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© Frank

interviews

Success Only Comes After Failure

by Charles Kawaski
May 21, 2020

This interview with Charles Kamaski, author of the new book, Immigration Reform: The Corpse That Will Not Die, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

frank | Would you introduce yourself and your work? 

Charles Kamasaki | I’m Charles Kamasaki. I have a somewhat meaningless title of Senior Cabinet Advisor. "Cabinet" is the term that's used here at UnidosUS for our senior management team. I've been in Washington and at UnidosUS since 1982 – I first came from South Texas to work on public policy. Immigration fell into my lap. For many years I oversaw our public policy division, the early 1990s through the 2000s. I became Executive Vice President in 2005 until 2014, when I transitioned into my current role while writing my book, Immigration Reform: The Corpse That Will Not Die.

What has your work been like in the last six to eight weeks, compared to the decades past?

Well, it's definitely shifted. Given how deeply the crisis is affecting the Latino community which we are representing and serving, it wouldn't have been possible for the work not to have changed. Let me articulate a couple of places where there has been a real convergence of the pandemic and immigration policy.

There is one set of issues around the so-called essential workers who continue to work during the pandemic, which has largely been within the food supply system. Literally from when the crops and livestock are harvested, all the way through to when it's either delivered to us from a restaurant or picked up at a store, Latino immigrants are heavily overrepresented. They continue to be, however, pretty much excluded from a lot of the remedies and responses that Congress has passed so far in response to this crisis. 

And then there is another set of issues. There has been enormous job loss. Latinos are, again, overrepresented in becoming unemployed, having hours and wages cut, and losing businesses. And there are long term questions.

50% of Latino homes are cell phone only, often with no or limited broadband. How does that household react to a school system that's gone virtual?

Or how does it work when any transactions that used to be done in person now have to be done online, like banking? A lot of our work has been focused on that.

That being said, there are things that are going to happen regardless of the arc of the pandemic recovery. There is going to be an election in November. Traditionally we have been very focused on voter registration and GOTV. There is legislation going to happen, apart from the CARE Act, which we've got to continue to devote resources towards. A lot of our focus has shifted towards the pandemic and it's immediate consequences, but we're trying as best we can to keep an eye on the longer term.

Do you see this as an opportunity to carry the visibility of the Latino community into a policy moment for immigration reform?

I think so, and I think that we may see some of those policy changes may come sooner rather than later. The Heroes Act that is going to pass the House probably today [5/15], has a couple of areas that are kind of interesting.

There are proposed stimulus checks for so-called mixed status families. Depending on how it is defined, there as many as 6 million people lawfully here, including US citizens in households that include at least one undocumented person. All of those households were excluded from the first stimulus checks, because, according to the way the bill was drafted, everybody in the household had to have a work-authorized social security number. There is a provision in the Heroes Act to fix that. 

The provision that hasn't gotten a lot of attention so far, although I suspect it will, is giving so-called essential workers an opportunity to earn legal status.

The philosophical thinking being, if they're out there exposing themselves to infection in order to feed us, clean our homes, clean our office buildings, pick up our trash, then they ought not to be subject to deportation after the pandemic ends.

I think there could very well be, in the immediate term, some policy action that deals with intersection of immigration policy and the pandemic.

I also think we are going to have a really interesting conversation about legal immigration. You may have noticed that President Trump issued an executive order to end or suspend all legal immigration. That was widely received as one would have expected based on traditional partisan leanings. I think that conversation probably changes 10 or 12 months out. If, as some economists say, it is going to take us a couple of years to come back economically, and we permit about a million legal immigrants into the country every year, I just can't imagine that we wouldn't have a debate around should we really continue to allow a million people to enter lawfully if a significant number of Americans are still unemployed.

I'm curious about this new debate on legal immigration you mentioned. Could you walk me through a little bit of each side of that debate and how you see that coming out in both upcoming 2020 presidential campaigns?

I think the restrictionist case is pretty simple: There are millions of Americans unemployed who are competing for a scarce number of jobs. It doesn't make any sense to allow a million people a year to enter the country, some of whom may be potential competitors for those jobs. The alternative case would be that these jobs are and will continue to be really tough, difficult jobs. Think about agriculture. Think about food processing where you're on a factory floor slaughtering and processing animals all day. Think about nursing homes. How many of the people who are currently unemployed would be willing to take those jobs? The answer from pro immigrant activists would be, not many.

Right. That makes sense and seems fairly standard. What does policy look like to you in like an ideal scenario? 

I don't end my book actually with a policy prescription, although I did have several that I played around with then ultimately rejected. The reason is I think it's less about what I think, and more about what's doable. The best policy possible would include three buckets. 

The first is longterm undocumented people who have not been convicted of serious crimes and who don't pose a threat to their communities ought to have an opportunity to legalize their status.

I also think we have to articulate that we are going to be generous with respect to the undocumented people who are here, then we're also going to be pretty firm in terms of enforcement in the future. This may get me in trouble with my more progressive colleagues, but as I write in my book, every nation, by definition, has a sovereign right to control its borders. Of course there are principles, most of which are codified in international law, around how we deal with asylum seekers and how we enforce the laws, which looks very different than what is going on right now. But, the conversation can't be binary.

It is not open borders versus deporting everyone, there has to be nuances between the two approaches in the same way there are nuances in every other law. 

Further, in respect to the question of legal immigration, I don't think it makes sense for Congress to write a law with a black and white plan on what immigration ought to look like. We are in the midst of a pandemic right now, and the future of work and the nature of the global economy is changing all the time. I don't think it is possible to write a law that specifies exactly how many people are going to be allowed to enter that is going to be relevant and consistent with the national interest five years from now or 10 years from now. I do think there is room for a body of experts to periodically adjust, based on data and economic forecasts and social needs, the number of immigrants who should be let in and in what sectors. If we had a nationwide childcare shortage, which we do, it's frankly a lot cheaper to allow a parent or another relative of a U.S. Citizen to enter in order to take care of their kids than it would be to spend the money to create another and regulate another childcare slot. So I would argue for some sort of independent commission to set levels on legal immigration in a way that responds to economic and social conditions.

Reforms are really hard. And the kind of progressive reforms that I have articulated, are not just once in a generation, they are more like once in a lifetime kind of events.

Success is always preceded by years of failure.

This has been true of the recent attempts of reform and was true of the last set of reforms that were successful. As you said, much of the debate is so stale, that it requires actors contravening conventional wisdom to succeed, and that's difficult for anyone.