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Anti-Enforcement Side Wins Immigration Debate at Tsai

COM’s 24th Great Debate tackles policy and progress at U.S. borders

To determine the topic of the College of Communication’s 24th semiannual Great Debate, Robert Zelnick, a professor of national security affairs in COM’s journalism department and the debate moderator, asked a colleague well-versed in Washington politics which issue would best resonate in a pre-election year. Without hesitation, Zelnick said, the colleague responded, “Immigration.”

“It’s the defining issue about us — who we are, what we are,” Zelnick said, quoting his colleague. “And it will decide the presidential race in more states than any other issue.”

The conflicts and complications surrounding the immigration debate were thoroughly examined in the Great Debate, which took place on Wednesday evening in the Tsai Performance Center. The topic — Can Stricter Law Enforcement at the Border and the Workplace Solve the U.S. Illegal Immigration Problem? — was argued by two professional policy makers and a student on each side. After two hours of discussion, the audience gave the victory to those arguing that stricter law enforcement was not enough to solve the problem.

The affirmative was argued by Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Stephanie Hoffman (LAW’10), and Louis J. Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, Pa., where local businesses and landlords may be punished by law for giving work or shelter to illegal immigrants. Krikorian, the lead speaker for the side, opened the debate describing what he called the “magical thinking” that purports deportation or amnesty as options.

“We now only deport not even 100,000 people a year,” he said. “If we would double or triple that, it’s still not a solution to our problem of 12 million illegal immigrants. Amnesty just lays the groundwork for the next 12 million.”

Attrition through continued enforcement, he said, both at the border and in workplaces that refuse to hire illegal immigrants, would mean “a realistic, gradual reduction in the size of the problem.” Krikorian also described President George Bush, whose proposed immigration reform bill failed in Congress this summer, as a person “emotionally and psychologically repelled by enforcing immigration laws.” He said the bill’s failure indicated a coming change in the Bush administration’s approach to policymaking.

Hoffman argued the legal points of enforcement, claiming that a lack of coherent policy on enforcement has created “an atmosphere of fear” throughout the nation and produced grassroots vigilante movements, such as the border patrol group the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Barletta, who told the story of a small American town plagued by drugs and homicide because of a wave of illegal immigration, drew the most attention on the affirmative side.

“The drain on our resources is destroying the quality of life in small-town America,” he said. “Our population has grown by 50 percent, but our earned income tax remained the same. Those who can least afford to lose their jobs are affected. And who’s standing up for them?”

The negative side was argued by B. Lindsay Lowell, the director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, Anuj Shelat (SMG’08), and Shuya Ohno, the director of communications at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). They argued that the problem could be solved by initiatives such as a comprehensive reform policy that incorporates border enforcement, an effort to build up Mexico’s economy to reduce immigration incentives, and challenges to the legality of raids and arrests. Lowell, the lead speaker, pressed for the revival of a comprehensive reform solution, one that includes both border and workplace enforcement, but also explores the options of amnesty for long-term working residents and a legal guest-worker program.

“There is a human dimension to this,” he said. “We have also been complicit here, with a wink and a nod, letting these people come in, and these people have worked here for years. Yes, there are criminals, yes, there are bad components; there are a lot of problems. But they aren’t the majority. The majority of these people want to work, and that’s the human dimension we have in mind. That’s why we need regularization.”

Shelat presented a comprehensive argument for directly investing in the Mexican economy. His plan included easing trade restrictions, providing federal support for social and economic institutions, and tax credits for American companies doing business in Mexico. Most important, he argued, is the elimination of agricultural subsidies, which have had a drastic effect on Mexico’s farm economy.

“To us, subsidies mean slightly lower prices for food,” Shelat said. “To 15 million Mexican farmers, that means that their livelihoods are being wiped away.”

Ohno, who spoke in place of Eva A. Millona, the policy director of MIRA, offered statistics to counter what he described as Barletta’s “anecdotes and stories that are very very powerful.” He noted that although immigrants make up 25 percent of the federal prison population, 92 percent of those prisoners are in state, county, and local prisons. The laws that call for stricter border patrols and workplace enforcement, he said, are no longer useful.

Audience comments were heated during the open forum as students and visitors offered personal stories of immigration, as well as personal experiences in cities that have seen significant growth in their immigrant populations in the last decade.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.