Rinku Sen on Immigration Policy

January 4, 2010

During my June 5, 2009 interview with Rinku Sen, we discussed immigration policy as it exists now and as it could be. Here is the transcript of our talk. Immigration reform is a topic I hope to cover more as the New Year goes on.

Susan Gaissert: Do you think September 11th had a lot to do with the backlash against immigrants that we have seen since that time?

Rinku Sen: Oh, definitely. In fact, there’s a scene in The Accidental American where the main conservative character, Mark Krikorian, describes his experience of September 11th. He’s an anti-immigration activist, a restrictionist. On September 11th, he knew that the legalization idea that George W. Bush had been pushing in his campaign in 2000 and after his election was dead in the water.

Conservatives recognized right away that September 11th would give them tremendous ammunition to make their argument to stop the flow of immigration. It made it easier for Americans who were inclined to go this way to cut off modern immigration from historical immigration that their families had gone through—to separate those two kinds of immigration in their minds, and to treat the current immigration as different from whatever their family story was.

SG: I hear the question, “Why don’t the people from Mexico come here legally?” My question is: If you are a poor person in Mexico, other than get in the bottom of a truck, what can you do? Is there a way to come here legally?

Rinku Sen: Our legal immigration system is basically for professionals and for people who have family members here. Either you are coming for higher education—and that’s not really immigration—or coming with a high-wage professional job, or you’ve got family members already here. Our legal system doesn’t make any room for a country like Mexico, that doesn’t have a long history of legal immigration so that people do have someone here and can do family reunification.

The economy, of course, does make plenty of room for Mexicans, and it essentially recruits them. So, we’re sending a real mixed message to Mexicans by making their legal immigration just about impossible, but by encouraging—through the underground channels—their cheap labor here. I don’t blame them for taking advantage of whatever channels they have.

SG: Do you feel hopeful about the Obama administration with regards to immigration policy?

Rinku Sen: I take the debate very seriously, and I’m not blindly optimistic. I know that the next immigration policy we get still won’t really be as modern, as free, and as open as it needs to be, but I think we’ll move forward. I think the president tries to lead by educating people. He seems to invest the time necessary to help Americans understand the choices that we have to make, so that people can make those choices in an educated way.

I didn’t think the White House would deal with immigration in this first year, and I’m encouraged by their speed. I think it’s partly because legalization of undocumented immigrants, opening up immigration, and encouraging it are keys to getting us out of the economic crisis we’re in. That’s true for both professional immigrants and people who are doing low-wage service jobs. We need not just highly educated scientists and computer programmers. Our economy does also need apple pickers and cleaners and restaurant workers and so on in order to grow.

SG: What can someone reading this do, if they are interested in achieving a more just immigration policy?

Rinku Sen: The first thing they can do is contact their member of Congress now, and tell them they want a sensible, comprehensive immigration policy that includes legalizing the undocumented people who are here. The Fair Immigration Reform Movement, which is a project of the Center for Community Change, provides action alerts about when Congress needs to hear from people. Congress hears from thousands more people who are against immigration than they hear from people who are for immigration, and we need to reverse those numbers. I think that’s the most important thing to do right now.

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