Policy Today magazine cover showing people hoeing in a field
April 5, 2006

PT talks to Susan Davis, U.S. Congress-woman from San Diego, California, about the topic on everyone's mind these days: immigration policy reform

PT: What can you tell us about the overall tenor of the discussion in Congress right now when it comes to immigration policy?

Davis: First off, we're concerned with securing our borders. Every country has the sovereign right to do that, and I think it's critical. I think the public has really lost any sense of confidence that we're able to do that. The problem exists at many levels and we have to address each one of them appropriately. If we knew exactly what to do, we probably would have done it by now. The key is that it has to be realistic, but it also has to be humane.

PT: How hard is it to craft policy that works against illegal immigration while facilitating smoother legal immigration?

Davis: We're very aware of this, particularly in San Diego because we have so many legal crossers. We have 60 million cross-border trips annually in San Diego; 70,000 cross daily from Tijuana to San Diego. So yes, we have to focus on securing our borders so that the bad guys don't get in, but we end up spending a tremendous amount of time focusing on people who have legitimate business here. On top of that, we need to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants who are already in the United States.

PT: A lot of the debate has focused on the specific elements of the policies that are being floated around Congress and in state legislatures across the country. Are there also hang-ups on the principles behind these policies?

Davis: I think that part of the problem is that we're all working from different sets of information. We know that there is a real need for low-skilled labor in various occupations across the country, but it would be helpful to have better information on that. Which industries most need the labor pool, and why won't Americans take the jobs? We need a set of information and policy implications that people can really understand and buy into.

We have to accept that this is a multi-pronged problem that we've created. I think there are ways of fixing it, but I also think we should send a clear message to people who want to come here, that if they play by the rules and do what's right, we want to help them move into a process where they work toward citizenship. I also feel that it's appropriate for people all over the world who have been waiting in line not be pushed back when everything is said and done.

PT: It seems like everyone has a unique approach to the situation, but many have focused on strict enforcement—both on our borders and internally. Would a move toward strict enforcement need to come in conjunction with some kind of amnesty or guest worker program in order to avoid a major economic shock?

Davis: I think that trying to target certain industries could be helpful, and I think that Senator Feinstein's proposal addresses that. Another question that hasn't been answered as well as it could be is the extent to which the need for laborers would open up if salaries were higher and we had a more progressive wage policy. We could also be thinking of ways to create more interest in our own labor force. An idea might be to give young people some type of incentive to try working in agriculture—or another industry that they know they won't go into—for a summer. It could be a learning experience. I think there are opportunities like that, but I don't think we explore them well. We have to get creative.

PT: The guest worker idea has been a topic of much debate recently. Has there been a debate in Congress over the concept of creating a type of institutionalized set of second-class citizens in this country?

Davis: One of the problems we don't want to create is what we're seeing in Europe right now, where you have a second class of immigrants that feels disenfranchised and has been unable to assimilate effectively. We don't want to create a situation where people feel that there is never going to be anything in it for them. I think one issue that we could fix is how difficult we've made it for people to go back and forth. We've made it very difficult for circular migration to happen.

PT: Does the debate in Congress ever turn to the values of our social contract and how to integrate those ideas into our policies effectively?

Davis: I think it goes on to a point. Of course, many people are concerned about the use of our social services by illegal immigrants to the extent that it impacts the local population, but I think the alternative is that we really want kids to be educated, and we really want people who need medical attention to be tended to. I think people understand this. We need to look at the impact of the problem in relation to the alternative.

PT: Immigration is obviously an economic and national security issue, but it's also a major social concern. Has Congress made a concerted effort to build elements into the policy that will provide for better assimilation and a more cohesive society?

Davis: To a certain extent I think it has. We've discussed the process that would become a pathway to legalization, and that people would have to demonstrate an acceptable knowledge of English. Helping people assimilate also requires providing people with the belief that there is a future for them here in the United States. If you're only here to clean hotel rooms or do construction and then leave, it makes it more difficult to have a personal investment in the country.

Susan Davis represents California's 53rd Congressional District in San Diego. She serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Armed Services Committee.