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Everyone seems to have an opinion about immigration policy; Demetrios Papademetriou is one of the few people in Washington who truly understand the issue. In this wide-ranging interview, PT talked with Papademetriou, president and founder of the Migration Policy Institute in DC, about the politics and policies of American immigration—past, present and future.

PT: You’ve been quoted as saying that one of the reasons comprehensive immigration reform failed was because Congress tried to do too much at once. How would you break up the task into its component parts to make the debate more effective?

Papademetriou: The quote that you’re referring to has more to do with the fact that there were so many big, new ideas included in that bill. Ideas that had never been vetted before. You couldn’t expect people to simply buy the entire bundle, because the bundle was negotiated among a cabal of six or 12 senators. If anything, the next bill will have to be even more ambitious than the previous one. Although, I don’t know that it would be wise to mix in the issue of the 12 million people who are already here with a reform of the U.S. immigration system.

The U.S. immigration system was devised 50 years ago—it was debated between 1962 and 1965. Today, this is an entirely different country. We live in a global environment that has no relation to the world we lived in then. So, it’s no surprise that some people have tried to reengineer the system, but they’ve tried to reengineer it in a language that is unfamiliar to most Americans. They left us all guessing as to what it was they were trying to accomplish.

PT: Why couldn’t they articulate the goals of an effective immigration policy?

Papademetriou: I start from the assumption that most of these people that we like to vilify in the Congress are just like you and I. They have goals, they understand the basic issues to a certain degree, and they really want to do something that they consider important for their constituents and the country. But in the process of trying to do all that, they get sucked in by the process.

In this case, they kept adding more extreme measures to the bill to appeal to narrow sections of senators. It was an ill-founded hope that by including the principle idea from someone who really doesn’t like immigration, it would somehow get that person’s vote at the end of the day.

I can give you a specific example. Senator Sessions bent over backward to promote his point system, which he doesn’t completely understand. I’m not attacking point systems on their merits; point systems should be part of what you should have at the end of the day. Not the only part. But at the end of the day, Senator Sessions didn’t vote for it anyway because that wasn’t all he wanted. Multiply this scenario by 5-10 and you realize that you’ve produced an iterative set of changes meant only to gather enough votes to pass a bill.

PT: You mentioned that we live in an entirely different world today from the one we lived in when we last overhauled our immigration system. How have our priorities changed since then?

Papademetriou: Back then, we were experiencing the last legs of an immigration system that had been devised in the 1920s. So, the system from 1962-1965 was as unreflective of what the United States needed to do at that time as the current system is today.

So, in the 1920s, we devised a system that was essentially an ethnicity and country of origin-biased system. People from Western and Northern Europe were desired and we gave them quite a bit of latitude. Immigrants that had come over from the 1890s to the early 1910s were consequently severely restricted because they were deemed “unassimilable.” These were Greeks, Italians, people from Asia Minor, and other southern Europeans. The policy was constructed to bring these people in with an eyedropper.

By 1965, we realized that we lived in a different world and we were making immigration policy by exception. If you jump forward to the last 15 years, you’ll notice that we’re making immigration policy by exception once again. The bill in 1990 that created the H-1B program and other policies like it are simply means to bypass the regular immigration system because it no longer serves the role of the United States in the world economy. That’s why we opened up the H-1B status, and why we keep adding categories in the one part of the system that was still flexible. We’ve done it because the main part of the system has become completely sclerotic.

PT: Does our integration in the global economy mean that our future immigration system will be tilted heavily toward economic concerns instead of family or asylum cases?

Papademetriou: In 2007, we now have an argument as to whether we should even have a family immigration system or not. Well, that’s entirely the wrong question! Family has to continue to play a role in this. Refugees have to continue to come here because, first of all, we’ve signed our country’s name to certain international legal instruments with certain rules.

But guess what? The United States is a global economy. We’ve told our corporate citizens that they have to learn to adapt to survive in this global economy that we’ve created. But when it comes to having access to immigrants, you can only do so in the numbers that a political process has developed.

A bunch of people up on the Hill and special interests negotiate these numbers. They decide. Why? That’s not how it should work. We have to basically liberate the system from these decisions. Any number that anyone sets is wrong. Any number. The Congress does not have the means to determine the correct number for plumbers, IT types, or cooks or anyone else. It does not have the means to do so.

PT: Are there some countries that get it right? Could we look to any countries as models of sound, effective immigration policy?

Papademetriou: Yes, there are countries that really work hard at it. There is no country that gets it more than 60% right. We get maybe 15% right. The Europeans get maybe 3% right. The Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders get it somewhere between 50 and 70% right. How do they do it? They constantly work at it. Constantly. They start from a different assumption than we do as well. They start from the premise that immigration policy isn’t something that you legislate and then go to sleep for 40 years. This is something that you try and try again, and try again…and then try again.

PT: Closing thoughts?

Papademetriou: We cannot continue to have a system that ratifies the decisions of smugglers, people who just want to reunify with their relatives, and employers who simply want cheap labor. At the end of the day, we have to put all of these things into a mix and discuss them. When we don’t have the answers, we should go out and find them.

PT: Mr. Papademetriou, thank you for your time.

Demetrios Papademetriou is co-founder and President of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank dedicated exclusively to the study of international migration. He is also the co-convener of the Transatlantic Task Force on Immigrant Integration. He holds a PhD in Comparative Public Policy and International Relations (1976) and has taught at the universities of Maryland, Duke, American, and New School for Social Research. He has held a wide range of senior policy and research positions that include: Chair of the Migration Committee of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); Director for Immigration Policy and Research at the U.S. Department of Labor and Chair of the Secretary of Labor’s Immigration Policy Task Force; and Executive Editor of the International Migration Review.

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What does immigration policy mean to those who enforce it at a local level? PT went to America's border and its heartland to find out.


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What's it like protecting a small town on America's northern border?
PT spoke with Blaine, Washington Chief of Police Mike Haslip to find out.


PT: Does Blaine have a problem with undocumented workers, or immigrants living there illegally?

Chief Haslip: My sense is that Blaine has less of a problem of resident illegal aliens than many cities our size simply because of the large community of federal law enforcement officers who work and reside here. Blaine police officers share common radio frequencies with U.S. Border Patrol agents because we work so closely together, hour by hour and day by day. We share information and resources with Border Patrol, CBP and ICE wherever possible, and thereby help offset the sense of vulnerability that might otherwise arise from living in a border community.

PT: How do you think immigration policy could improve, both on the federal and state level?

Chief Haslip: U.S. immigration policy could improve by acknowledging the critical role that local criminal justice agencies play in border security. There are many instances where local officers develop the information or make the observations which lead to interdiction of criminal illegal alien activity. Especially on the northern border, local jurisdictions are asked to absorb a disproportionate share of the cost of this interdiction activity. To improperly recognize this impact does a disservice to the security of the United States as a whole, as well as diminishing the effectiveness of those local efforts.



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Over a period of 18 months, enforcement agencies in Allen County, Ohio, have deported 83 illegal aliens, making it one of the most aggressive communities in the Midwest to crack down on illegal immigration. PT spoke with Sheriff Daniel Beck to find out the details.


PT: Why are you so insistent upon cracking down on illegal immigrants?

Sheriff Beck: Allen County has a very high unemployment rate. The biggest lie that has been spread from pro-immigration folks is that the illegals are doing the jobs that Americans won't do—that's entirely untrue. They never finish that sentence. Illegals in many cases are doing work that Americans won't do…for the amount employers are willing to pay. Since many companies do not pay a living wage, our entire society is paying the fringe benefits for those companies; we are subsidizing those companies.

PT: Would you say that your attitude about immigration reflects your political affiliations, or those of your community?

Sheriff Beck: We are a strongly conservative county; there are twice as many Republicans as there are Democrats. Having said that, I am an Independent, and this is my 15th year as Sheriff. I don't have any direct political friends, no big money friends, I just do my job and I have a good rapport with the people in this community. We've gotten quite a bit of publicity out of it [the deportations], but I'm not going to dodge the bullet. One thing that I've found that my people appreciate is that good, bad or ugly, I'm going to stand up for my county.


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Feature Story

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It's not just the mentally ill and chemically dependent, but more violent, ruthless young criminals that are challenging the system.

For more than 100 years, California has been a beacon of progress, leading the pack on many positive social, environmental and economic trends that would come to sweep the country.

Not so when it comes to criminal justice. With 170,000 inmates spilling out of a prison system designed for about half that many, even states with prison problems of their own look to California as a cautionary tale. Federal judges recently decreed that the state cannot build its way out of the crisis, and many legislators are concerned about the prospect of freeing even non-violent and drug offenders, lest some of them do something worse the next time around.

So, are lawmakers considering fundamental changes to a system that has put one of every 200 Californians behind bars, 50% of them as non-violent offenders?

You might be surprised.

"Obviously, there are efforts to be smarter about the problem, but it's much easier to come in and cry wolf, arguing that we need to get 'tougher' on criminals to clean up our society," says California State Senator Gil Cedillo. "At the end of the day, if we don't look at
the roots of these problems, we're go-ing to have more people in jail than out."

Cedillo's characterization may be more truth than hyperbole if current trends continue. Legislators on the other side of the aisle such as Assembly Republican Leader Michael Villines argue that the key lies in reducing recidivism. "I believe that if people want to change themselves once they're inside prison, they can do it. If we can connect them to industries that want to hire them, there are lots of industries that want to hire people like this and give them a shot."

Nevertheless, reducing recidivism does nothing to stem the influx of new criminals entering the system, nor does it address the burgeoning population of non-violent drug offenders in our prisons.

Civil-style justice

American Bar Association officials say the panacea fix for an over-burdened criminal justice system is an alternative program designed for justice without prosecution, a criminal justice version of the civil court's Alternative Dispute Resolution program.

"A typical criminal case would be neighbor disputes that turned violent or caused property damage, and many youth-related crimes," according to John Bickerman, ABA's chair for the criminal justice division.

The nascent program holds promise, but it remains to be seen whether it will be seen as a serious remedy to our expanding prison population.

Those with a stake in alternative programs such as the ADR have had little comment on the program.

The California Judges Association would not comment on the program, nor say what alternative solutions California judges are using or considering—if any—and a number of California legislators, including senate and assembly legislative judiciary committee members, and district attorney offices all said they were not aware of any alternative programs and nothing is in the pipeline.

One of the ABA committee members, Kings County (Brooklyn, NYC) District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, is at the forefront of progressive programs in his New York office. He says Brooklyn's 100,000 arrests per year led him to charge the ABA committee with developing a method to unburden the criminal system.

"It will give victims closure sooner and reduce costs," says First Assistant Prosecutor, Anne Swern, who has spearheaded some of the innovative programs in Hynes' office, such as alternative sentencing to prison terms for lesser offenses.

A system for the vulnerable

Even if there seems to be a vacuum of ideas today, there have long been efforts to tweak and change the system in California. In 1989, El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Eddie T. Keller created the Children and Family Network program to prevent young people falling through the cracks of the system.

Frustrated with youth offenders bogging down his criminal court, Keller was inspired to take action after sending so many of these offenders to youth prisons, knowing they would later become career criminals.

The program brings social services, schools, prosecutors, judges and others into frequent meetings to review a youth's case file and to ensure all needs are met. Other programs, such as behavioral health courts, utilize similar service linkages to give people with genuine mental illness and substance abuse problems the help they need.

"We need specific strategies for specific circumstances," says Cedillo. If a person is mentally ill, that's the core of their problem and therefore the basis of their conduct. We need to address that instead of just punishing the conduct and then sending them out with an untreated problem."

A new breed of crime

It's not just the glut of mentally ill, chemically dependent and youth offenders that demand changes to the current criminal justice system. FBI Special Agent Karen Ernst, from California's eastern district, says lawmakers and the courts should be looking down the road for alternatives to deal with the new breed of criminals coming down the pipeline as well.

"The young criminals coming along are bolder, ruthless, lawless and packing big weapons," Ernest said. "They have no sense of family, loyalty, or community. The gangsters of the past generations drew the line on killing cops. I don't know what kind of alternative program you can develop for these guys, but they will bog down the system like nothing anyone has ever seen if something isn't done now."

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