one geographic place. They’re new to this society, so there is no old way of doing things. They will try just about anything and that’s a huge benefit.

Media Advisory: Brown-Gort’s comments may be used in whole or in part. He is available for interviews and can be reached at 574-631-3787 or browngort.1@nd.edu