by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“Will each of you list your home address,” asked second-year Thomas Jefferson School of Law student Thomas Fisher of four immigrants’ rights advocates at a public debate at the school July 19, “and when I show up — I may or may not knock — and provide me the same moral arguments that you’re providing here today?”
“I’ll do it on one condition,” said syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, the principal spokesperson for the pro-immigrant side. “When you arrive, you need to do my floors, cook my food, make my bed, stain my fence. You need to do all those things for no pay or little pay, and I reserve the right on Friday — I’ll pay you on Friday after you’ve worked the entire week for me, and you’ve provided me and the middle class with an upper-middle-class lifestyle. You’ve also provided my kids, who are 15, 16 and 17, and lazy and entitled as typical American kids of all colors are, and on Friday I promise to pay you for your week’s labor. But before I pay you, I’ll call the Neighborhood Watch to take you away.”
This exchange, occurring midway through the debate shortly after moderator Douglas Holbrook opened it up for audience questions, exemplified the way immigrants’ rights supporters and opponents frequently talk past instead of to each other. Throughout the debate, the four spokespeople on the immigrants’ rights side focused on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States, while the opponents talked about the economic harm allegedly caused by immigration and the need for even tougher levels of border security. Peter Nuñez, United States Attorney for San Diego from 1982 to 1988, said, “Why don’t we stop illegal immigration before we do anything else?” — making it clear that the status of undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. was of little or no concern to him.
Even the question around which the debate was centered — “Should undocumented immigrants be granted amnesty?” — exemplified the linguistic, as well as the ideological, pitfalls surrounding the issue. Bill Driscoll, who organized the debate for his “Talk of the Town” program on newly launched radio station KNSJ 89.1 FM, drafted the question so it was biased towards the pro-immigrant side in one particular — it used the term “undocumented” instead of “illegal” immigrants — but it also included the term “amnesty,” which the pro-immigrant speakers said was a Right-wing buzz word. What’s more, they said, “amnesty” is meaningless in the current immigration debate because, as Navarrette put it, “Nobody on either side is proposing a 1986-style amnesty.”
Pro-immigrant spokesperson Enrique Morones raised hackles on the anti- side of the room when, asked to give his biography, he described himself as the founder of Border Angels and Gente Vida. Morones said Border Angels was formed to reach out to immigrants crossing the desert with water, food and blankets needed to keep them alive, and Gente Vida was intended “to resist and expose hate groups like the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Minutemen, neo-Nazi groups like that.”
That raised hackles on the anti-amnesty side all night. Opening his presentation as the principal spokesperson against amnesty for undocumented immigrants, Randy Bergholz, Thomas Jefferson School law professor and former San Diego County Republican Committee member, said he was a former member of FAIR and it didn’t serve the cause of rational debate for Morones to brand it a neo-Nazi hate group. Student Fisher ran off a list of names immigrant-rights advocates had called their opponents during the debate — “neo-Nazi,” “hate,” “Southern Poverty Law Center” (an organization Morones had cited as a source for his statement that FAIR and the Minutemen were hate groups, and which Fisher seemed to be saying was itself a hate group), “Fox News,” “lies,” and “Right-wing talking points.” Fisher said that by using these terms to demean their opponents, immigrant-rights advocates had “dug yourselves a hole before we’ve really started.”
Not Just Against “Illegals”
Navarrette, who’s actually listed by his Washington Post syndicators as one of their “conservative” columnists, began the debate by saying he’d written about undocumented immigrants for 25 years and lived in Phoenix, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Diego. “I’ve never met an illegal immigrant who wasn’t welcomed here,” he said. “They were recruited by employers. The main problem isn’t because we have too much border security or we’re too compassionate. It’s because we’re not honest. [Immigrant-rights opponents] like to think that if we threw out all the illegal immigrants, all the kids working at Starbucks would rush out into the fields to work jobs picking avocados. It would not happen.”
Challenging the progressive orthodoxy that giant corporations and farm owners are driving the problem by exploiting their workers — as well as the conservative orthodoxy that if the employers paid enough, U.S.-born Americans would take the jobs now done by immigrants — Navarrette said, “The number one employer of illegal immigrants is the American household. [They hire them as] nannies, gardeners, housekeepers and caregivers for seniors. As long as we keep hiring them and bringing them in, these things will occur. The only way you can solve this problem is by being honest and cutting away the bullshit” — momentarily forgetting the event was being recorded for broadcast on an FCC-licensed radio station that can’t legally air that word.
Bergholz, principal spokesman against amnesty, started his presentation by giving his own ethnic background. He’s the son of German and Polish immigrants, he said, and also has Native American (Cherokee) ancestry — and, he added, his wife is British and came to this country legally. “America has immigration laws,” he said. “Most people follow them. We have long lines waiting to come in. We created a system in 1965” — referring to the bill authored by the late Senator Ted Kennedy which eliminated quotas of allowable immigrants from different countries and instead made “family reunification” the cornerstone of America’s immigration policy. Bergholz said his side wanted “to talk about people who don’t want to obey the laws, and people who enable them.”
But as the debate went on it became clear that Bergholz, Nuñez and the other two anti-amnesty speakers, Arizona State University professor Rob Lewton and former radio talk-show host John Stahl, don’t just want to stop undocumented immigration. They want to reduce all immigration and eliminate any so-called “pathway to citizenship” either for immigrants already here or for those who may arrive in the future. Their argument was that the U.S. simply cannot afford to absorb all the people who would want to be here.
“We have seven billion people in the world, and four billion of them would love to live in the United States,” said Nuñez. “The solution to illegal immigration is not more legal immigration. Most people believe there has to be a limit. In the last 20 years we’ve had the highest amount of legal immigration in our history. In the 1890’s we needed the numbers. How many people do we need?”
“The economy should be the precursor for developing how much immigration any country has,” said Lewton. “If the economy is booming and growing, like it was in the two bubbles we had, the dot-com/tech bubble and the housing bubble, certainly we can issue work permits for people from Mexico, South America and other countries to come here temporarily and do work. If you want to understand immigration, you’ve got to understand the financial markets. You’ve got to understand age demographics. One out of three baby boomers lists Social Security as their only form of income, and the overwhelming number of these people live in immigrant-rich states: North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, California.”
Lewton claimed that the comprehensive immigration reform bill just passed by the U.S. Senate would triple the number of slots available to legal immigrants — and he said that’s bad policy, especially since he’s predicting another recession. “Don’t make the same mistakes we made in the past,” he said. “Take a more panoramic view.”
Enrique Morones disputed the contention of immigration opponents that the U.S. will be flooded with immigrants if it pursues a more open policy or grants a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already here. “There are 250 million undocumented immigrants in the world, of whom most don’t want to live in the U.S.,” he said. “There are 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. and 40 percent arrive with documents — student visas, tourist visas, work permits — and overstay their visas.” Morones also said that previous waves of immigrants, including Germans, Italians and Jews, were attacked for the same alleged reasons modern-day Mexicans are — that they don’t want to assimilate, that they don’t want to learn English, that they’re setting up their own subcommunities within the U.S. — and it isn’t true of Mexicans any more than it was of these earlier groups.
Arnoldo Torres, pro-immigrant spokesperson who was involved in drafting the 1986 immigration law — which was much closer to an “amnesty” than anything being proposed today — pointed out the elephant in the room regarding immigration from Mexico to the U.S.: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “After 1986 the number of people did not go up in the record numbers that many people opposing legalization argue,” he said. His source was, ironically enough, FAIR — the same group his fellow immigration supporters were denouncing as racist. According to FAIR’s reports on people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border between 1984 and 2005, Torres said, the big leap in attempts to cross the border came after NAFTA went into effect in 1994.
“NAFTA did away with the [economic] progress Mexico had made in the area of agriculture,” Torres said. “They completely did away with the cooperatives, in which small farmers were actually able to make a living on their farms, in their local communities. They started to import U.S. agricultural products at the expense of the Mexican rural areas. So from 1994 to 2004 you have this massive movement of Mexicanos from the rural areas of Mexico to the major cities, and the cities could not accommodate them because NAFTA could not create the 1.5 million jobs it had to create [to employ all the displaced rural Mexicans]. NAFTA created only half a million jobs. So where were the other people going to come? They came to the United States.”
“I agree with you on NAFTA,” Bergholz said, “but the question on this side is what is it undocumented people want? A job? A green card? Citizenship? Why can’t we have a ‘NAFTA green card’ so Mexicans and Central Americans can come here and have the right to work without a path to citizenship?”
Costs, Benefits of Immigration
An audience question from third-year Thomas Jefferson law student Daniel Schmeikel triggered a discussion of one of the most contentious aspects of the immigration debate: are immigrants — documented or otherwise — a benefit or a drain on the American economy. Schmeikel’s question was in two parts: do undocumented immigrants pay Federal income taxes, and how much of what they’re paid is spent here in the U.S. and how much sent home to their families as remittances?
Morones and fellow pro-immigrant panelist Jan Behar cited figures from the Social Security Administration that the Social Security system receives $7 billion a year from undocumented immigrants — who, unless they’re legalized and can prove they paid in, aren’t eligible to receive benefits. Behar and Navarrette pointed out that undocumented immigrants can’t get jobs in the U.S. at all without either a fake Social Security card or a legally issued I-10 taxpayer ID number, through which the IRS can withhold Federal income taxes.
“Uncle Sam doesn’t discriminate,” Navarrette explained. “He’s giving undocumented people a way to pay Federal income taxes” — even though, as Behar said earlier, if an undocumented immigrant overpays Federal income taxes he or she doesn’t get an end-of-the-year refund the way a U.S. citizen or documented immigrant would. And regarding the remittances, Navarrette added, “People don’t send 100 percent of their pay to Mexico. They have to live here and spend money on rent and food.” What’s more, Morones said, when they buy a taxable item in a store undocumented immigrants are charged sales taxes like everyone else.
The question on taxes also triggered a broader back-and-forth discussion on the entire economic cost — or benefit — of immigration in general and undocumented immigration in particular. Torres cited a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study of the recently passed U.S. Senate bill that claimed it would reduce the Federal budget deficit by over $197 billion per year. Nuñez fired back, saying that the CBO had only “scored” the bill for the first 10 years it’s in effect. He also said the CBO had acknowledged that “this bill will not stop illegal immigration. It only reduces it by 25 percent. For me, the issue is how do we stop illegal immigration in the future? If you can convince me that an amnesty would stop future illegal immigration, I’d be all for that.”
“The CBO scored the first immigration bill [the Senate proposed], not the one the Senate passed,” said Lewton. “Florida Senator Marco Rubio — who is no longer supporting the bill he worked to negotiate — put in a clause that no immigrant could work in shipyards or shipbuilding. He did that because he knew that would threaten jobs in Florida. The solution is work permits but not legalization. Then they wouldn’t have to pay Social Security because they’ll never get it. The worst-case scenario is to legalize them — and then we’ll have to take care of them the way we already do with our people.”
“If this is such a bad country, why do so many people want to come here?” said Bergholz. “We’re willing and ready to talk. I’ll sit down with you. We understand there’s an issue with how do you deal with people already here. How do we keep good immigrants from becoming bad Americans?”
“The national motto has been, ‘There goes the neighborhood,’” said Navarrette. “Every group that came here was called ‘inferior.’ German and Chinese immigrants were considered ‘unassimilable.’ Henry Cabot Lodge said the Irish were bringing us down.” But Navarrette added that the argument he was hearing from the anti-immigrant side July 19 — that once allowed to stay in the country and put on a pathway to citizenship, immigrants would lose their work ethic and suck off the welfare state the way U.S. citizens allegedly do already — was a new one. “I hadn’t heard before tonight that we as Americans are inferior, and if we let too many immigrants in, they’ll become just like us,” he said.