Book World Live

Michele Wucker
Author, "Lockout"
Tuesday, May 30, 2006; 3:00 PM

In a season when the country has been caught up in a national conversation about immigration, [Michele] Wucker, a fellow at the World Policy Institute, has come out with a forcefully argued and informative book. It's far from comprehensive, and some parts of her case are stronger than others. But the overarching argument -- that, as her subtitle puts it, "America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right" -- is both correct and important. -- Review: Coming to America (May 28).

Author Michele Wucker will be online to field questions and comments about her new book, "Lockout," which examines current issues and debate over U.S. policy and practice of immigration.

Michele Wucker is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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Michele Wucker: Hello, Thanks for joining me today. I can see by some of the questions waiting that there are lots of thoughtful folk online, which is exactly what this country needs at a moment when too often it seems that center stage goes to the loudest folk, who often have the most extreme views.

I'd like to open this forum by telling you just a little bit about where I'm coming from and the impact that I hope my book, Lockout, will have on the immigration debate. I am a pragmatist above all. I believe immigration is, on the whole, a very good thing. However, I also recognize that it has costs and affects different groups in very distinct ways: many low-skilled U.S. workers, for example, may feel that they are being pushed out by immigrant workers; people who live on the Texas-Mexico border face high crime rates; and any massive demographic change will create tension, no matter how tolerant the host society. It's important not to ignore those costs, but to find ways to address them. too many people want to throwing the baby out with the bathwater by dramatically cutting back immigration. That would hurt everyone.

As heated as the immigration debate has become, many Americans --policy makers and the public alike -- are asking sensible questions and trying to find answers. I hope that my work helps to frame both the problems and solutions so that the often-silent moderate Americans can formulate and express their own informed opinions about this issue that is at the core of our nation's past, present, and future.

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Washington, D.C.: I have read that uneducated immigrants to the U.S. contribute more than they take in services and education in about 20 years, while their children are net contributers far sooner, How would you frame your argument that the net result is economic growth to Californians that pay for many services for undocumented populations before they are established enough to be net economic contributors?

Michele Wucker: This question about the relationship between what immigrants pay in through taxes and what they receive is a complex one. In general, over the course of their lifetimes, immigrants contribute more in taxes than they take out. When they are young, they are more likely to consume more public services since they also are more likely to have children. Many of the studies on immigrants and taxes, however, do not measure the taxes paid by businesses that would not exist if they did not have those immigrant workers at all. Finally, public services like education are as much an investment as an expenditure, so in calculating their total cost you need to look at the return you get over time from the result of that education.

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Orlando, Fla: Would you agree that the true solution to immigration issues is to combat economic disparity in Latin America. US coporations continue to turn in profits. It's these profits that keep them from paying better salaries in Latin America. We also want things for cheap here in the US regardless of negative affects this may have abroad.

Michele Wucker: Economic disparity within other countries is a problem, as it is in the United States. In fact, I believe that the growing economic disparity within this country is part of the reason that the immigration debate has become so heated. Politicians know that it's easier to get people hopped up about someone who looks different, instead of taking on entrenched economic interests or the government's own failings. Overall, however, the biggest driver of immigration is economic disparity among nations. Until people in other countries feel that it is not worth the cost of uprooting themselves, we will continue to have migration. And the wider the gap between rich and poor nations, the heavier migration will be.

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Oakton, Va: I am a native American near retirement and I am distressed at the attitude of this author as depicted by the book review. In all my years and in all aspects of my life, raising children, working in a professional position, traveling to many companies to do business, and in personal interactions, I have not experienced other American's exhibiting a xenophobic attitude to immigrants. Rather, we all find them delightful additions to what makes America great, and we have learned a lot from them. I grew up in the midwest and have lived on the East Coast, and have known a lot of immigrants, educated and non-educated.

I'd like to know where the author gets such negative ideas about America. And, why would she espouse such almost slanderous attitudes? People who love America are willing to share our way of life with immigrants and even enhance it. Could she be confusing the desire not to be forced to suddenly and radically change the American culture as not liking immigrants? If we wanted to participate in different cultural practices and do commerce in different languages, we should be able to do so by traveling to those cultures or sharing in particular local events, and, likewise, immigrants should not expect their cultural practices to negate the American culture. Everyone is free to celebrate their culture in their home and community, and the American culture should be free to exist in the community at large.

Michele Wucker: It's very challenging in writing a short review to convey everythink in a book accurately -sort of like that game of telephone where you pass things along and they get distorted. In this case, Tamar Jacoby did a good job overall, but one of the things I think she mischaracterized is my view of Americans' views overall of immigrants. While the book documents many errors in how America has treated immigrants recently and historically, it points out that in many cases these are the result of bureaucratic messes or extraordinary situation. There also are many examples of Americans who stand up for immigrants and for what they believe is right. By and large, I think that most Americans are sympathetic to immigrants, especially those they know in person (even the Minuteman interviewed in the book is not frothing at the mouth). But we can't ignore the growing number of people who do see immigrants as a threat, and we need to focus on the positive attitudes that you so rightly point out.

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Portland, Ore: Getting lost in the hysteria over illegal immigrants is this one, immutable reality--they are coming to this country for economic opportunity. They see no chance for any kind of future for themselves or their children in their homelands. They want to come to the U.S. so they can earn a decent living, get their kids educated, and maybe even own a home and start a business. Their migration is a massive vote of no confidence in their own nations. And what no one here seems to realize is that the lion's share of the fruits of their labor--in wages, economic activity and intrinsic asset value--is building the U.S. economy. The businesses, roads, schools, hospitals, etc., that the immigrants help build and staff are HERE--not in Mexico or Honduras or Colombia. That $20 billion in wages that goes back to Mexico and is such a crucial part of the Mexican economy? That's temporary, stop-gap chicken feed compared to the PERMANENT wealth and value that the labor of the immigrants generates in this country. If I were Vincente Fox or the leader of one of the other source nations, I would be looking at the economic vitality of the migrant population and wonder, "Why can't that happen here?"

Michele Wucker: Many leaders in migrant-sending countries are thinking just exactly that. Indeed, remittances in the short run can prompt MORE people to emigrate. That's why immigration policy MUST involve policies in migrant-sending countries that promote development that over the long term can ease the need for people to leave. Last year, Tom Tancredo proposed cutting foreign aid for the countries that received the most remittances. But you know, those are the countries that need the most help if the flow of migrants is to slow.

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New York, N.Y.: Would you please describe how the rate of retirement is higher than the rate of new employees being created and the role that immigrants could play in filling jobs that otherwise will be unfilled?

Michele Wucker: Sorry, my fingers can't go quite fast enough to keep up! The aging of the Baby Boomers is a very big story in this country, as is the growing need for health care personnel to attend to their medical care as they retire. Because the U.S. birth rate in recent years has been much lower, not enough new people are entering the work force. Some industries are already reporting shortages --including, interestingly enough, in manufacturing-- and others predict rapidly growing worker shortages, particularly in health care. Immigrants generally come when they are at prime working age, so help to balance some of the demographic trend.

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Gaithersburg, Md: It appears that the "amnesty" program touted by President Bush may be what we're stuck with. Does the illegal/undocumented immigrant population understand what is going on in Washington, DC, or would they continue to live their lives as they have since arriving in the US until they're scooped up by authorities or go back to the country of origin? Do you think it is right to grant an "easier" bath to citizenship for people who have disrespected this country over those who have worked tirelessly for ages to enter our country legally?

Michele Wucker: The people who came here illegally certainly have not had an "easy" path. Yes, they broke the law -but so have lots and lots of U.S. employers, and that largely is because the 1986 immigration reform would never have been passed if our legislators had meant for it to be enforced. Letting a law go lax for many years sends the message that America itself doesn't respect the law and that we don't expect others to do so.

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Baltimore, Md: Do you realize that at the core of this argument are millions of Americans with millions of stories about their families, who came from Europe, spoke no English, and generally acted differently than today's immigrants? Absent of polls, and policies, figures, and economics, at it's core are a bunch of people very proud of the sacrifices and enthusiasm our ancestor's had for becoming patriotic, English speaking, civically involved citizens of every stripe and political group. Simply put we have a hard time mustery sympathy for these newer immigrants, their current status, activities, and "leaders" we see on TV.

Michele Wucker: This question is what actually prompted me to start writing the book. While researching my first book, Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola, I was fascinated by Dominicans' and Haitians' ties to the lands of their birth. I wanted to compare that to my own ancestors. I found out that immigrants who came in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries maintained far closer ties to their homelands than most Americans are aware of. I also spend a lot of time with many, many immigrants from many countries today who are incredibly proud of America, what it has to offer, and what they contribute. Immigrants today are far less different from "established" Americans ancestors than you might think. Polls of today's immigrants show that nearly unanimously they want to learn English and have tremendous respect for and pride in America.

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Washington, DC: As you propose fine tuning our immigration and letting in more educated people from around the world (which I agree will benefit us) I can also see some people being angered by the potential increase in 'brain-drain' from developing countries. Our gain is perhaps their loss. Do you agree with this argument? Any other comments?

Michele Wucker: We need to be very careful not to promote 'brain drain' but 'brain circulation'. Migrant sending countries certainly can be hurt by the loss of their most skilled populations, and wealthy countries have a responsibility not to tip the scales even more dramatically against poor nations. In some cases, however -like a Pakistani medical informatics specialist I mention in my book-- professionals have no chance to gain or practice the specialized skills they are most passionate about. In this case when they migrate, both countries gain. But overall, it is important for migrant sending countries to attract skilled professionals and entrepreneurs back once they have honed their skills and perhaps come into contact with investors during their sojourns in wealthier nations.

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Washington, D.C. : Since the USA has a population of about 300,000,000, and the largest and best university system in the world, why can't it educate the scientific workforce it needs? Why do we have to raid other countries for brainpower?

Michele Wucker: The United States may be 300 million people, but that's still a very small part of the total world population. Many of our brightest stars --including many Nobel Prize winners-- have been immigrants. But you have a very good point --our education system is not doing what it needs to produce home grown American scientists and engineers.

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Alexandria, Va: Are our standards too high? Meaning, do we expect too much from people coming to this country (understanding our history, the ability to read and write, having a needed skill)? It seems that the numerous immigrants waiting to enter the country legally meet our strict standards, but are forced to wait in a line to verrify their intentions. However, while the highly skilled are waiting in line, the low-skilled, under-educated are streaming across the border with nothing standing in their way.

Can a lowering of standards to speed the processing of immigrants into the country help the problem, or has the dam already broken?

Michele Wucker: The problem is not so much standards but more the working of the bureaucracy coupled with quotas to prevent any one region from taking up too big a share of migration. When I was at MIT interviewing some of these brilliant people who had been backed up, they complained about the illegals coming across the border too.

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Burke, Va: What is your opinion about the language issue? Can the US ever have English as its official language, or will we continue to have a bilingual society until the mass of hispanic immigrants push our nation to a Spnish-only nation?

Michele Wucker: English as the most important language of the country is already a fact, as most immigrants will tell you. However, skills in additional languages are an economic asset --almost every job I've ever had, except for selling cheap clothes in Waco TX in high school-- I got because I could speak another language. What we do need are more resources for language classes, especially on-site at businesses. There are huge waiting lists for classes around the country, and many immigrants have a hard time getting to class when they are working two or more jobs.

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Tampa, Fla: I'd like to see your comments on 2 points:

(1) You noted economic disparity in Latin America drives immigration to the US. Our agricultural subisidies (welfare, more accurately) has destroyed the livihoods of thousands of Mexican farmers. The US dumps subsidized corn on the Mexican market, destroying the Mexican family farms. The US recetnly won a NAFTA/WTO case against Mexico to allow us to dump subsidized sweetners onto the Mexican market, destroying the livihoods of thousands of Mexican family sugarcane farms. Where do all these Mexicans go? Here, of course.

(2) On one of the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, Rep. Sensenbrenner admitted the "problem" of illegal immigration is simply part of the free market system. Business will hire the least expensive labor available, legally or illegally. Where's the worshipping of the free market system now? This also begs the question of why he does not use employer sanctions as his primary weapon against this "threat." Yet the House bill puts off emplyer sanctions until Congress funds a database--which they will never do, of course.

Michele Wucker: 1- You are absolutely right that U.S. policy in other countries drives migration here, and that's something we need to look at.

2- Our wink-wink-nod-nod laws that have created a huge population in the shadows have pushed wages down even more than simple supply and demand. Unauthorized workers are much less likely to be able to stick up for their rights, and so tilt the playing field against U.S. workers. Oddly, laws criminalizing illegal immigrants have been touted as ways to 'protect' low-wage U.S. workers when in reality those laws hurt them.

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Rockville, Md: I am one of these potential immigrants caught in a waiting line for Department of Labor aprroval of an employer-based application for permanent residency. Here's the tall on my family because of this delay:

My wife - with a Master's in engineering, speaking four languages and having worked in 3 counties - on a H-4 visa could not work legally in the USA. After having to stay at home idle for years, she returned in our country where she started immediately working as a manager in a large company.

She took our son, born in the USA, as I cannot take care of him while working. He does not even speak English very much and he grows definitely as non-American as one can be.

My daughter stays with me in the USA. If she is not the best student in her middle school, she is one of the best. for sure. At the end of the 5 grade, she was ranked in 98% and 99% in English and math, US-wide. If family laves she leaves the USA, too.

My family lives a rather modest life, below our means. As I don't know what future awaits me, I invest only up to what my employer matches in my 401k plan. All money left - including a house equity loan - goes to buying property back in my country. I can't put my money in a country where I will not be able to stay.

Apart from working, I am also studying in a distance learning MBA program in a European-based university. I have my plans to start a business, but as I am here on a work permit I cannot change my employer - so I will not be able to work for my own company. There's no way out of this other than leaving the USA for a place whre I could, once I finish my studies.

To make my case, if I knew I'd be allowed to stay legally in the USA, I can see how my and my family actions would be much more beneficial to the USA than what the prospects are now.

Michele Wucker: Your story is sad and all too typical of the examples of how America squanders our greatest assets.

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Silver Spring, Md: Hi Michele. This is a difficult question to phrase. Naturally, recent immigrants from any one nation flock together. They share experiences and cultures that make bonds easier to form. To some extent, just as US Citizens would stick up for most of their countrymen if they were thrown into a new place, recent immigrants will stick up for their own countrymen in this new place. People worry that if lots of people are allowed to immigrate from any particular nation that this large population will fuse together in a way where racial lines are actually drawn more prominently than they were before. In a sense, people might not act or vote as US Citizens or Residents first; they might act as immigrants from country X first. What do you say to people who worry that allowing a lot of any nation's population to immigrate will lead to intensified racial conflict that might not be the fault of anyone in particular, but just a side-effect of circumstances? At some point, diversity and awareness trainings fails us, don't they?

Michele Wucker: We focus a lot on the characteristics of the people who come here while failing to see that our own behavior and the messages we send shape immigrants' likely attitudes when they arrive as well. If we send a positive message about the importance of overcoming differences --instead of giving in to those who say that X or Y type of immigrant will never fit in-- we'll go a long way toward ensuring that newcomers embrace the American Creed above any other view. This alone will reduce conflict

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Michele Wucker: Thank you so much to everyone for all of your thoughtful questions. I'm sorry I couldn't answer them all, but I did the best I could and tried to choose questions from a variety of points of view and subjects. This has been as interesting for me as I hope it was for you, and I hope it's the beginning of many more discussions.

I will be posting upcoming interviews and articles on my website, http://www.wucker.com, so please feel free to visit.

All my best

Michele Wucker

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