Q and A: Immigration Reform Inertia

Emilio Parrado answers questions on immigration reform.
November 1, 2013

Like healthcare before it, meaningful immigration reform in Congress is akin to political kryptonite. Promising reform, often bipartisan, inevitably falls by the wayside, while big-name reform supporters experience a change of heart. To help make sense of the lack of action, we sat down with Emilio Parrado, Professor of Sociology, to find out how politicians’ hesitancy to face the issue is affecting Americans.

1.    Why does Congress seem unwilling to pass meaningful immigration reform?

The fact that we’re not discussing immigration is a reflection of the failure of our political process to address one of the leading gaps in U.S. policy. It’s unconscionable to refuse to have any discussion at all. The Republican Party, specifically, does not want to deal with it—Democrats are at least willing to discuss the issue. Nobody is trying to promote tremendous numbers of immigrants, just pass legislation that makes sense. This is not an issue unique to the U.S. It happens everywhere where you don’t have a mechanism for the legal migration of low-skill workers—and it creates huge problems. Immigration policy, ideally, needs to be revisited every five years, but we can’t even manage to begin the process.

2.    How does immigration reform—or lack thereof—impact voter base? Could delaying it play favorably to politicians’ performance at the polls?

When you consider the link between immigration policy and the voter base, a lot of it has to do with the disjuncture between local and national interests. Particularly in the House, where elected officials are responsible to local constituencies which may not include many immigrants, it is harder for politicians to take the bigger, national picture into consideration. This is especially true for many Republicans who, because of gerrymandering, are more concerned about a more conservative challenger in the primaries than in a more liberal challenger in the general election. So they tend to discount the damage done at the national level by the current impasse. This is not just a Republican issue, though. The Obama administration has also not revisited its policies towards deportations. We keep criminalizing immigrants, when, for the most part, the only crime they have committed is working.

3.    The fate of children born to immigrants is a hot-button issue. What role does this play in the debate about reform?

There are two kinds of children born to immigrants and they are both important to the reform debate.  First you have children born abroad and brought to the U.S. by their parents. They are the most sympathetic of all the undocumented because they were kids when they came, and many study hard and follow all the rules only to find out that they can’t go to college or can’t get any decent kind of job no matter how well they did at school. The other group is the children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents. They are citizens by birth but live in constant fear of their parents being deported. In both cases it’s a lot of stress and uncertainty that’s completely unnecessary. There’s a lot of discussion in immigration policy about bringing in “good immigrants.” And it’s interesting when it comes to discussions about the DREAM Act and the children of immigrants because these are really excellent immigrants. These are children that have gone through the educational system in the U.S. In many cases they finish college. And that’s the kind of immigrants that in theory we should want. But we’re not even willing to regularize their situation. This is not just the interest of the U.S. and how much we want to punish people—these are things that happen because of very powerful social forces.

4.    You mentioned the DREAM Act, which in the past has received bipartisan support. But now that support has wavered. Why?

It’s hard to understand in objective terms. These are kids with no connection whatsoever with their countries of origin.They speak English. They are assimilated in all regards—members of the U.S. population. You don’t punish children for what their parents did—it’s that simple. This is like saying, you know, I’m not going to allow you to vote because your father was a felon. You would think this would be a piece of legislation sympathetic to everyone, but even this is a message that is very hard to convey.

5.    Both parties have stated that mass deportation is not realistic. What effect would this have on the U.S., socially and economically? 

The reality is that we are, in fact, deporting a lot of people. And the thing to watch out for in this discussion is exactly how punitive we are going to be. And again, this goes back to the issue of framing it in terms of human rights, and worker rights. Immigrants get caught in simple problems: driving with a broken taillight, getting into a fight—and then they’re very quickly subject to detention and deportation. In this era of concern over budget deficits, we are spending more and more on immigration enforcement, including border security and locking people up for months before we deport them.

It’s really not so different from discussions we had in the 1920s with Italian and Jewish immigration. And at some level you begin to think that some people want to turn the clock back. We’re deporting more than 300,000 Mexicans every year. Is that the kind of relationship we want to have with Mexico, where when somebody crosses the border and has some problem with papers, we deport them like an undesirable person, and pay no attention to their family situation or their work history? Are we going to have a wall between Mexico and the U.S.? These are political choices about what kind of relationship we’re going to have with a country that is our neighbor, ally, and important trading partner.

6.    Some big-name politicians that have shown bipartisan support for reform in the past, John McCain and Marco Rubio, for example, now appear to be distancing themselves. What do you think is responsible for that turn?

It’s a lack of leadership and willingness to take a risk. Good politicians have to accept that some things that are good for the country are not going to be popular with their local constituencies, and do them anyway. But they just don’t seem to be able to find people to do that. John McCain is a good example. He was a politician that was very reasonable when it came to immigration, but then he had to campaign for President and decided it was too much of a liability. And so I think that politicians are being shortsighted. The Republican Party is obviously losing the Latino vote, and it’s going to have long-term implications. Voting carries on across generations—people remember how their parents were treated. It really connects with how the Republican Party is viewing the electoral process in the U.S., and they seem to be depending on restrictions on access to voting, rather than being an inclusive party, and immigration just gets caught up in that.

7.    Is the E-Verify system an effective way to monitor immigrants?

I can tell you a personal story about the E-Verify system. When I was moving to Philadelphia to transition to Penn, I misplaced my Social Security card, so I went to the Social Security office to get a replacement. I was a professor at Duke University at the time, and a U.S. citizen. But when I first came to the U.S. and was issued a Social Security number I was a graduate student on a student visa. The guy asked me about my profession and I said, “I’m a professor at Duke,” to which he replied, “No, no, you cannot be. You are listed here as a foreign student.”  I had finished graduate school in ’97 and become a citizen over a year prior, so clearly this was a massive failure to update the registry. 

For U.S.-born workers it doesn’t matter because you are born in the U.S., so you don’t really need to update it. But for immigrants, somebody has to sit there and update it. They have bad information. The system is gigantic, and every time they test it, they find that it’s wrong 60, 40 percent of the time—especially when it comes to immigrants.  Needless to say, it’s prone to promote discrimination. If you go to an employer and apply, and bring your papers, and they tell you, oh, you got rejected by the E-Verify system then what rights do you have to contest that?  In the end, we need meaningful reform, not temporary fixes.