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Immigration: Now and in the Future

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By Robin Keats, Illustrations by Brian Stauffer

Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM


Immigration remains the hottest of hot-button issues in America. But where exactly do we stand? What new ideas bear exploring? And where is it all going? UCLA faculty and alumni experts examine their impact on the issue with policy makers and the public alike.

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Illustration by Brian Stauffer.

You are an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and you have just been caught crossing the border illegally in Laredo, Texas. Before being sent back to Mexico, you could be put on a plane to California—hundreds of miles from where you entered the U.S.—before being returned to Mexico.

"One of the unfortunate things about recent illegal immigration debates, it seems to me, has been that they have distracted from the much more important debate about how we can increase—perhaps dramatically increase—legal immigration in a way to maximize net benefit for the nation."

Eugene Volokh, Professor, UCLA School of Law
Nationally recognized expert on the First Amendment, member of the American Law Institute and founder of the Volokh Conspiracy website which gets about 25,000 unique visitors each weekday

And if you are caught entering the U.S. in California instead? As a punitive measure, immigration officials could decide to make you take the reverse trip—sending you hundreds of miles out of your way, to Texas—before escorting you back across the border to Mexico.

This is called the Alien Transfer Exit Program, and it is meant as a deterrent. That's not hard to understand. What might seem counter intuitive, though, is that this is official policy of the Obama Administration—a centrist government that has increased the rate of deportations beyond that of its rightward Republican predecessor.

Speaking of Texas, if you live there and are an undocumented student, you have the right to attend Lone Star State universities. Most Republicans consider that heresy. Yet Rick Perry, the nominally very conservative Republican governor of Texas, caught considerable heat during his presidential run for staunchly defending the policy.

Conventional wisdom would tell us that there should at least be well-defined political approaches (left, right and center) concerning immigration and, especially, undocumented aliens. But the story of the modern undocumented immigrant in America is loaded with conundrums, outrages, ironies, blind spots, paradoxes and more points of view than almost any other issue facing the country.

At UCLA, a multidisciplinary roster of scholars and immigration experts is working to understand the twisting details and political reverses of immigration. They are called upon to advise presidents, testify before Congress, work with state and local governments, and collaborate with think tanks as well as the United Nations.

However, politics and points of view about the issue do not line up in any conventional manner. So UCLA's scholars strive to be pragmatic. They acknowledge that immigration is a complex and incendiary issue.

They do not believe that it is unsolvable.

One article cannot include everyone on campus who touches this issue. But we offer the perspective of three of the university's experts as a sampling of where current thinking on the issue stands.

How to Avoid a $2.6 Trillion Hit

"It behooves retirees, aging baby boomers and conservative whites to reassess their views on immigrants, if for no other reason than immigrants—legal and illegal—are needed to sustain Social Security and Medicare."

Fernando Torres-Gil, UCLA Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Social
Welfare and Public Policy Assistant Secretary for Aging in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton Administration, and author of six books.

We spoke with Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor in the UCLA Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, a couple of days before he was to welcome the first lady of El Salvador to the campus for a conference co-sponsored by the university and the United Nations Development Programme on transnational migration and transnational remittances. He is the author of numerous articles and books on the political economy of regional integrations in various parts of the world, and has been a board member of the Los Angeles Community Development Bank and a member of California's Economic Strategy Panel.

Are there technological tools that will help solve some of the problems associated with illegal immigration?

RH: We're at the forefront in the use of technology to help keep immigrants in their native countries by creating jobs for them there. For example, cell phones have an even greater penetration in Mexico and most of Latin America than they do here. We're [working with] various technology companies to develop a means that will allow for the sending of remittance dollars [money sent back home to immigrants' countries of origin] from our documented and undocumented workers through their cell phones. Homicides take place outside the liquor store on Friday nights where they go to cash their checks (and lose a lot off the top). They become targets, walking ATM s. Using the phone app cuts out the liquor store or check-cashing places that take a significant portion of their checks. It will cut down the crime rate and leave the worker with all the money he's earned. The money saved in this fashion, and included in the remittances, can be used to microfinance small businesses back in Latin America that will hire those who might otherwise be forced to seek work in the United States.

What are you working on that focuses on immigrant workers in California?

RH: We are working on giving every resident of Oakland, regardless of immigration status, an ID card that will enable them to open a low-cost bank account to get them out of the crime-ridden, high-cost checkcashing economy. It will take the shadows out of their shadow economy. … We are working with Oakland to connect the ID card, the bank account and the cell phone application all at the same time. And now, we have a group of people in Los Angeles working to do the same thing here. [Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa '77], who has been a co-professor in my classes, is a big supporter of this.

You've been analyzing what the domestic economic impact would be if the country's 11.5 million undocumented immigrants were deported. What have you found out?

RH: We've been pioneering research at UCLA since the '90s that looks at alternative scenarios for the United States regarding immigration. … We've done the study for 10 different states. Los Angeles would be the hardest hit city in the country. At the national level, our analysis shows that the deportation of undocumented [immigrants] would produce a negative impact of about $2.6 trillion over a 10-year span.

Immigrants not only contribute—these are people who are employed—but they would be gone as consumers. All that they produce and all their demand for services would be gone. If the undocumented workers now here became legal, the country would benefit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, conservatively estimated. I've done work on this that's been published by the Center for American Progress. They are considered progressive. Numbers issued by the Cato Institute, which is considered politically conservative, match ours. That's consensus.

To Dream or not to Dream

The question of undocumented immigration hits home directly in the classroom of Kent Wong, who is the director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, and an expert in labor issues, immigrant workers and students. He has been a major advocate of the California Dream Act, the 2011 legislation that grants undocumented students access to financial aid at the state's public universities. A labor attorney, Wong has conducted extensive research on immigrant workers in Los Angeles.

"The children of immigrants are doing much better than their parents in every city, but the Los Angeles children have so much farther to come that they are still behind all the other immigrant children."

Min Zhou, UCLA Professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies, Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in U.S.-China Relations and Communications
Author of Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity and Community Transformation and co-author of Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt To Life in the United States.

We reached him shortly before he was to give a talk in Manhattan to the New York Immigration Coalition. The group had invited him to speak about the Dream Act.

While the nation is still awaiting passage of a federal Dream Act, California has passed its own version and New York is now preparing similar legislation. How did its passage here affect students?

KW: Our students have emerged at the forefront, nationally, in this debate on state and federal immigration policy. UC LA's undocumented students played a significant role in advocating for [the Dream Act's] passage. We don't have a precise count of how many undocumented students are here, but we estimate there may be several hundred. I taught a class at UCLA on the issue of undocumented students. UCLA students wrote, edited and helped design the very first book on undocumented students: Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out. It's now in its fourth printing.

What are the prospects for a national Dream Act?

KW: The Dream Act went before Congress in 2010 and it passed with a very strong majority in the House of Representatives. The vote in the Senate was 55 to 41 in support of the legislation, but they failed to get a 60- vote supermajority to overcome a threatened filibuster. So … in 2010, the Dream Act came closer than ever to securing passage.

President Obama was a co-sponsor of the bill when he was still a senator and has promised to sign it when it lands on his desk. In the interim, however, he could take steps to grant administrative relief for Dream Act—eligible students.

We have UCLA graduates who have attended K-12 schools [here]. … Some have even gone on to receive graduate and professional degrees, and yet the current federal law prevents them from legally working, and they are still vulnerable to the threat of deportation.

In the Country, Outside the Law

Hiroshi Motomura, the UCLA Susan Westerberg Prager Professor of Law, is the co-author of two immigration-related casebooks: Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy and Forced Migration: Law and Policy. He has also penned Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States. An adviser to the Obama-Biden transition team's working group on immigration policy, he has testified before Congress and served as a volunteer consultant in cases before the Supreme Court.

"We claim to be a nation of immigrants, governed by the law of unlimited hospitality; and we are a nation of laws with which we control our immigrants."

Ali Behdad, UCLA Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Chair of Comparative Literature
Author of A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States.

You were an adviser to the president's transition team in 2008. What would you tell them today?

HM: [I'd tell them that] the line between legal and illegal has never been fixed. It's always reflected economic needs and political context, and deciding that someone is in the country unlawfully is just the beginning—and not the end—of figuring out what their position should be in American society. The economy has always invited people to come outside the law, and I think it's been de facto government policy to tolerate that.

Are economics or politics driving anti-immigrant feelings?

HM: Republicans used to disagree with Republicans, Democrats with Democrats, and that was very healthy. However, I think the economy has created a situation where it has become a wedge issue. The other unfortunate piece of this is that it's become a wedge issue along the lines of language and ethnicity because people are naturally afraid of their economic situations. The fear of terrorism has created a situation where people circle the wagons a bit, too.

Should we revisit the government's 1986 amnesty program?

HM: Legalization, though needed, is not a long-term solution. In 1986, they enacted [amnesty] but didn't do anything else. I hope no one said this, but they might have: "Let's let them deal with this in 2012."

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