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October 16, 2008

Beyond Party Platforms: Asking the Right Questions about Immigration

For a moment it seemed like the U.S.'s national quarrel about immigration laws could be easily settled. Network for Peace through Dialogue had invited Frank Amanat, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer, and Fay Parris, a lawyer who advocates for immigrants, to lay out their different (personal, not representing their respective organizations') views as part of its Living Room Dialogues program, and the two lawyers didn't seem so far apart. If they were in charge, one could think, we would have better immigration policies in a jiffy.

Not so fast, a member of the audience let us know at the end of the evening. Some people have serious grievances, and they want to be heard, too.

The evening was intended to model how dialogue could replace debate in discussing controversial and emotion-laden issues. Besides Mr. Amanat and Ms. Parris, both distinguished professionals in their field, the Network invited Deborah Zarsky and Ariel Lublin, two equally distinguished professionals from Consensus, a consulting firm that offers mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution services world-wide. They were assigned to listen to Mr. Amanat and Ms. Parris, summarize what each said, and ask clarifying questions.

After that, people in the audience had an opportunity to participate in the conversation. In pairs, everyone had a turn in which they could outline their own views on the subject while their partners listened actively to them.

Finally, there was a period where audience members could ask questions of the panelists or make comments. Here was where we caught a glimpse of why the question of what immigration policies would serve our country best is so hard to solve.

Back to some of the points Mr. Amanat and Ms. Parris made.

Both noted that the immigration debate is clouded by the imprecise language that is often used to talk about the problem, for instance the term "illegal alien." Many people believe that it is a serious crime to be in this country illegally, and that allowing "illegal aliens" to remain in this country amounts to some form of "amnesty." It is true that some people who are here illegally have committed crimes, for example people who have re-entered the country after previously being deported, people who have failed to leave the country after being ordered to leave, people who have committed fraud on their immigration applications, and people who committed crimes while in the U.S. In Mr. Amanat's view, these people can and should be prosecuted and sent to jail for their crimes. But these individuals are a relatively small fraction of the people who are in the country illegally.

On the other hand, the large majority of "illegal aliens" fall in the category of people who have "entered without inspection," that is without submitting to a passport inspection at the border. This is a crime, but it is typically only a misdemeanor, usually punishable by a small fine (and deportation), Mr. Amanat told us.

Overstaying your visa is illegal, but not a serious crime. Of the estimated 12,000,000 people in this country who are considered illegal, it is estimated that around 30% are in this category. Typically, an overstayer is subject to deportation, but can legalize his status by paying a fine and complying with certain other requirements.

Ms. Parris complained about the term "alien," which makes other humans sound like beings "not like us." She prefers to use the term &ldquFebruary 10, 2010 that immigrants have mostly a positive impact on our economy. Mr. Amanat said that although many people consider immigrants a drain on taxpayers' dollars, that is subject to debate. Immigrants pay sales taxes, and often property and income taxes as well.

Ms. Parris called the idea that immigrants hurt the economy a myth. Most of them are doing work that Americans do not seem to want or are unable to do. Some examples: 57% of them coming across the Mexican border are unskilled agricultural workers. A lot of businesses along the border rely on immigrants as laborers. In addition, the work force in this country is aging. In coming years, the median age of workers will be 55 - an age when it can be difficult to take on some kinds of labor. Some highly skilled professionals, like engineers and medical personnel are being kept out of the country by present regulations. She contended that immigrants complement the labor force that we have and stimulate the economy overall.

In one area, they differed in emphasis. Mr. Amanat said that prevention of the problem, such as increasing border controls and making expedited removals of some immigrants, is a reasonable strategy. Ms. Parris pointed out that current efforts to prevent people from coming into the country from Mexico by building a wall along the border and otherwise increasing border controls have resulted in increasing criminal activity at those "porous borders." Traffickers of drugs and people have only become more crafty and sophisticated in their efforts to find their way through.

In discussing solutions, Mr. Amanat pointed out that resource allocation is an important consideration, especially right now. The most extreme position in the immigrant debate is that the U.S. should round-em-up-and-ship-em-out. This would require a massive investment to investigate the 12,000,000 cases, build an estimated 20,000 prisons to hold detainees, and engage about 50,000 lawyers to prosecute or defend them.

Ms. Parris brought attention to the many families which could be disrupted by punitive legislation. Some have been here a long time and have established full and complicated lives. Some have children who were born in this country and have spent their whole lives assimilated into U.S. culture. In some families, one person is undocumented and another not.

Both Mr. Amanat and Ms. Parris provided much other helpful information to clarify the topic. Mr. Amanat, however, set off strong feelings in at least one audience member when he talked about the failure of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. This bill, while not perfect, had many sensible features, he said, but it failed to pass the Senate largely because of economic and cultural insecurities, stereotypes and biases, along with a touch of xenophobia (fear or contempt of foreigners).

At the end of the evening, a woman rose to explain that she was an immigrant who came from a Chinese family. She had worked hard to learn English and to fit into the life of this country. This had not been easy for her. In addition, she had spent 10 years living in a border area of Texas. She was angry that Spanish-speaking people who came here didn't learn English and, it seemed to her, expected others to learn their language instead. In fact, people could even lose their jobs if they failed to learn Spanish, she said. In addition, hordes of people coming over the border could overwhelm our country and change it in unknown ways. All this was reality and not, she said emphatically, a "phobia."

Deborah Zarsky, as one of our official "active listeners," respectfully listened to the woman's objections, summarized what she had understood the woman to be saying and asked her if that summary was correct.

Another member of the audience thanked the speakers for offering us such a positive example of how we could explore difficult issues through dialogue instead of debates like the ones we have been seeing in the current race for President.

At the conclusion of the evening, one of the audience members asked Mr. Amanat and Ms. Parris this question: What would you like to ask whoever is the next President of the United States?

Mr. Amanat replied that he would ask, What structural changes do we need that would make the adjudication process more efficient?

Ms. Parris said she would ask, How could we get immigration legislation that affords immigrant workers some path to legalization since this would improve our economic standing and competitiveness in the global economy?


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