Eric Wanner

The Politics of Immigration

VTR Date: January 24, 2008

Dr. Eric Wanner discusses immigration issues in America.


GUEST: Eric Wanner
VTR: 01/24/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And last year, when my guest Eric Wanner, the learned social psychologist who heads the Russell Sage Foundation, joined me here to mark its Centennial, 100 years now devoted to “strengthening the methods, data and theoretical core of the social sciences”, we discussed the “Why?” of the matter … “Social Science For What?”

And, in essence, Dr. Wanner’s answer was so that in our democracy political decisions could be better informed … so that we might vote more wisely, picking leaders whose policies realistically reflect tough-as-nails, on-the-ground reality, rather than simply ancient but deceptive and perhaps dangerous prejudice.

Well, immigration is surely just such a divisive issue in the 2008 presidential political race. And, as we might expect, it’s a field in which the Russell Sage Foundation has published several important research volumes … among them “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors – Mexican Immigration In An Era Of Economic Integration”; “A Nation by Design – Immigration Policy In The Fashioning of America” and “Immigrants and Boomers – Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America”.

And I would begin today by asking my guest, in the most general way, whether – and how – he believes these research efforts do give us “a more systematic, reliable kind of social knowledge, getting at underlying causes, things we can’t necessarily see on the surface, but are nevertheless going on underneath what we can see.”

And that’s part of the definition of social science research Dr. Wanner offered last year. And I would ask him today if these research volumes do indeed help us deal now with the politics of immigration in this Presidential election year? Again, a big, big question, Eric.

WANNER: I’m not sure they help us deal with the politics of immigration, but I, I think they might inform us about immigration policy. Which, the best immigration policy and how to improve on what we have now.

And that’s by no means a … an obvious … an obvious problem. One thing I’d pick up to start with … the danger here is that I’m going to give long speeches, and you have to interrupt me … I know you’re good at that.

But … there’s no quick answer, but there are stories. So here is a story.

The question about immigration over the Mexican border and what we should do about it. Estimates are now that the flow is on the order of a million a year undocumented immigrants. And that quite surprisingly, the efforts to harden the border after the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986, actually seems to have increased the, the undocumented population in the US. And that’s something that comes out of a study that we’ve help support, although it was largely supported by the National Institutes of Health. Which is a 20 year study of the flow of immigrants from small Mexican communities in Southwestern Mexican states to the US, involving interviews with household heads in those Mexican communities and also interviews with the immigrant households in … largely in Chicago, to try to get a sense of what the flow was like.

And when you do that I think you get some of the systematic knowledge you were talking about that changes your understanding of what immigration from Mexico is all about.

So what you find is that immigration was, before 1986, largely a circular affair. That is, migrant workers came here, they’ve stayed a while, they sent money back home, the money had an enormous effect in terms of improving the quality of life of the families back in Mexico. And then after working here for a while, they went back because they would much rather live with their families in Mexico then they would in the United States, which after all, for them, is an alien culture and so forth.

HEFFNER: And now?

WANNER: And now … so we harden the border. Okay? So what happens when you harden the border? Well, it makes it more difficult and expensive and dangerous to cross the border. So what happens is once you get to this side, you tend to stay here. So this study, for example, it got some numbers in my head. I brought you some numbers.

Before the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the probability of going back in any one year was about 25%. After the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, the probability of going back … four or five years after the Act had dropped to about 10% and the average length of stay here had gone from three years to eight years or nine years.

And furthermore … you’re not here for nine years without putting down some roots and starting a family … women increasingly came across the border, families on this side have started to form and stay. And you got a much more permanent kind of immigration by means of … because you’d hardened the border and made it more expensive … it now costs $3,000 to hire a “coyote” to come … to bring you across. And dangerous. The rate of death and injury in crossing the border increased. And so what you got was a much more permanent settlement of undocumented, undocumented Mexicans in the US. Now estimated to be something like, I think it’s something like 12 million people.


WANNER: So … that’s a … that systematic social knowledge that you couldn’t have gotten without this kind of a survey that looks on … at immigration histories across the border. And it really tells you that your policy which was supposed to reduce immigration actually had a perverse, unintended consequence.

HEFFNER: But you know there’s something, something very interesting that you said before. You offered this information and that is that you …and it was cynical …which is all right at this table, but it was … and that is that in a sense we have here social science research information … but you didn’t know that it would have much to do with the politics of the matter or the policy of the matter. But shouldn’t this … wouldn’t one assume that this was … would then be at the base of what our policy is.

WANNER: Okay. In my world I separate policy and politics. That’s probably naïve on my part. But, I, I would think policy … the question is … sort of what, what do you want to attain? What, what relationship do we want to have …and this is really very important … remember the last time we talked I said, “you have to begin by saying what is it … what goals are you trying to achieve socially?”

Then you can think about designing institutions to try to achieve those goals. And then you can see what are the consequences of those institutions. And so the story I just told you … as we wanted to reduce the flow of undocumented workers from Mexico, we hardened the border and that had the perverse consequence of making it more difficult to go back and therefore you go a more permanent, undocumented group in the US.

HEFFNER: Well, in a …

WANNER: So … so then the question is, “All right, so what should … what should our policy be if we want to achieve that goal?” That is if we want to achieve something like a reconstruction of what, historically, was running way back in US-Mexican relations … a circular flow of workers between the two countries.

HEFFNER: Do we want that? Do you think?

WANNER: Ah, now we get to politics. You see. Some people want it and some people don’t.

Who wants it? There are whole industries in the US, agriculture, construction, landscaping, areas where you really need seasonal workers. You need, if you’re going to do it at a cost that people will pay, you need relatively low cost workers and you need them to be, to be movable. And Mexicans have always supplied that kind of labor. They will do things that Americans will not do, at the prices … at the wages that are paid.

Now you could say, “Okay, we shouldn’t be paying those low wages and I would be happy to think about that with you. But it might be that if we had to pay wages that Americans would require to do it … whole industries would disappear. So it may well be that you can’t have a citrus industry, for example, in the US if you pay wages to native workers … to, to pick the fruit … if you pay those wages, the price will be so high that you won’t be able to compete with the citrus industry off shore and so all our oranges will be grown elsewhere.

HEFFNER: Eric, is there any effort at all made to bring the fruits of your research efforts to the candidates themselves, to the parties themselves, to the political people themselves, to the staffs in the Senate and the House that try to construct policy.

WANNER: Yeah, let me duck and weave around that question. Here’s the thing. The politics of immigration are, are very strange and make for strange bedfellows, as politics often do. So you have whole sectors of the business community that want liberalization of immigration and want to restore, if they can, this circular flow of immigration with Mexico.

And they were strong supporters, really, of Bush’s effort to reform immigration laws that died in the Congress last year. On the other hand, you have cultural madivists, cultural conservatives, people like Pat Buchanan, who feel that, that we’re sort of losing our identity as a nation, if we allow a large influx of, of immigrants.

And, then, of course, you have labor, which historically has been against immigration but recently has become more in favor of immigration. In part, I think because labor begins to feel, with some reason, given for example, the Justice for Janitors Movement in Los Angeles, that they have a chance of organizing immigrant workers in ways that will revive the unions.

So you have very complicated cross pressures on politicians. Now, we can go to politicians and we can bring our books to Congress, and we do some of that. But the kinds of things that we may be recommending, which I could get to in a minute, might be or might not be at the moment, politically implausible, or difficult. That doesn’t mean from our point of view we should shut up. It means that we have to point out that if you’re trying to achieve a certain end, this would be the best way to do it.

When the country, if it does, get around to wanting to admit to itself that this hypocrisy that we’ve been sort of living through where we pretend to harden the border, but at the same time .. at the same time create this demand for workers in our economy that we try to serve. That that hypocrisy has got to somehow end.

HEFFNER: It’s … surprises me, again, a word you used we “might” go to the political leaders. Don’t you?

WANNER: We do. And then the question is … do they pay any attention to us?

HEFFNER: Ah … do they?

WANNER: Because they may be more worried about the political cross pressures on them. For example … hardening the border … everybody says we’ve got to, we’ve got to defend the borders. Right? Everybody … I mean … across the political spectrum. Because we’re taking a kind of narrow legalistic view, I think. That if workers are undocumented, then they’re breaking the law, then they shouldn’t be here and no politician is really willing to say, given the failure of Bush’s effort to, to create a path to legalization, nobody is willing to really say there should be a path to legalization, unless it’s a very draconian and difficult path. So and no one is really talking about re-establishing this circular migration that served … I think both countries … reasonably well.

HEFFNER: Where do we go from here?

WANNER: Well, we can go by way of … we can make specific proposals. So there’s, there’s a sociologist at Princeton, Alejandro Portes, who’s made a very specific proposal about how you might try to re-establish a circular migration. So I won’t get all the details right, but it runs something like this … you have to have what amounts to an agreement between Mexico and the United States in which you try to regulate the flow of migrant workers into the United States from Mexico, and when they come at the border, they have to post a bond. And let’s say the bond is about what they would be paying a coyote right now. So they pay, let’s say, $3,000 and then they get a temporary work permit which allows them to work here for three years. And it’s renewable for another three years. But then it’s … but it’s temporary. They can stay here for six years, but that’s all.

When they go back they get their bond back … the $3,000 and they get the accumulated contributions to Social Security that they have been making during the time that they’ve been working here. So they’re given a significant incentive to return. So that’s a kind of an idea that I think is … maybe politically not on the table right now, but I think would have a much better chance of serving the actual labor needs and the labor demand which is drawing workers across the border without creating this permanent … apparently permanent group of undocumented residents.

HEFFNER: In terms of social science research and this may seem like a, a “catch” question and you know I don’t indulge in “catch” questions. But from what you know of the way we behave, what goes on under the surface as a people, do you think there’s much chance that we’ll likely be that analytic at the level where it counts in this political process? And overcome the nativism, which I think I share in part. I … I’m not … I wouldn’t just condemn the Pat Buchanan’s and the others and says, “Oh, they’re there and I’m here”. I think we’re talking about the feelings, otherwise there’d be a different political result of the efforts made. What do you think? Do you think we’re going to make that jump so that we adapt, on the political level what you have learned …

WANNER: Let me … yeah …

HEFFNER: … as a social scientist?

WANNER: … let me veer off and then sort of come back to it.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re going to do it anyway, so …

WANNER: (Laugh) All right. Okay. Ahemm … well, first … as far as … as far as the sort of cultural conservatism that you just confessed to … I would say, “Don’t worry so much”. All the work that we’ve done and these are other studies now, looking at the children, the off-spring of immigrants, of this wave of immigrants … suggests that far from a cultural invasion, it’s really a cultural assimilation. That is, if you look at, say, language use which is something that is relatively easy to measure … what you find is that in most of these groups, by the second generation, the native language has almost disappeared and that 98% of them are fluent in English.

HEFFNER: So the old patterns remain?

WANNER: The old patterns may remain in the first generation and then there’s a kind of a hybrid pattern in the second generation …

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I meant the old patterns …

WANNER: Oh, I’m sorry … yeah …

HEFFNER: … of the immigration of when my grandparents came here.

WANNER: Yes. Yes. I mean we were very concerned way back when we started work on immigration in the early nineties, that the old patterns wouldn’t hold. And that this group of immigrants being largely non-European immigrants, would be different.

And we worried they’d be different because they would suffer more racial discrimination, because the economy had changed, there weren’t good industrial jobs, industrial sector jobs, manufacturing jobs. And because they were coming into the big immigrant receiving cities where the schools had somewhat deteriorated since the … a hundred years ago when the last big immigrant wave came … And we found that yes, these schools aren’t so good. Yes, there’s some discrimination, yes there aren’t jobs in the manufacturing sector, but there are service sector jobs. Overall what we find is, these kids … this was a big study in New York … these kids are moving through US schools … New York schools, they’re getting … some of the groups are getting a wonderful education actually in New York schools, by using the competitive high schools and so forth. They’re then moving into the service sector, working class and by and large, when you compare them to their demographic native born peers, they’re doing as well or better.

In education, in income and employment. And as far as culturally, they’re creating, wonderfully in New York, their own hybrid culture which is enriching the city and which is certainly not a cultural invasion.

HEFFNER: Why don’t we know that as a people? You know it.

WANNER: We know it because we’ve looked hard and because it’s … we’re sort of getting the early signal and we know what people … what everybody will know in another ten years, it seems to me.

HEFFNER: Yes, another ten years of political divisiveness.

WANNER: Well, that’s true, that’s true. And, and really politics is very much driven by nostalgia of the way things were. And I look at cultural conservatives like Pat Buchanan and I think, “you know, he wants to return to the way things were 50 years ago.” And he regrets that immigration is somehow part of a process of change which he regrets. Ah, we can never go back. Obviously.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re losing the, the, the essence of the American system which these families … who are very upwardly mobile, very highly motivated. I mean if you, if you emigrate here, that in itself is a very difficult thing to do. And these tend to be pretty successful, tight families which are able to instill in their, in their children a real discipline to succeed.

HEFFNER: One word we haven’t used. Globalization. How does it impact upon the question of immigration.

WANNER: That’s a good question and nicely timed because when I think about … when I talk about nostalgia, I think what we’re being nostalgic for is the pre-globalized world, when, when nation states were nation states and where they didn’t really defend their borders all that much, but they didn’t have to defend their borders because nobody was rich enough to move across those borders.

Now with the decline in the price of travel, with the general increase in, in wealth in the developing countries, now it becomes quite possible for workers in third world countries to think of, of coming here and they can and they do.

Furthermore, they’ve become detached from their own … in their own countries they’ve become detached from the land in ways that they weren’t fifty years ago.

So, within their own countries they’ve become more mobile as they’ve been, say, attracted to cities because of industrialization in cities and developing countries and so forth. Once they move off their own farms, they then become more mobile and the possibility of moving here becomes more realistic.

Let’s not get carried away though, globalizaiton as far as the movement of people is sort of much less in, in percentage terms than in terms of the movement of capital, the movement of production, the movement of ideas. Certainly that has been a much more pervasive move.

Just to put some number on it. The entire world population of migrants is about 200 million out of a world population of 6 billion. So we’re talking about well less than, you know, something like 3% live in countries where they weren’t born.

The US now leads the pack. We have forty million foreign born in the US.

HEFFNER: You know, as much as I am concerned …as you are … about what is happening in the political scene and the social scene, the anger that has been generated by the question of immigration … and I do think back … whatever the statistics were at that time … I do know there was the nativism of the period when my grandparents came here … the nativism of the beginnings of the last century … were extreme. There really isn’t that much difference, is that … we’re here …


HEFFNER: And it’s sort of the reverse of “not in my backyard. Don’t come in to my backyard, no matter how recently I’ve come here. I’ve come here … I’m now a native …

WANNER: Right.

HEFFNER: No one else.

WANNER: Right. Pull up the gangplank. Yeah.

HEFFNER: And it’s a … what kind of comment is it … maybe not such a bad comment because we’ve all gone through it.

WANNER: Well, I think the country went through a period in the middle of the 20th century of very low immigration. From 1924 to 1965 they sort of cut off the immigration flow. And in 1965, during the Civil Rights period it was, it was revived.

And I think we’ve, as a nation, taken a while to sort of get used to what was going on. The big … it’s interesting … the big immigrant receiving cities …the top six or eight … are pretty used to this and we’re talking about New York, Los Angeles, which are the two main one … but also Chicago, Miami, San Francisco and so forth.

Immigration is a fact of life and has been always. And culturally these places are, are prepared and ready and institutionally also to receive immigrants. We’re now going out … following the immigrants actually … out into the smaller cities and towns that they’re beginning to populate. And we’re starting a study this year with the MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, if all goes well … on what’s happening in smaller cities and towns around the country, where the immigrant population has gone from, in the last 20 years …effectively zero to maybe 15% of the local population.

HEFFNER: That’s where the political action is taking place …

WANNER: Exactly, and that’s why I come back … I said I was going to veer and now I’m going to come back. I think a lot of the countries’ anxiety about immigration is coming from places who have never seen immigrants before.

And that’s … politically, of course, has a big effect. Because that means harden the borders … right … enforce the, enforce the immigration law … deport the 12 million illegal immigrants which is hard to conceive of … but why that plays politically and why there’s quite a bit of political pressure on politicians to sound as though they’re, they’re honoring those anxieties.

HEFFNER: Do you have much connection … we just have a minute and a half left … do you have much connection, or any connection with the politicos?

WANNER: Ah … any connection. We have thin connections to them. We try, we go to Congress, we talk to people, we tell them about our studies. They’re polite, their staffs show up and listen to us. But I think right now, they’re much shorter term thinkers than we are.

We’re trying to say, “look, in the long run you can … the American economy looks as though it needs this pool of workers. What’s the most humane, sensible way to try to provide for this kind of a labor flow, which the economy needs and which does not really do damage to the country as long as we manage it in a rational, reasonable way?”

HEFFNER: Now, you may want to run the clock and you could almost do that …

WANNER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Are there any candidates now … Presidential candidates who are looking to the information we have … you have on which to base their thinking?

WANNER: Okay. Not to my knowledge. I have … I could run the clock, but I won’t. I’ll say, “No, I don’t think so”. Right now, during the heated … you know super heated political atmosphere where every politician is trying not to offend somebody, it’s very hard to come out with a systematic and current sensible immigration policy. Particularly when Bush tried … Bush of all people, tried and failed. So, of course … and he tried very hard to … he tried very hard to bow towards the nativists by saying “We’ll harden the border, but we’ll have a temporary worker program and that went down in flames.”

HEFFNER: You’ve run the clock.

WANNER: All right.

HEFFNER: Eric Wanner, thank you again for joining …

WANNER: Thank you, too.

HEFFNER: … on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And, for transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.