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Outlook: '5 Myths about immigration'

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Protesters near the White House urged President Obama to fulfill his campaign promises to achieve immigration reform. Dozens were arrested for engaging in acts of civil disobedience.

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Doris Meissner
Sr. Fellow, Migration Policy Institute
Monday, May 3, 2010; 11:00 AM

Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, was online Monday, May 3, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article titled, "5 Myths about immigration."

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Meissner was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993-2001.

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Doris Meissner: Hi. Doris Meissner here from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in DC to talk about the Outlook piece, Five Myths about immigration.

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Cambridge, Mass.: I oppose large-scale immigration, whether legal or illegal, for a number of policy reasons. Do you have any advice on how one can put forward this view without being labelled a "racist" or some other epithet? It's difficult to debate people whose first reaction is to hurl insults.

Doris Meissner: The most important thing, especially with issues that are emotional as immigration is, would be not to start with the position of being anti- or pro-large-scale immigration. Instead, to look at the evidence and information and then reach conclusions and make arguments based on information, rather than pre-determined opinions.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I don't know if anyone can quantify this, but one of the "lesser known" things about immigrants, over history, is the second generation tends to be among the most productive workers. First, one of the ironies is that immigrant families tend to be the most stable nuclear families as opposed to most other groups of Americans. Second, they tend to instill a sense of working hard upon their children. I know this is a generality, but overall, there always seems to have been a good amount of truth to this. At a time in a few decades when we will need a sharp increase in productivity to help our global competitive edge, highly productive children of immigrants may be just what our economy needs.

Doris Meissner: It is a generality, but one borne out by lots of experience and research. It is true, tho, to the extent that that next generation must be equipped with the education and skills to succeed. The motivation is and will be there - it's in the nature of newcomers. But we are now in a knowledge-based economy and we need to work hard to be sure our education system allows these younger workers to be able to compete and succeed. Important not just for them, but for us all.

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San Jose, Calif.: Do undocumented workers contribute more tax moneys than they use in state services?

Doris Meissner: Overall, the research shows that foreign-born workers - both legal and unauthorized - probably contribute more in taxes than they use in services. Taxes in this context are not only payroll taxes, but sales taxes, etc. And for those who are in the country illegally, they are ineligible for nearly all assistance programs. Problem is that the large share of the taxes come to federal coffers, and most of the costs (schools,for example) are the responsibility of local levels of government. So there's a disconnect - plus at the macro level, minus at the local. Another good reason we need immigration reform - to fix this disconnect.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Ms. Meissner, you were quoted in 1996 in the San Francisco Chronicle as promising that the border would be "controlled" within five years, i.e. by 2001. (California Border Patrols Busier Than Ever. Illegal immigrants line up despite tightened controls (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 31, 1996))

Would you care to explain your failure?

Doris Meissner: I don't consider it my failure. The assumption underlying border control is that the border must be effectively managed, which we began to do in the 1990s. But from the standpoint of illegal immigration, border enforcement is essential but not sufficient. We tried very hard to make the case that we were doing our part in tackling the problem of a chaotic border. But other steps also needed to be taken, particularly changes in the law that would make it possible to have strong enforcement of employers and enough visas so people could come to the country for work purposes when jobs were legitimately available. We are still having that debate today, 15 years later, and lawmakers have still be unable or unwilling to put into place other measures that would make it possible to enforce the border where illegal immigration is concerned.

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Tempe, Ariz.: Having lived in San Diego for 10 years and now in Phoenix, Ariz., for the past 6 years, I find the count of 11 million illegals living in the USA to be unbelievable. It must be closer to 25 million PLUS. Who came up with this count?

Doris Meissner: The number is widely agreed on and derived by Census bureau statisticians and outside experts. It is an estimate, to be sure, but it is based on U.S. census data, immigration statistics regarding entries and visas, data on the foreign-born population, birth and death data from Mexico and other major sending countries, along with other similar data point. It is a reliable number for lawmakers and the public to use.

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Annandale, Va.: Overall, legal immigration is good and the benefits should be properly understood as your 5 Myths article addresses. But let us honestly address the many adverse implications of Illegal immigration. What are the truths in terms of costs to cities and states, crime, respect for the rule of law, impact on local schools and communities?

Doris Meissner: Your point is important, and I tried to answer it in an earlier reply, so I hope you'll take a look at that.

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Fairfax, Va.: I have concerns about the large percentage of Hispanic immigrants who have an education level of less than ninth grade. According to the Pew Hispanic Center data from 2008, 34 percent of foreign born Hispanics fall in this category. Policy experts always indicate that even only a high school education will be insufficient for American jobs in the future. It seems to me that we are importing an underclass.

Doris Meissner: This is a very important concern. I touched on it to an extent in an earlier answer. In addition, it is among the reasons why illegal immigration is a problem. We should not be in the grip of a system where we, as a country, have abdicated the responsibility to determine how many people come here and for what reasons. Immigration reform needs to include provisions for establishing future flows of legal workers, so that there is a way for employers to apply for help when they legitimately need it, but so that the process is above board and regulated. Past work that I and MPI have done has proposed a Standing Commission that would advise Congress every two years on the numbers who should be admitted for work purposes, so that the system can be flexible and resposive to changing economic conditions, which would include criteria such as education and availability of native-born workers. A provision somewhat like our idea is in the draft outline for legislation that Senator Schumer announced last week.

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Arlington, Va.: Lets assume that Congress musters up the courage and votes to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that includes both border security and a path to citizenship for those already here (I know, a big assumption). How do we deal with the impression provided to the following generations of illegal immigrants that if you make can just make it into the U.S. and wait long enough you will be legalized?

Doris Meissner: The message you cite is an important point. I think the only answer to it is to enact reforms that provide sufficient visas for future flows of workers that are responsive to the legitimate economic needs in the country - with an aging society - but then to combine that with strong enforcement, especially at the workplace so that only legal workers can be hired. This levels the playing field for American workers and also sends the message abroad that there are not jobs, unless one comes here with a visa. Ultimately, of course, countries from which large numbers of unauthorized immigrants come must develop more effectively and quickly, so that migration is a choice, not an act of desperation.

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Baltimore, Md.: Alan Greenspan was quoted as saying that illegal immigrants make a "significant contribution" to the American economy. Though some regions of the of country and some sectors of the economy benefit more (and some less), do you believe that illegal immigrants provide a net benefit to the American economy?

Doris Meissner: It has provided a net benefit to the economy during a period of sustained economic expansion and growth, which has been the case in the U.S. until the recession hit. But that does not mean that illegal immigration should be the way to achieve the positive benefits of immigration. The call for reforming our immigration laws is often described as a call for better enforcemeent, amnesty, etc. In fact, done properly, it is a call for an overhaul of a system of rules that are outdated and not suited to today's economy or the one that we believe lies ahead.

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Fairfax, Va.: Am I mistaken in thinking that there's been real resistance to emphasizing the role of employers in encouraging illegal immigration? Aren't there employers who bargain directly with smugglers, so that the illegal immigrants already know that they've got a job waiting for them, before they set out to come here? This kind of illegality seems especially sinister given the involvement of the smugglers in drug trafficking and their "war" against the authorities in Mexico.

Doris Meissner: You are correct, and thank you for making that point. Like everything else, however, there are many kinds of employers. Many, and probably most, employers who hire people illegally would obey the rules if the rules were realitic in helping them meet their needs for workers. What we need is a system that has realistic requirements for employers who want to comply, and then focus enforcement against those who truly want to skirt the law and engage in the kinds of activities you describe.

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Cumberland, Md.: Is there any research that indicates the criminal activity of illegal immigrants -- especially relative to the rest of the population?

Doris Meissner: The available data are national and they show that foreign-born rates of criminal activity - among legal and illegal immigrants - are significantly less than that of native-born. State and local level data are more spotty, but the data available displays the same pattern.

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America: You insist on speaking only of immigration in general. You recognize no distinction between legal and illegal (which you insist on calling "unauthorized") immigration. But it is obvious that people who have met the educational and vocational requirements to come here legally are more likely to do well that those who sneaked across the border. What would your answers to your "myths" be if you were writing only about ILLEGAL immigrants?

Doris Meissner: I try to make the distinction between legal and illegal where it is germane. At the same time, when it comes to issues like economic impact, the effects have to do with foreign-born workers overall and so it is important to understand the issues of large numbers of newcomers overall. In using the term "unauthorized", I am using the official Census term. I also frequently use the term "illegal immigration" to describe the phenomenon. I do write frequently about illegal immigration,but we were using a broader lens for this piece.

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Bethesda, Md.: For those that are so concerned about illegal immigration, please look at the legal immigration. There are lots of new Hindu (India) owned IT firms that are abusing legal immigrants, bringing them here with legal work visas and paying this people very little. Labor laws need to be enforced for legal and illegal humans

Doris Meissner: I agree completely.

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Baltimore, Md.: I am old enough to think that, frankly, the problem of illegal immigration can't be solved, absent truly draconian policies. The reforms the Reagan administration put forth, including amnesty, were sold as being a solution to the issue and it has grown and grown over the past 25 years. Social and economic conditions in Mexico and Central America are so dire for so much of the population that millions are willing to take enormous risks to get here.

Doris Meissner: These are issues that must be managed - they cannot be solved as long as the conditions you describe are with us. But we can do a much better job of managing them and upholding our essential humanity and values as a nation in so doing.

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Doris Meissner: It's time to close. Thanks so much for all the EXCELLENT, well-informed questions. I wish I could have taken them all. Tried to cover as fully as possible the range of topics you raised. Thanks too for the spirit of learning and understanding implicit in the questions. We need more light and less heat to solve these dilemmas and this chat has been very encouraging in that regard.

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