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The immigration debate

Paul Jay speaks with Ali Noorani about the battle over immigration reform, and the economic significance of immigration in the US.

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network in San Francisco at the Momentum Conference of Tides Foundation. Now joining us is Ali Noorani. He’s the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, one of the country’s preeminent pro-immigrant advocacy organizations. Tell us a little bit of what your organization does, how you’re funded, and then we’ll get into it.

ALI NOORANI, EXEC. DIRECTOR, NATIONAL IMMIGRATION FORUM: Well, thank you very much for having me. The National Immigration Forum has been around since 1982. We’re an organization whose mission is to advocate for the value of immigrants and immigration to the nation. We do coalition work, communications work, legislative work, and we’re supported by a number of foundations who believe that immigrants and immigration are a fundamental part of our country.

JAY: Okay. So this is, like, one of the hot-button debates that goes on in this country. And we’re hearing it now all about health care, that this health-care reform is going to pay for the illegals—"Why should I pay for the illegals?"—which I guess, one, isn’t very true. But there is this deep wellspring of this feeling of a kind of "You’re taking my country away." So talk about what you’re running up against and what are the big issues facing immigrants to the United States.

NOORANI: Well, really, since 2004, I mean, you can give Bush a lot of credit for actually starting this debate around immigration reform. In January 2004, he said, "I want to fix the immigration system." So almost every six months since that point in time we’ve been having this debate in a very, very public and visceral way. And the opposition bases their argument on cultural factors, on economic factors. And the reality is what they want is the status quo. They want to make sure that immigrants and people of color are over there and they’re over here. They want to make sure that there is a two-tier workforce. On the other hand, that minority, that very, very loud minority, is not going to carry the day. I mean, we’ve been dealing with them, the immigration-rights, the immigrant-rights community’s been dealing with this, this vocal minority, for years. And it’s clear they can scream very loud, but they really have no power in the voting booth, no power in the voting booth.

JAY: The focus of that community is on the illegals, and I’ve yet to hear a really well-articulated policy from this administration or from the Democratic Party on what really should be the policy towards the illegals.

NOORANI: Well, we feel that, as the Campaign to Reform Immigration for America, we need to do—comprehensive immigration reform needs to include a number of things. First and foremost is to require the undocumented population to legalize their status, require them to become legal, learn English, and then get on a path to citizenship. That’s number one. Number two, establish an immigration system that people can actually go through. At this point, for example, there are only 5,000 low-skill work visas in the country—only 5,000. If you have such a limited supply of work visas for the low-skill worker, of course people are going to go around it, of course employers are going to go around it. So the second thing is we need to establish an immigration system that actually meets the needs of our work force and our labor force. Third, we need to make sure that our family immigration system is protected and that families are reunified. You do those three fundamental things and you make sure that people will have access to due process and basic civil rights, then you have a system that can actually be enforced.

JAY: Okay. But the devil is in the detail of those three things, especially number one, this question of paths to citizenship. I mean, you have a range of reforms, including from, you know, some of the Republicans, like McCain, who said, "Yeah, let’s have reform, but let’s send everybody home, and then we can bring them back again." I mean, that’s where the battle is.

NOORANI: But what we’re finding at this point in time, polling, both local district polling and national polling, is that the majority of Americans, the majority of voters, want to see reform that requires legalization, that requires people to learn English, and then puts them on a path to citizenship.

JAY: So talk about the political leadership of the Democratic Party, because if that’s true that the majority of Americans want this—and you can say the same thing about health-care reform. Poll after poll says not only do the majority of Americans want a public option; there’s many polls have shown people actually want a single-payer government insurance plan. But where is the leadership?

NOORANI: Leadership is critical. I mean, the president has done a pretty good job on immigration. Each step along the way since he’s been elected, since he came into office, he’s made the right statement. This is going to come down into a battle in the House and the Senate. The Democratic leadership—Pelosi in the house, Reid and Schumer in the Senate—are they going to in essence whip their majorities? Pelosi has a much easier job. She has a strong majority, and she can move a bill, and the rules are tighter. In the Senate, Senator Schumer has to be able to find, thread the needle between legalization and future flow and enforcement to hold a majority of Democrats and get a number of Republicans. It’s going to be harder in the Senate. But there is Democratic leadership in the Senate from Schumer and Reid and Durbin as well as Republican leadership. You have Lindsey Graham who voted for [Sonia] Sotomayor, who has a history of supporting immigration reform. He realizes that it’s good public policy and it’s good politics to be serving the immigrant community by moving immigration reform. The problem is that the rest of the Republican Party that is incredibly happy ranting and raving about immigrants and immigration, (A) it’s bad policy to just maintain the status quo and (B) it is bad politics.

JAY: Well, certainly with the changing demographic of America, it might be the death of their politics.

NOORANI: If they ever want to be back in power, they have to rein back the Hispanic and the immigrant vote.

JAY: In this discourse, I’ve always thought there’s something important missing coming from the advocates of immigration reform is that so much of—and I’m telling you something you know, but so much of what’s called "illegal immigration" was actually invited immigration. I know in 1991 I stood on the Tijuana border as something like 1,000 people were about to run across at night, and there was popcorn machines and hot dogs being sold—it was practically a celebration waiting for the sun to come down. Look across the other side, on the American side of the border, there’s nobody there, there’s no officers, because it was harvest season in California.

NOORANI: In ’91. Right.

JAY: Yeah. And there was a tap that was turned on: when we need a lot of cheap labor, we’re turning the tap on; when we don’t, we turn it off. And the role of American governments at the state level, civic level, and companies in wanting this flow—and it doesn’t get talked about that much.

NOORANI: One of our biggest problems as advocates is when we say, as advocates, immigrants are doing jobs Americans won’t do. That’s fundamentally wrong in many, many ways, and it’s right in other ways. Americans will do jobs that pay good wages, that protect them in the workplace, that they can reach the American dream. Immigrants will do the same jobs. The problem is is that with an immigration system that is so fundamentally broken and that just allows and invites an undocumented workforce, an American never has a chance to compete for that job, and an undocumented immigrant who takes that job never has a chance to achieve the American dream, ’cause their wages are pushed down, they have no rights in the workplace. So we have to fix the immigration system so that everybody can compete for the same job at the same wage, so then an American can decide, "I’m going to move from Indiana, and I’m going to go to California and pick lettuce," or they can decide, "You know what? I’m going to stay in Indiana because this is my home, and I’m going to, you know, benefit from the added productivity and purchasing power of the immigrant community." So it’s a balance we have not achieved because our politicians would rather rant and rave about this than fix the problem.

JAY: Every so often you see there’s this kind of moment where you have these massive demonstrations, especially in the Hispanic community, and then it dissipates. And, you know, one would think now is the time, and particularly as the economic crisis deepens and unemployment raises, it gets higher, you know, sooner than later there’s going to be more of this kind of racist anti-immigrant backlash as there’s less and less jobs. But where is the movement?

NOORANI: The movement at this point is incredibly strong. Going into the 2008 elections, millions of people registered to vote and went to the polls for the first time. But at this point—. So let’s look at August 2009. The media was talking about health care. There were, you know, 100, 200, 300 events around health care. The immigrant community, faith leadership, labor leadership, community leadership, organized over 110 events across the country in August, saying we want comprehensive immigration reform. So we may be talking about health care, but there is an infrastructure and a drumbeat happening for immigration reform. So once this health-care issue is resolved, we’re next in queue. And the president is doing all the right things, lining up ducks; Pelosi is, Reid is, Schumer is; so that as we end to the end of 2009, beginning of 2010, the movement will be at a place where we can win the legislative battle.

JAY: What seems to be the defensive character of the administration in the face of even the town halls, this kind of drumbeat from the far right? Does it give you some pause about what you might expect when you’re next in queue?

NOORANI: We’ve been dealing with that, the far right wing that went after Van Jones, that went after members of Congress in town halls for the last five years. They can’t do much more that would be a surprise. One thing that they do have is more money. You know, they have the money to run television ads. They have Glenn Beck, they have Lou Dobbs, they have Bill O’Reilly ranting about this every single night. But in spite of having those same weapons for the last five years, they still lost 20 out of 22 competitive House and Senate races in 2008, they still wasted $27 million on anti-immigrant attack ads in those elections, and they still lost 44 electoral votes in the presidential election. So that opposition, they’re going to be just as loud, they’re going to be louder and uglier when immigration comes up. And we’re going to be ready, you know, because we are ready to win, ’cause we’ve done the work that’ll get us to win.

JAY: Talk just finally a little bit of the role of the media in the last few months and on this issue.

NOORANI: I think the media—it’s great to see there’s a little more balance within cable news. I mean, MSNBC, I think, has really emerged as a voice for progressive and liberal issues in pushing back against Dobbs and Fox News. I think that’s reassuring. I think our challenge is going to be getting our spokespeople out there and providing them the confidence and the strength and the messages, so that at the end of the day it’s not the advocate making the case, it is the American on the street saying, "You know what? I want to fix the immigration system, because then, you know, my neighbor has legal status, they’re protected by the law, my community is safer. And you know what? It’s not a competition for low-wage job; it is a competition for a high-wage job."

JAY: I mean, part of engaging the far right in debate all the time, which is what cable news does on the whole—same thing that happened on climate change: you never get to debate the solutions to climate change; you’ve got to debate: is there climate change? And when they constantly frame the debate on cable news with, you know, the most racist element, you know, debating someone who’s for immigration reform, and you don’t get to debate solutions—.

NOORANI: But the debate is really in my mind boiled down to you want the status quo: try to find and deport 12 million people and spend over $200 billion. Or do we want to change the status quo, legalize people, bring in $66 billion in tax revenue, $1.4 trillion in spending, $651 million in terms of productivity? What do you want? The status quo to tear apart families and ruin our bottom line? Or keep families together and—?

JAY: Really quickly, the litmus test for you on whether immigration reform is real or papered.

NOORANI: Legalization, family protections, and due process—I think those three things have to be in there. We can have a conversation about what future flow needs to be and what enforcement needs to be, but if you don’t legalize and fix this, the situation for 12 million people in this country, we are going to continue to suffer.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

NOORANI: Thank you.

JAY: Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.