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U.S.-Mexico border

The U.S.-Mexican border (the U.S. is on the right side of the photo).

Eye on immigration

U conference explores immigration myths with experts and Minnesota mayors

By Pauline Oo

Nov. 10, 2006

I'm a "resident alien," according to the U.S. government. Yet unpleasant as that sounds, it's really a good thing.

Why? Because although I'm from Malaysia, I can legally live and work in the United States. The same cannot be said for the 12 million other immigrants in this country who make up nearly five percent of the labor force. They are "unauthorized" or "illegal" because they don't have a work permit, or they don't have, like I do, the highly coveted green card, a.k.a Permanent Resident Card.

Immigration, particularly the brouhaha surrounding unauthorized or illegal immigrants in the United States, was the topic du jour at a recent full-day conference on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. The nearly 200 people who attended, including high school students and educators, business leaders and immigration lawyers, left more informed about some common myths and truths about immigration. (For example, it's a myth that the U.S. immigration challenge is unique, and it's true that the United States has a waiting list for visas--currently, about 1.3 million people for 120,000 to 130,000 visas).

The conference "Getting Some Perspective on Immigration," which the U's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance sponsored, also gave participants the chance to meet with three Minnesota mayors--Chris Coleman (St. Paul), R.T. Rybak (Minneapolis) and Bonnie Rietz (Austin)--and present them with a list of values they felt should guide the nation's policy toward illegal and legal immigrants (see sidebar).

"Immigration is one of the most compelling issues of the day in the developing world," said keynote speaker Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank dedicated exclusively to the study of international migration. "The entire foreign policy of Mexico in the last six years has been reduced to a long conversation, a monologue, really, on immigration. There have also been similar conversations in East Asia. Essentially, you can travel just about [anywhere in the world] and have these conversations with families, friends and people on the street."

He added that immigration is as much about politics as it is about good policy.

"A robust and honest [immigration] policy would take into account the receiving country's values and intent. It would actually improve the relationship between the receiving country and the countries from which the immigrants come, and it would sustain the receiving country-offering space where both residents and newcomers would grow together," he said. "Nobody comes close to that idea."

Values wish list

The following are some of the values that the conference participants came up with in a breakout session:

* Immigrants should be central to the process and have a say in policy-making.

* Everyone should respect the "golden rule"--do unto others what you want others to do unto you.

* All of us should recognize that it's in our best interest to have the very brightest here for work and play.

In January, the U's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance plans to submit a comprehensive list of values and participant comments to Minnesota legislators.

U.S. policy makers make decisions that affect immigration typically by asking the question: "How do you stop them from coming in?" said Papademetriou, who emigrated from Greece to the United States in 1965 when he was 18 years old. He said this question pops up because "we have so many 'uninvited people' trying to break into our country."

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 850,000 illegal immigrants have entered the United States every year since 2000. On an average day in fiscal year 2005, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection made 62 arrests and apprehended 3,257 people for illegal entry.

Donna Gabaccia, director of the University's Immigration History Research Center, explained that the "restriction of movement works during times of depression and war [but it's] not effective when there is a strong demand for labor--unskilled and highly skilled labor--especially in the global economy."

Another speaker, Michael LeMay, professor emeritus at California State University, said people move from their countries of birth because of "push" and "pull" factors. People who are "pushed" may be those fleeing religious persecution, epidemic diseases or famine; "You cannot control that flow," he said. " It's like an iceberg, and we're trying to chip at it. [If you have fences, for example] people can go under, over and around them." People who are "pulled," on the other hand, are drawn to a country for money or for work," said LeMay.

Myth breaking It's a myth that immigration hurts our economy, said Katherine Fennelly, Professor of Public Affairs at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute. "There is a need for a [young and immigrant] labor force because we have an increasingly elderly population; 95 percent of undocumented workers from Mexico are in the [U.S.] labor force." Fennelly said that by 2012 the United States will have 85 people not working for every 100 people who are. And over the next 25 years, the elderly population will increase by almost 80 percent due to aging baby boomers, she explained.

A study by the Immigration Policy Center at the University of California, which compared wages paid in the U.S. between 1990 and 2004, found that immigrants and U.S. workers do not generally compete for the same jobs. Immigrant workers are concentrated at the lowest and highest level of occupations, and usually choose different occupations than the average American worker because that is the work that is available to them. These are jobs that U.S.-born workers won't take--such as dishwashing in restaurants, farm work, landscaping work, care giving and low-level construction work--because they find them unappealing.

"We need [immigrants] coming in," says Austin mayor Bonnie Rietz. "Otherwise, big companies would leave. Without the immigrants, they would go where the labor market is."

Quotable quote
"Imigration is why our country has expanded and grown.... immigrants are a major asset, not a major issue." --Chris Coleman, St. Paul mayor.