Immigration Rallies Held Nationwide
Thousands Gather in D.C. to Rally for Immigrant Rights

Josh Bernstein
Director of Federal Policy, National Immigration Law Center
Tuesday, April 11, 2006 1:00 PM

Josh Bernstein , director of Federal Policy at the National Immigration Law Center , was online Tuesday, April 11, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the immigration rallies in D.C. and around the nation Monday and the growing debate about the status of immigrants in the U.S. Founded in 1979, the NILC is "dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of low income immigrants and their family members."

The transcript follows.

Read transcripts of recent Live Online discussions with Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Univision's Jorge Ramos.

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Josh Bernstein: Hello friends. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to participate in something like this, and I must say, I am very much looking forward to it.

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Washington, D.C.: The Hispanic community is in the forefront of this demonstration, but what's missing is the HUGE number of illegal Asian immigrants coming to America also that's a huge drain on the U.S. Visit any Chinatown (i.e.. NYC Chinatown) and you'll see people who are illegal immigrants and are continuing to come over, but are under the radar because they don't care about immigrant rights because they live in a self enclosed environment. What's being done or discussed about that issue?

Josh Bernstein: Thank you for your question. The thing to remember here is that immigrants have always been prominent in American history, in creating this great nation, and that this is something that is not going to change: immigrants will be a big part of our future.

Consider the worldwide trend. Migration is increasing everywhere around the globe, not just here. Europe now has about 8 million unauthorized immigrants a first for them. Why?

We have a shrinking world: exploding worldwide trade, cheaper travel and the telecommunications revolution - when goods and services and voices and pictures stream across borders unimpeded, people will too. These are major historical, economic, social, technological and demographic trends of our time. We can do little to change them, and trying to do so would be very costly in resources, and there would also be a cost to our freedom.

For example, one way to reverse the immigration flow to the U.S. would be if we had a depression or if we had a military state. Then, people would now want to come here. But it would be too high a cost.

A better focus would be to accept that immigration is not only a feature of our past, but also of our future, and to figure out how to make that experience be as good as possible for immigrants as well as those of us who already live here. That suggests we should be thinking about how best to integrate immigrants so that they can more quickly contribute to American fabric. Measures that criminalize, marginalize, hand stigmatize immigrants are counterproductive.

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Herndon, Va.: My wife immigrated (legally) to attend college 25+ years ago and is now a naturalized citizen. So I have many extended relatives and friends who either have or want to immigrate to America. One friend who owns a retail store can't bring his 23 year old son because he (the son) doesn't have a college degree, which seems to be largely the bottom line about immigrating legally.

Naturally, those who jump through numerous hoops to come here legally are somewhat resentful of those who don't and who lack even basic employable skills like speaking English.

Shouldn't our immigration policy draw more sensible distinctions about who can come and stay?

Josh Bernstein: Yes it should. But your question brings up one of the problems with our current system. Many people who want desperately to come here and who could contribute to our economy are unable to do so because there is no "line" for them to get into. We need to create such a line so that we can convert the current illegal flow into a legal one.

Note that those who oppose immigration reform often say they are speaking for legal immigrants who "did things the right way". The fact is, that there isn't so much of a divide between undocumented and legal immigrants as one might think. In fact, polls of legal immigrants confirm that they overwhelmingly have a positive view of undocumented immigrants, and strongly support changes in the law to allow them to earn legal status over time. The reason is that they understand better than most how dysfunctional our legal immigration system has become. Obviously, not all of them feel that way, but the vast majority do.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Bernstein:

I recently asked a question to Mr. Mehlman who was also responding to questions on illegal immigration via The Post. See below. Do you think his solution is a viable one and if not, why not?, What, in your opinion, is the most appropriate solution to this issue? Thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Mehlman:

What exactly is your position with regard to this issue? Also, what, in your opinion, is most appropriate way to solving this issue? Thank you.

Ira Mehlman: We need to convince people there is no reason to come to the U.S. illegally, and if they are here, that there is not reason to remain.

We need to crack down on employers and dry up the availability of jobs to people who are here illegally. We need to limit access to public benefits and services to emergency ones only.

Over time, people will begin to understand that there is no benefit to crossing the border illegally and many who are here will get discouraged and leave. Not all, but many or even most. Not immediately, but over time. There is no law made by man or God that has 100% compliance, but we can do a lot better than the chaos that we have now.

Josh Bernstein: I agree that we can do a lot better than the current chaos. But thereafter our ideas diverge. There is no magic bullet that will solve all of our immigration policy woes. It will take hard work, common sense, and vision. Above all, it will take realism. It is not realistic to believe that we can (or should want to) reverse the flow of immigration. Rather, we should be looking for ways to convert the illegal flow into a legal one, to integrate those immigrants who do come here into the U.S. mainstream, and to improve the lives of all workers, immigrant and native-born.

If we do so, we will find it much easier to enforce our laws because far fewer people will need to circumvent them (employers or workers). We will also make a better America, which is the ultimate goal.

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Hampton, Va.: As I watch the illegal immigrants rally for 'rights', I think we're seeing a seminal moment in American history: the Latinos are eclipsing the African Americans as the 'major' minority.

Josh Bernstein: I agree we are watching history. The marchers are carrying signs that say "we are America" and they are proving their point by participating in massive numbers in peaceful and idealistic rallies across this nation.

It is very wrong, though, to say that these marches are "eclipsing" those that went before. Rather, they are building on the marches of yesteryear. Where would today's immigrants be without the civil rights movement?

Please, friends, neither immigration nor civil rights is an us-versus-them question. We all benefit if immigrants are treated fairly. I have been amazed over the years to see the support that most African Americans have given to efforts to ensure that immigrants are not abused. When immigrant matters are put to a vote in state initiatives, typically the African American vote is the strongest one against punitive measures.

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Washington, D.C.: Just a clarification, please. Relating to the man above whose family member could not immigrate to the U.S. because of a lack of a college degree. So how does one immigrate legally? So many people say that illegals should have done it legally, so why didn't they? What are the procedures and criteria the U.S. has for potential immigrants? And why is it seemingly so hard to do this? I think knowing this would clarify a bit of confusion I and other people may have about the basics of this issue.

Josh Bernstein: Great question, and one that I can't answer in detail here. Please visit our Web site (http://www.nilc.org/), or that of the National Immigration Forum (http://www.immigrationforum.org/) for more information.

The short answer, though, is that most people cannot immigrate here unless they have closes family ties, a high-skilled job here, or are fleeing political, religious, or other type of persecution. Even those with close family ties typically have to wait 6, 8, or even 18 years under our current inadequate system.

So there IS no line for the vast majority of undocumented immigrants to get into.

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Parkville, Md.: Mr. Bernstein,

I'd like to thank you and your organization for the work you do on behalf of society's most exploited populations. I'd also like to make a comment in this ongoing debate: It seems to me that there is a fair degree of hypocrisy in this nation when the debate over immigration touches upon the effect that immigrant labor has upon wages. The simple fact is that many of the same conservatives and anti-immigrant groups that decry the effect of immigration on wages are loath to improve lower-class Americans' wages by supporting an increase in the Federal minimum wage. It extremely disingenuous to, on the one hand, blame immigrants for low wages, while simultaneously blocking efforts to raise the Federal minimum wage. If it is true, as opponents of immigration argue, that absent immigrant labor, wages would be higher and American workers would be falling all over themselves to pick vegetables, clean houses and build houses, then congress need only raise the minimum wage to that level and watch Americans flock to those jobs. The illegal immigration issue would be a non-issue, as employers would clearly favor the masses of workers with better English skills and clearer proof of citizenship or legal working status and illegal immigrants would simply go back to their countries of origin after failing to find jobs here. But I think that most people, on both sides of the debate, recognize that notion as a fairy tale.

Josh Bernstein: I agree with you. The best way to raise wages and working conditions of average Americans is not by hunting down immigrants and building fences, it is by taking the steps necessary to improve our economy, reduce inequality, and educate our citizens, provide health care, etc. If you care about these things, work on them, don't work against immigrants.

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Annapolis, Md.: Please don't speak for legal immigrants. My father and I are both legal immigrants and had to jump through lots of hoops to come to the U.S. My father, a skilled construction worker, took six months to find a job because construction contractors aren't interested in hiring legal workers. Also, what makes me angry, is that to come here legally we had to sign all sorts of papers saying that we will never apply for any public assistance benefits such as welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, SSI etc (which is fine -- this is not why we came here), while those who are here illegally receive these benefits freely and feel that they are entitled to all of them. Please, do not speak for legal immigrants, because most of us do not support illegal immigration.

Josh Bernstein: I appreciate your sentiments, but it is a myth that undocumented immigrants can access any benefits that are not available to those who are here legally or to US citizens. They actually are eligible for far fewer benefits, limited primarily to those that are provided for humanitarian reasons (e.g., emergency health care) or for prudential ones (e.g., testing and treatment for communicable diseases).

Also, as I said, the question has been polled, and most legal immigrants do not feel as you do. Sorry.

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Arlington, Va.: Your commentary about the immigration issue occasionally resorts to empty (and slightly sanctimonious) rhetoric about treating immigrants "fairly" and not "stigmatizing" them. That's fine, but what does it mean in policy terms? Are you calling for open immigration with no restrictions? If not, what restrictions are acceptable? Is it then acceptable to deport people who violate those restrictions?

Josh Bernstein: Fair point. For details that would not fit in this forum, please see our Web site. In general, though, any serious, pragmatic, realistic solution must:

* Provide a path to legal status for undocumented who are here

* Reform the system to provide for a more realistic future flow of immigrants to meet our needs and keep families together

* Accept that immigration is a part of our nation's history and will be a part of our future.

We are in this together, and it is critical to our joint future to invest in immigrants rather than criminalizing them.

Providing a path to legal status and reforming the legal system would

* Reduce the incentive to come illegally and

* Greatly reduce the undocumented pool, allowing our existing already overly harsh enforcement laws to work

Investing in immigrants instead of hunting them down and holding them back would lead to a more prosperous and democratic future for all Americans.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding benefits for illegals: Isn't it true that as students they get in-state tuition? The citizen out-of-staters pay higher tuition and in effect are subsidizing the illegals.

Josh Bernstein: With respect to in-state tuition, some undocumented immigrants in 9 states can obtain in-state tuition. In general they can't in the other 41. But to qualify in the 9 states, the immigrants must have attended and graduated from high school in the state. In other words we are talking about young people who were brought here at an early age by their parents. Many of these students are honors students, valedictorians, prize winners, and student leaders. The 9 states that have enacted instate tuition for these young people have concluded that if these students who grew up in the state (realistically) going to remain in the U.S., we are all better off if they are educated than if they are not permitted to complete their education.

There is also bipartisan federal legislation for these young people who have grown up here, called the DREAM Act, that would allow them to get on a path to citizenship if they came here years ago as children, complete high school here, have good moral character, and continue on to college or to serve in the military.

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Washington, D.C.: If you cut off the resources there would be no more illegal immigration. Example: No more public school admission, no more health assistance, fine employers, and fine landlords, don't allow illegal aliens to buy property. The billed being considered in Congress now is weak to say the least.

Josh Bernstein: Historically, these kinds of measures have been proven not to work, absent abhorrent actions that I am sure you would not support. They only succeed in driving these immigrants and their family members underground. Plus, undocumented immigrants do not walk around with stars of David on their foreheads. There would be an enormous cost in freedom and resources to implement your vision. Is that the kind of America we want to live in?

Remember, the problem is that our current legal immigration system does not reflect the demands of our economy or the reality of our shrinking world. We need to adjust our legal immigration system, resolve the status of those who have come under the current dysfunctional one, and then it will be far easier to enforce our laws.

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Alexandria, Va.: "There is also bipartisan federal legislation for these young people who have grown up here, called the DREAM Act, that would allow them to get on a path to citizenship if they came here years ago as children, complete high school here, have good moral character, and continue on to college or to serve in the military."

How can you have "good moral character" if you're breaking the law?

Josh Bernstein: "good moral character" is a term of art in immigration law. These young people I wish you could meet some of them are a terrific group. They were brought here at a young age, perhaps 1 year old, or 3 or 8, and they have done what society asked of them. Many don't even know they are undocumented until they reach their late teens and need to get a drivers' license or apply for a job. Others know, but it is a vague knowledge that doesn't start to hit home until they want and need to do the things that their classmates take for granted.

It is in all of our interest to take their situation off of the table. Why should we waste Department of Homeland Security resources trying to deport young honors students who have grown up in the U.S. Also, if allowed to complete their education and become citizens, they will eventually pay much more in taxes and cost less in social services and criminal justice. So it would be a windfall for taxpayers.

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Reston, Va.: Why is it difficult for people to connect the dots? The most prosperous cities in the United States are those where the majority of immigrants are located. This is where you have the Beverly hills, the bluemonts, the McLean. Take a drive out to West Virginia where there are almost no immigrants working in construction mostly whites working 9 to 5 and you will see the future of America without immigrants. It takes about ten years to have a simple bridge built. Compare for yourself, ask yourself why aren't these states as prosperous?, it is obvious. The United States would come to a screeching halt without immigrants. How would it compete with the world?

Josh Bernstein: Thank you. You make an excellent point.

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Laurel, Md.: What does it mean when some people say that so and so percentage of illegal immigrants pay taxes? I presume this means income taxes, right? How can illegal immigrants pay taxes without exposing their status? Is it that the government accepts the taxes and looks the other way?

Josh Bernstein: Exactly. Being undocumented does not relieve a person from the requirement to pay taxes, and the IRS is happy to accept the money. Plus, most undocumented immigrants do not work for cash; they work for regular employers and their taxes are withheld. The only difference from other workers is that they can't get any kind of refund or basic benefits in return for the taxes they pay.

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Bethesda, Md.: If illegal workers became legal, wouldn't they not be hired because employers would be required to pay them minimum wage, which is significantly more than what they are currently being paid under their illegal status? Wouldn't this create an incentive for immigrants to prefer being undocumented?

Josh Bernstein: Good question, but actually, the reverse is true. Employers now are able to get away with paying some undocumented workers below minimum wage (and also to exploit them in other ways) because the workers can be intimidated from exercising their rights. If legalized, they would be able to demand more like other workers. As a result everyone's wages would rise and conditions would improve. That is why labor unions are now solidly in support of legalizing undocumented workers.

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Josh Bernstein: Thanks to all of you who participated. This has been a great experience, and I hope to do it again!

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