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The Coming Fight Over Immigration Policy

President Barack Obama says he hopes that the immigration reform plan designed out by a bipartisan Senate committee will become a bill as soon as March. The president also warned, that this debate will become more heated and emotional as it moves ahead.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Chuck Schumer and John McCain hope to get 80 votes for their comprehensive immigration reform plan in the U.S. Senate, and President Obama says he hopes to see their plan become a bill as soon as March.

After years in limbo, it seems as if immigration is suddenly moving on the fast track, but President Obama also warned this debate will become more emotional as it moves ahead. And even if the Senate does give it a bipartisan sendoff, it may hit serious delays in the House of Representatives.

Of course the lubricant that unlocked immigration in the first place was distilled in the ballot box last November, when the Democratic president won the Latino vote by three to one. Does that calculus translate to the House? Call and tell us: Will your representative's vote on immigration affect your vote next election day? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the New York Times and the other targets of Chinese hackers. But first the coming political battle over immigration. We begin with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving, who joins us here in Studio 3A. Ron, always a pleasure to have you.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And is this the moment?

ELVING: This is the moment. How long this moment will last we shall see. It is similar in some respects to the gun moment that comes out of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings. But in the case of immigration, this is much more bipartisan, it is much more grounded in a future perception of what America will be.

And this is the one. If any bill is going to have a chance to pass, given the partisanship and the divisions and the shared power arrangements of our current government, this is the one big bipartisan deal that could go down and pretty quickly, possibly even by this summer.

CONAN: And what do we make from the timing of this week's events? On Monday the eight senators, the Gang of Eight, four Republicans, four Democrats, came out with their proposal, having leaked it heavily over the weekend and appeared on the talk programs. And then Tuesday it is the president's turn, and he speaks in Las Vegas.

ELVING: Two ways to look at that, one that the senators wanted to get out front and be the ones who were driving the train and not have it perceived as being president's bill because, among other things, they've been working on this with each other, they've put in a lot of effort, and they would like to be the people who bring it to the Senate.

There's another way of looking at it, and that could have been part of their thinking as well - they're not mutually exclusive - and that is that having the president be out front on it in the way that he wound up being on a number of issues in his first term...

CONAN: Say, health care for one.

ELVING: Health care is a huge one. That that would be the kibosh on it, to put it bluntly, for a lot of Republicans who simply can't support something that has Obama as its first three syllables in its name. So if it were another Obamacare, if it were Obama immigration changes, then it would be impossible for them to support it back home in their district or their state.

They're hoping that if this is seen as President Obama signing on, in the main, more or less, to the plan of the eight senators, then the eight senators can determine the politics, determine the attitude, put the language to it and keep the president just slightly off the center stage.

CONAN: And the president's presentation slightly to the progressive side of the senators' presentation, i.e., giving them maybe a little political cover.

ELVING: That's right. The president is quite eager to stress that there's a path to citizenship here, that the DREAM Act that he pushed last year and that fell short in Congress but that he tried to install through executive action, is largely incorporated in the senators' plan. So that would be a plus for him.

Talking about all the things that he likes, all the things that go back, say, to the 2007 rewrite of the immigration laws that was considered in the Senate and ultimately not successfully, everything about that is there and de-emphasizing to the point of sort of not really mentioning the fact that the senators also want to beef up border security and the exclusion of future illegal immigrants.

CONAN: And a sticking point could be that trigger, that commission that they've proposed to certify that the border is under control, whatever that means, and that would have to be certified before the first citizenship was granted, first green card was granted.

ELVING: That's right, the very first green card being granted to what they're calling a probationary - probationary green cards to people who have been making the transition from illegal to legal status. Now, the White House position on this is that the border is, if not perfectly secure - it's never going to be perfectly secure - it is more secure than it has been in memory and that the number of people attempting to cross is way down from what it used to be.

The number of people being deported for violating immigration laws is at an all-time high, and that is a result of the work done in the last four years while this administration has been in place, and that they are doing everything that could reasonably be done shy of building that fence, which has been proposed, and some of the other things that have been proposed to absolutely militarize the border.

Shy of that, they say they're doing everything they can and that we really don't need any further certification of those efforts, certainly not as a bar that has to be crossed before we can have these other provisions take effect.

CONAN: But that's the United States Senate, not the House of Representatives. There's a Democratic majority in the United States Senate. Many senators, even Republicans, represent states with lots of Latino voters, and, well, they can do the arithmetic, John McCain saying the other day you have to look at my state, maybe even Texas a few years down the road, turning Democratic, reliably red states turning blue if the party persists in its policies on immigration.

ELVING: If Hispanics are going to vote three to one, as you say they did in November for Barack Obama, and they haven't been doing that, of course, across the board for all offices, but if you're going to see that kind of result in these growing states, it's going to be virtually impossible for a Republican to get elected president in the rest of our lifetime.

Now, I'm not predicting that's what's going to happen. My guess is that Hispanics are going to begin to vote more like other immigrant groups in the past; they'll be more closely split between the parties, and in fact Hispanics have been more closely split between the parties in the past.

George W. Bush got a good, healthy 40-some percent of the vote among Hispanics, both running for governor and running for president. His brother Jeb has done very well among Hispanics in Florida. So it's certainly imaginable that Republicans will make repairs in this area.

But if they continue to take the position, the hard-line position that they've taken on immigration in recent years, it's difficult to see that happening. That's what the Bush brothers have been telling the rest of the Republican Party for a number of years now, and that's what John McCain is underlining. When you look at the swing states, they're getting more and more Hispanic, and they're making more states swing states, Texas being the prime example.

CONAN: But that is not necessarily true of a lot of the safe Republican congressional districts, and the House of Representatives is a completely, completely different political beast with a solid Republican majority.

ELVING: That's right, and now in the House we have a group of people, a working group, if you will - these are people who have essentially self-appointed themselves, four Democrats, four Republicans, mirroring what we saw in the Senate to try to work together on something that would not be the Senate bill, that would be more to the liking of the House, particularly the House Republican majority, but that could be something that could pass the House and then go to a conference committee - this is how they work out the differences between the two chambers' product - and perhaps get to something that could eventually clear both the House and the Senate after having been essentially compromised and then go to the president for his signature and put the onus on the White House to say, no, this isn't close enough to what we want and then veto that bill.

CONAN: We want to hear from people in our audience today. How will your representatives' vote on this issue affect your vote come next Election Day? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Patrick joins us from Utica, New York.

PATRICK: Hi, I'm a lifelong Democrat, and I'm pretty liberal in most things - for example, I, you know, want universal health care similar to what Canada has. I registered as a Democrat at 18. I'm now 45, 46 now. And I have to say this is make-or-break for me based on economics and ecology. If my party gives amnesty to illegal aliens, I'm seriously considering leaving the party because when I look at southern Canada, where, you know, people naturally tend to cluster towards the warmer border, they have thrown open the doors to immigration to in part help prop up their health care system, because as they have a growing aging population, they need newer people to come and help pay for that.

But what that means is that 20 to 40 years down the road, you're going to need even more younger, newer people coming in to pay for the previous generation. It's a...

CONAN: Can we get back to immigration in this country? Patrick, can we get back to immigration in this country? So...

PATRICK: Sure. Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm sorry, what I'm saying is that we're headed on that same course. The more people we have here, the more natural resources we consume at a rapid, so gas and oil will escalate in price. That increased price of energy is going to drive up the cost of everything else. Also if you look at the price of rent and land as your population increases, that will also go up.

I don't think these senators are at all looking at the math or looking at other countries and seeing what has happened across parts of Europe and in Canada as they've thrown open the doors to immigration. Amnesty is just going to cause further overpopulation to the U.S. In fact our population has doubled in my lifetime.

And as far as I'm concerned, the U.S. is full up. The last thing we need to do is be throwing open the doors and inviting more people to come in. It's going to...

CONAN: And you would argue that amnesty for the - what you call amnesty for the 11 million already here would invite more people to come?

PATRICK: Well, my preference would be to actually ask - well, not ask but to deport those who are here illegally. I think we need to end immigration except for extreme hardship cases like political persecution and religious persecution, things along those lines.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Patrick, appreciate it. Joining us now is Jan Ting, and he is the - served as assistant commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George H.W. Bush, currently a professor of law at Temple University, where he teaches courses on immigration, citizenship and national security. He's with us from member station WRTI at Temple. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

JAN TING: Hey, great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder: How do you see the politics of this playing out? And I think our caller, he said he was a Democrat, but he identified a major issue, what many will call amnesty.

TING: Absolutely. I sympathize with Patrick completely. This is the same old story. This is an unlimited amnesty, an immediate amnesty with a lifting of the numerical controls in our law, with some window dressing, right? More border enforcement and more pressure on employers not to hire illegal immigrants.

But we've seen that before. That was the '86 amnesty, which passed. That was the repeat amnesty that came up in '06 and 2007, defeated both times. So there's nothing new here. You know, having John McCain speak for the Chamber of Commerce on this issue is nothing new. He was a co-sponsor of the amnesty in the past.

The problem is, as I think your caller said, we haven't had a debate in this country on population growth. And our population is exploding, right. The Pew Research Council says by the year 2050 we're going to add 100 million people. We're going to go from 300 million to 400 million people, and that's without the amnesty.

There's always a danger when politicians can't use the language to describe what they're really proposing...

CONAN: Stay with us, Jan Ting. I'll give you a chance to say your piece after a short break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The number of immigrants living in the U.S. has risen steadily over the past decade. The same is not exactly true for the number of immigrants living here illegally. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, that number actually peaked in 2007 and has since fallen to about 11.1 million in 2011, the last year for which numbers are available.

That drop, Pew found, is mainly due to fewer immigrants from Mexico, which is the largest source of immigrants living in the U.S. without permission. And nearly two-thirds of illegal immigrants have lived in the U.S. for a long time, at least a decade.

Now the president and the Senate proposed plans to overhaul the American immigration system that, among other things, proposed ways to create a path for citizenship for those immigrants living here without authorization.

In the House of Representatives, it's unlikely any immigration bill will make it through without a fight. We want to hear from you today. Will your representatives' votes on immigration affect how you vote come the next congressional election? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Our guests are Ron Elving, senior Washington editor here at NPR; and former assistant commissioner of the INS Jan Ting. And Jan, you were - I was cutting you off just before the break, but I wanted to focus you a little bit. We hear your argument about amnesty. This is, do you believe, the major argument that's going to be presented against this bill in the House of Representatives, in the Senate and elsewhere?

TING: Yes, I do. I think, you know, that 11 million figure that you quoted I think is a low estimate. No one really knows how many people are in the illegal alien population in the United States. I think that's very low. The last amnesty we had in '86 severely underestimated the number of people that were going to come forward, and we amnestied three million people in 1986, and that was supposed to cure the problem.

And now the population has grown to at least 11 million, and we hear people like President Obama saying we're finally going to put this issue behind us, as they said in '86, that we're going to solve this problem once and for all, we're never going to have to deal with it again. I just think that's crazy talk, and, you know, we couldn't enforce the border back then, and there's no reason to believe we're in better position to enforce the border now.

Employer sanctions against hiring illegals didn't work then. There's no real reason to believe that the current administration is going to push forward and make it work this time around. So we're buying the same thing, and the more honest advocates on behalf of immigrants, this population, will admit that one amnesty leads to another, each one bigger than the one before.

If that's what we want, then we ought to just declare that the borders are open, and we're going to follow our traditional policy of open immigration, and anyone who wants to come here in search of a better life is free to do so. The alternative is much harder.

CONAN: Can I give somebody else a chance?

TING: Sure.

CONAN: OK, thank you very much. With us here in Studio 3A is Doris Meissner, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. She also served as commissioner of the INS under President Clinton from '93 to 2000, and she's with us here in Studio 3, nice to have you - 3A, excuse me. Nice to have you with us today.

DORIS MEISSNER: Thank you, very pleased to be here.

CONAN: And as you look at this bill, is it old wine in new bottles, and how do you hear the argument playing out in Congress?

MEISSNER: I think one of the really interesting things about the way the debate is unfolding now is the catch-up that needs to be done. There is certainly a set of perceptions that are out there, Jan Ting is talking about those perceptions, but an awful lot has changed. And a tremendous amount has changed in the politics that are now surrounding this bill, the fact that somebody like Senator McCain has come back to the table on a bill like this.

That reflects a lot of new realities, and maybe the most important reality is the reality on the ground, where the nature of illegal immigration today is concerned. Our illegal immigration, principally from Mexico, has fundamentally stopped. We're at a different point in history.

CONAN: As many people arriving as leave.

MEISSNER: We are at a point where we have negative flows. The size of the population in the country without permission is static. It's not growing. And that's been the case since about 2007, 2008. It's a function of the labor market and of our own recession and the slow growth of our own economy, but it's also the function of very significant changes in Mexico that are structural changes.

Mexico's fertility rate has come way down. Its age curve is changing. It's no longer a country where the majority of people are coming into the labor market. It has grown well. And we have put very significant enforcement into place.

So the mix of enforcement, changes in Mexico, changes in our own economy and a likely economy in the future that while it will be better in the United States will be unlikely to be a different economy, creates a different moment.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Caroline's(ph) with us from Phoenix.

CAROLINE: Hi, how are you today?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

CAROLINE: Thank you. I live here in Phoenix. Of course this is a hot-button issue for many people. But what I urge my politicians to do is look behind the issue. There are people behind this issue. All I have to do is walk out my front door, cross my street. I have some neighbors who came here from Mexico, I'm assuming they're legal because they bought their home. They're the best neighbors I have.

CONAN: So this is an important issue to you. Will it help decide your vote come next congressional election?

CAROLINE: It will help. It will not be the sole dividing or deciding factor. But it will certainly influence how I vote.

CONAN: All right, Caroline, thanks very much.

CAROLINE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Jan Ting, I wanted to ask you, I know you have to leave us shortly, but what about the politics we were talking with Ron Elving about earlier, the simple demographics? The Latino community is the largest growing demographic in the country, the largest minority group already. And Republicans say do the math.

TING: Yeah, but I think the politics are such that if this amnesty passes, it's going to be a huge victory for President Obama, and the Republicans aren't going to get any credit for it. And I think the Republicans know that. On the other hand, if it's defeated, the Democrats are going to beat up the Republicans probably for the next 50 years and blame them for it.

So it's a win-win for President Obama and his Democratic allies, and it's a lose-lose for the Republicans. Now I, you know, I was once a candidate, and I often thought that well, if you're going lose, you might as well lose on what you really believe rather than stake out some political position that you don't really believe in and lose on that basis.

So, you know, your listeners are going to hear it here on your program first, and that is that this program is not going to pass. This amnesty is not going to pass. I've talked to vote-counters in Washington, D.C., and the votes are just not there. They're not going to get all the Democratic votes, right. I mean, a lot of people, Joe Manchin in Washington. Do you think Kay Hagen in North Carolina, who is up for re-election next year, is going to vote for an amnesty? I don't think so.

So they're going to lose a lot of Democratic votes, and they're going to pick up some Republican votes, but they have to get to 60 in the Senate, and I don't think they're going to get to 60, and I think they've obviously got a big problem in the House of Representatives, too.

There is an alternative, and that is to deal with these bills piecemeal. The Republicans have already passed a STEM Jobs Act in the House of Representatives, which everyone agrees is a good idea. But the Democrats are holding it hostage so they can get their amnesty through.

You know, part of the new reality is we've had an enormous amount of unemployment in the United States for the last four years, right, still hovering around eight percent, destroying lives, destroying families. Before the election, all we could hear was job, jobs, jobs. And since the election, we've heard nothing about jobs.

We've heard nothing about creating jobs for the unemployed American workers. Suddenly now we're talking about bringing - legalizing a bunch of people who violated our immigration laws and allowing them to compete with Americans for jobs. You know, I support President Obama's goals that he talked about in his inauguration, you know, let's do something about inequality, let's deal with climate change, let's have renewable energy, let's have education for all, let's have health care for all.

But all those things become much harder, if not impossible, when you open the doors to virtually unlimited immigration. The message is clear to the rest of the world: If you can get enough people illegally into the United States, the Americans grant another amnesty.

CONAN: Jan Ting, thank you very much for your time today, we appreciate it.

TING: Always a pleasure.

CONAN: Jan Ting, professor of law at Temple University. He joined us from member station WRTI at Temple University. Ron Elving, there are some in the Republican Party who agree with his analysis, a win-win for the Democrats no matter what happens, and believe President Obama would rather have the issue than the bill, than the law.

ELVING: We will hear that argument many times. We will hear people say the president is going to push the envelope on this. He's going to say we don't need to do anything more on the border, and in fact the White House has said that. He's going to say that we don't need some of the provisions that the Republicans want to put and that we can make things work with essentially a smooth transition for people to make it to probationary green cards and then on to a full legal citizenship status and that if that's too much for some Republicans to bear, they'll come up with something else, that is the Democrats, some of them will insist that we make sure that when we define a family, we include same-sex partners and their children, and that would also be a stumbling block.

So the Republicans may suggest that the Democrats are constantly moving the goalposts in that respect so that they can eventually force the Republicans to rebel against the bill, kill the bill, and then they can blame the Republicans for that in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

CONAN: Let's get Jordan, on the line. Excuse me. I pushed the wrong button. There we go. Jordan's with us from Cincinnati.

JORDAN: Greetings from snowy Cincinnati. I am a Tea Party activist, and I can guarantee you that there are very, very vulnerable Republicans who will be primary challenged if they go along with this thing, and I'm speaking specifically of people like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. We can defeat these people, and we really - they really need to stick with us, because we don't need a divided Republican Party right now. That's not - it's a lose for the Republican Party if they vote for this.

CONAN: And one other question, though, that same demographic question: Would insistence on defeating this bill doom the Republican Party to lose presidential elections from here on out? Some people believe that.

JORDAN: I don't believe so, because if you look at - if you talk to individual Latinos who have moved here who are citizens, there's so many of them who hold the view that they've come here legally. They've done it the right way, and that you can't reward people who have broken the law to enter the country.

CONAN: They....

JORDAN: Many of them...

CONAN: Those people just voted three-to-one for Barack Obama.

JORDAN: Well, I think that those - that's true, but I think that over time, we're going to see that Latinos are going to start voting more like other different groups that have come into this country over time. I think you always find that early immigrant groups always vote for the Democrats when they first get here, and they tend to start - their voting patterns change over time. So that doesn't worry me so much.

CONAN: All right.

JORDAN: But the Republicans should be worried about losing people like me, and they should be worried about dividing the party.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jordan. Appreciate the time.

JORDAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Doris Meissner, as you look at the politics of this, do you agree? It's - Democrats can afford to push the envelope and keep moving the goalpost because, well, they win either way.

MEISSNER: Well, Democrats, obviously, need to step up to this issue, given the way that the election was won. I mean, this was a very, very important victory based heavily on certain groups voting, the largest among them Latino voters. So they have a debt to pay. But I must say that although this argument has been around for a long time, that it's - of course, the case that to keep this issue alive as an open sore gives each party a way to push back at the other one. But at least right now, there is a slightly different tone in all of this discussion.

And this is, of course, always what happens with issues that are around and around and around. At a certain point, a kind of high politics take over. We don't know yet. We won't know for a while whether that really has set in. But it might be that at the very stratospheric level in terms of what has to be done for both parties to evolve and save themselves - particularly for the Republican Party - they simply have to grapple with this issue. And it is not enough to say that Latinos will eventually vote for Republicans because they tend to be entrepreneurial, family-oriented, socially conservative. Those things are all true.

But the way in which the immigration issue has been discussed and the way in which Latinos and immigrants have been demonized in Republican Party campaigns and policies is a block to Latinos being able to be seen as likely to be a much more diverse voting population. And that's what the Republican Party has to deal with. The Republican Party is divided now over that issue.

CONAN: We're talking with Doris Meissner, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service back under President Clinton. Ron Elving, our senior Washington editor, is also with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Ron, I have to say that, well, ancient history, I guess, back to the fiscal cliff or maybe the Sandy relief bill, suddenly, there has been an explosion of bipartisan comity on Capitol Hill - if on the Senate side, so far. Nevertheless, some things have been put off. The instant crisis of the fiscal cliff has been punted down the road. It doesn't look like we're going to have a debt ceiling crisis this month, or even next month. Are things settling in?

ELVING: The Senate is voting today to accept what the House did to essentially put off that debt ceiling crisis until approximately May, mid-May. And some time between now and then, the hope is some kind of a more rational agreement can be reached by which the debt ceiling could be raised over a longer period of time, or to a higher figure, so as to accommodate some more months of the federal government's current budget and obligations. But there is, of course, no real, underlying agreement as to what to do about the sequester, which is this enormous spending cut that's looming just a few weeks away, and which would affect defense as much as nondefense, and is 10 percent across the board.

This is an enormous, draconian cut, and we can't help but notice that in the last quarter, the economy actually contracted slightly for the first time in, I believe, 14 quarters. And it was attributed pretty largely to a big cut in defense spending, which would be dwarfed by the defense cut we would see in just a few weeks if the sequester is not dealt with. So we don't have an agreement on that big issue. We don't really have an agreement on the debt ceiling. We're really just postponing those things and looking around for some other things to talk about in the meantime - Chuck Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary being one, guns being another and, of course, immigration being kind of a bright spot. As the commissioner was suggesting a moment ago, this is really the one example of high politics we've seen thus far in the 113th Congress.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Rose, and Rose on the line with us from San Jose.

ROSE: Hi. I'm actually from Gilroy, whose population is probably 60 to 70 to 30 Spanish first-language to English first-language. I've worked for years in the immigrant population as a (unintelligible) worker and as a neighborhood organizer. This is for my - the first time in my entirely Democratic life, I would vote against my Democratic delegation - that's Feinstein, Boxer and Zoe Lofgren - if they fail me on this issue. I like the proposals before Congress now, and I am praying for a resolution. We need comprehensive immigration reform, and we need it now.

CONAN: Do you have any reason to believe any of those three ladies are planning to vote against it?

ROSE: No, but you never know what happens in Washington. I worked on all of their campaigns. They know how I feel on this issue, and I hope and pray they won't let me down.

CONAN: All right. Well, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it. And we just have a few seconds left, but Doris Meissner, as you look out, do you share the optimism? We heard Jan Ting say earlier he doesn't think it's going to pass the Senate, much less the House.

MEISSNER: Well, I think it's very tough. We should not be deluded at the difficulty that is here. But there is an alignment now that is - that makes it possible. There is reason for some degree of optimism because of the post-election politics that we're in, and because of the facts on the ground and how the facts on the ground have changed that we haven't seen for at least six, seven years, and maybe more than a decade. So it is definitely something that could happen. It'll be very tough to get there at the same time.

CONAN: Well, Doris Meissner, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

MEISSNER: Thank you.

CONAN: Doris Meissner joined us here in Studio 3A, again, now the U.S. immigration policy program director at the Migration Policy Institute. Ron Elving, always nice to have you on the program.

ELVING: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: News broke overnight that Chinese hackers have been attacking The New York Times for the last four months. We'll talk about what that says about China when we get back from a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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