Sebastian Chaskel, MPA
On October 14th and 15th Princeton’s campus hosted Voz Latina 2011, the third annual symposium organized by the university’s Office of Academic Affairs and Diversity and the Latino Graduate Student Association in honor of Latino Heritage Month. This year’s topic: "Immigration in the 21st Century—the Costs of a Broken System."
The conference organizers could not have chosen a more opportune moment for a conversation on immigration. While the percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States has skyrocketed from 5% in the 1960s to 13% today, some state governments are implementing the strongest anti-immigrant policies the country has ever seen, reflecting a strong xenophobia in certain regions. The United States’ 11.2 million undocumented immigrants—half of them Mexican—now represent 5% of the US labor force. Yet they continue to work in the shadows, lacking the rights and protections that the rest of the population enjoys. As Princeton Professor Douglas Massey commented in his presentation, the structural conditions are being created for a semi-permanent underclass in the United States.
The symposium’s guests highlighted the elevated costs of a broken system. Enrique Morones, the founder of Border Angels, mentioned that about 10,000 people have died on the US-Mexico border attempting to cross it. His organization places water, blankets, and food on the border in an attempt to prevent further deaths, and records the stories of those that have perished in order to give a human face to the statistics. Professor Jorge Bustamante from Notre Dame University commented on his findings as UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants from 2005 to 2011. During this time, he witnessed constitutional violations executed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) agents who entered homes without warrants and seized occupants without legal bases. At the time the US government questioned Bustamante’s accusation, but a 2009 report by the Immigration Justice Clinic at Yeshiva University's Cardozo Law School, Constitution on Ice, seconded Bustamante’s findings, “reveal[ing] an established pattern of misconduct by ICE agents” in the region covered by the study.
Princeton Professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly argued that undocumented immigrants are more likely than others to suffer from the country’s broken health system. Her research shows that those that choose to immigrate to the United States are healthier than the average person in their countries of origin, but health problems emerge once they enter the United States. As immigrants assimilate, they and their descendents pick up unhealthy smoking, drinking, and eating habits, along with the diseases that accompany them, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Their health is further impaired by limited access to health services due to state and local policies nationwide which limit immigrant access to basic medical care. New Jersey and Miami-Dade County stand out for the services they offer immigrant populations, while San Diego is notorious for its barriers to health access.
Professor Marta Tienda focused on Latino education trends, lamenting that although 16% of the American population is Hispanic, only 6% of college degree holders identify as such. She implored the Latino students present to do their part by encouraging and assisting other Hispanics in their college application processes. “Bring along two others, one in each hand,” Professor Tienda urged.
The national immigration correspondent for the New York Times, Julia Preston, explained that the harsh state anti-immigration laws being implemented across the country, such as Alabama’s HB56, and Arizona’s SB 1070, reflect the disagreements between states and the federal government over immigration reform. Professor Massey argued that these and other restrictive developments, such as greater border control, have not decreased illegal immigration, but have encouraged illegal immigrants to “hunker down” in the US, as the costs of traveling home and returning have increased. “Coyotes,” or smugglers, now charges $5,000-$7,000 per person brought to the country, compared to $1,000 or $2,000 just five years ago. Illegal migration has dropped in recent years, but this is due to decreased job openings in the United States, greater legal migration opportunities, and reduced fertility in Mexico. As a result, there is a net inflow of zero illegal immigrants to the U.S. now—fewer people are coming, but fewer people are also going back.
In terms of what should be done, both Professor Bustamante and Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) Professor Denise Dresser argued that the ideal policy response would be a bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States on immigration. Legislative reform by nature is unilateral, Bustamante explained, and will therefore not be able to solve a bilateral problem. Such an agreement was on the table when Vicente Fox and George W. Bush led Mexico and the US, respectively, but the notion of a bilateral agreement disappeared on September 11, 2001. Immigration is now seen through a prism of security and thus such an agreement is no longer a viable option.
Professor Massey argued that the US is closer to passing comprehensive immigration reform than most think. The border is now secure and a system by which Mexicans and others can apply to work in the United States is already in place. The one outstanding issue is dealing with the 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, and Massey sees the only feasible and humane policy choice as 1) granting automatic legal status to everyone who was brought illegally to the US as a child, and 2) creating a system by which those that came as adults can gain citizenship.
Julia Preston predicted that policymakers will not touch immigration reform until after the 2012 presidential election due to the sensitivity of the subject to constituents. Professor Massey explained that the uneasiness many middle-age Americans feels about the increasing level of foreign-born residents in the US can be partly explained in that they came to age in the 1950s-60s, a time in which the foreign-born percentage of US residents was at an exceptional low of about 5%. The current 14% is closer to the country’s historical record, but it is nevertheless s a new reality for that generation. Professor Dresser emphasized that it is in both the United States’ and Mexico’s interest to find a sustainable solution and encouraged those interested in seeing reform, including the Mexican government, to pressure American legislators at a local level in order to create the incentives for reform.
A population of 11 million residing in the US without access to basic rights clashes with the values American society purports to uphold. While there was variance among the participants as to the best policy choice and the most efficient strategy to achieve reform, there was unanimous agreement in recognizing that the current situation is inhumane, dangerous, and unsustainable. Lest the United States become a country with permanent first- and second-class citizens, with different sets of rights and protections, immigration reform should be an urgent priority for the country’s decision makers.