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Column: Will Washington Take the Lead on Immigration? (5 of 5)

  • Geraldo “Pasky” Pascual came to the U.S. from the Philippines for higher education and then went to work for the EPA. -- Earl Dotter photograph



For the Valley News
Thursday, January 19, 2017

If you seek meaningful thinking about immigration, look for it among individuals and local communities, but not in Washington.

I met Geraldo “Pasky” Pascual as, near retirement, he packed up his personal effects in his Alexandria, Va., office of the Environmental Protection Agency. He came to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1980s to complete his B.A., then earned a master’s in soil science and a law degree. Pascual spent two decades at the EPA documenting the rationale and validity of regulations by building and applying models.

On the side, he predicted major league baseball games and season outcomes. 

“Science is a universal language, and gives me global opportunities,” he told me; he expects to travel worldwide to look for ways to apply his skills. “I’m a global actor. All I need is an iPad and broadband, and I can do whatever I want to anywhere in the world. I have a Robin Hood scenario (in) which I will work for an NGO (non-governmental organization) for a dollar a year and then earn my money by consulting.”

Pascual’s story shows how much of migration into the United States is not unidirectional, and not about wrapping oneself in the American flag. Many lives today are transnational, a fact absent from nearly any discussion I’ve read on the subject out of Washington. 

The Failure

Our illegal immigrant problem is in large measure a result of the failure by the government to design a durable transnational labor market system for America and Mexico. This would involve use of low-skilled Mexican workers, with controls on the number of workers, protection from abuse, and time limits on stays.

Immigration skeptics do have a beef. Our immigrant population surged as is said to have happened with the British Empire: in a fit of absent-mindedness. Once Congress opened up the borders via the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, new arrivals appeared from alternative, non-Western-European sources. After learning how to work and live, they arranged for friends and families to get in. That’s called “chained migration” from the immigrant’s perspective. For their part, employers learned how to beckon them. Meat processors, restaurant chains, Silicon Valley and other industries adapted hiring practices, even business location decisions, to bolster what might be called chained employment. For example, meat processors such as Swift placed plants in small rural towns, expecting immigrant workers would show up (they were right).

As a journalist, I’ve encountered federal employees who refuse to use the word “immigrant,” I surmise, for fear of discipline from on high. They use variations on the word “diversity” instead. Washington manages 53 different visa categories, a 1,933-mile border with Mexico, and an over-burdened deportation program, but is silent on what this vast expansion of immigration means to communities and the economy. 

To get the real story, I had to listen to people such as Pascual and David Barber. Barber’s family’s food preparation plant is close to downtown in Portland, Maine. He told me, “Any company growing fast in Maine will need to employ foreign workers on the production line.” Barber Foods attracted Cambodian refugees in the 1980s, as well as immigrants from many other countries. At one point, 53 nationalities worked at the plant. Barber told me, “We’ve done a lot of English language training, basic mathematics and citizenship classes. Catholic Charities sent people to Barber Foods confident that we would speed up their integration into the Portland community.”

At the community level, the Portland Chamber of Commerce wants to attract foreign-born workers to counter the state’s “demographic winter” of workforce shrinkage due to an aging population. Boston, Dayton, Ohio, Greenville, N.C., and other cities opened offices to remove barriers to residency, education and jobs for foreign-born workers.

The best source of insight on job markets is local. Mirjana Kulenovic’s team at Jewish Vocational Services in Boston works with over 400 new refugees a year. With little or no English, a refugee can get work within two months in hotel housekeeping, she told me. When her English improves, she could become a bank teller. After formal education, such as at Bunker Hill Community College, she then might move into the pharmacy industry or a higher-level job in financial services. “There’s a definite labor shortage for health care jobs such as lab technicians,” she said.

Washington doesn’t appear able to apply Kulenovic’s type of job market expertise on training on a national scale. It also shows little interest in or aptitude for reporting on what actually happens. Too bad — the highly respected Pew Research Center forecasts that 93 percent of the growth of the nation’s working-age population between now and 2050 will be accounted for by immigrants and their U.S.-born children.

From 2000 through 2010, the Midwest saw a decline of 1.4 million in the native-born population between ages 35 to 44, while gaining 265,000 foreign-born persons in that age group.

Had Congress and the executive branch paid more attention over decades, we might not be at a stalemate about immigration issues begging for resolution. Conservatives are deeply agitated about the 11 million unauthorized persons; liberals usually don’t want to address that problem absent a broader deal over immigration. There appears to be agreement that laws should favor foreigners with skills, but everyone seems to be afraid of proposing to reduce the number of family-related entries.

Reform’s Chance

There was a chance that during George W. Bush’s first term, Washington might have resolved these issues in a comprehensive bill. There was a chance that restrictionists and permissives along the immigration spectrum could draft a master contract, keep their supporters from bolting to make special deals or torpedo legislation, defang special interest groups, and enact the most important immigration bill since 1965.

After 9/11, the prospects evaporated.

A reason for hope before the terrorist attack was the success in the 1990s of the so-called Jordan Commission, named after Rep. Barbara Jordan. The commission examined and made recommendations on virtually every aspect of the immigration system: family reunification, employment-based immigration, enforcement measures to stem unauthorized immigration, and numerical limits on all classes of immigrants, non-immigrants and asylees.

Between 1994 and 1997, the Jordan Commission issued four reports. In the last, “Becoming an American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy,” the commission defined a vision in 90 words:

“Properly-regulated immigration and immigrant policy serves the national interest by ensuring the entry of those who will contribute most to our society and helping lawful newcomers adjust to life in the United States. It must give due consideration to shifting economic realities. A well-regulated system sets priorities for admission; facilitates nuclear family reunification; gives employers access to a global labor market while protecting U.S. workers; helps to generate jobs and economic growth; and fulfills our commitment to resettle refugees as one of several elements of humanitarian protection of the persecuted.”

A statement like this is so exceedingly rare at the leadership level that a member of that commission forgot that it had been made when I asked him about it. The commission recommended that permanent residency awards go down by about a third from the prevailing annual level of about 600,000. Today, about 1 million green cards are issued annually.

Ray Marshall, Jimmy Carter’s secretary of labor, summarized the cost when he wrote in 2011 that, in contrast with Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, “the United States does not have a guiding national economic policy for the flow of foreign workers. … it has almost no reliable data to measure the number and characteristics of migrants, their social and economic impacts … it has the largest unauthorized migration levels in the industrialized world; and it does too little to protect either foreign or domestic workers or the national interest.”

If we could reach, in the Upper Valley, some degree of consensus about immigration policy, that would be a good outcome for 2017. We have a wide range of political opinion here to make a consensus worth something. We could say in a single voice to our congressional delegations that we are aware of the long-term cost of non-leadership in Washington.

Peter Rousmaniere is a writer in Woodstock. His email address is pfr@rousmaniere.com. He blogs about immigration issues at www.workingimmigrants.com.