Experts Spar Over Immigration Reform, But Agree on Some Basics

May 222013

As the Senate Judiciary Committee sends a new immigration bill to the Senate floor, a group of experts was split on whether the United States would pass a comprehensive reform package this year. The panel discussion, entitled “U.S. Immigration Reform: What’s Ahead,” was hosted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the National Press Club on May 20.

The speakers included Luis Miranda, former director of Hispanic media at the White House; Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center; Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies; and Cindy Carcamo, an immigration reporter for the Los Angeles Times. ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan moderated the panel discussion.

At the center of the debate is what to do about an estimated 16.5 million undocumented immigrants, if you include children, says Pew’s Passel.

Miranda argued for fully integrating these unauthorized immigrants into U.S. society. As a child who arrived from Colombia on a tourist visa that later expired, he didn’t know he was living in the U.S. illegally—until he tried to apply for a job.

“I realized that I didn’t have a social security number, and that’s when it dawned on me what being undocumented actually meant,” he said. He became a citizen through a law passed by the Reagan administration which, he said, changed his life. “I certainly wouldn’t be sitting on this panel,” he observed, “had it not been for this opportunity.”

Krikorkian countered that individual stories should not dictate the nation’s laws. There are tales of undocumented immigrants becoming criminals as well as doctors. “Neither the criminal nor the surgeon tells us anything about what immigration policy should be,” he said.

He argued for a multi-pronged plan that includes a system to ensure that employers don’t hire undocumented immigrants in the future. All agreed that E-Verify – a system that lets employers run names and social security numbers against government records to ensure legal status—is a valuable but underutilized tool that should be made mandatory in a new deal.

And the panelists concurred with Krikorian that a robust “entry-exit” system should be put in place to allow officials to better track visitors who outstay their visas.

Controlling immigration at the border was a more controversial issue. Though the Obama Administration has been credited with doubling the border patrol, Krikorkian said that there are more police officers in the New York City than there are agents along the 8,000 miles of U.S. borders.

But Carcamo, who covers the border as a reporter, said that the ones who gain most from tighter enforcement are the smugglers and drug cartels. “They jack up prices (for those seeking to enter the U.S.) and make it very, very dangerous,” she noted.

When asked why there was momentum for an immigration deal now, Carcamo credited the “DREAMers,” young undocumented immigrants who organized a convincing campaign for political support of their legalization during the presidential election.

Krikorkian said the issue is now politically expedient for both parties. And Miranda said that despite the growing anti-immigration rhetoric of the last several years, “there’s a lot of common ground and common sense in this debate that gets lost in the extremes.”

The discussion was followed by a reception for 20 Fellows in ICFJ’s 2013 International Reporting program. They will report on global stories of importance to their local communities.

Listen to the full panel discussion below.