Research | Spring 2017 Issue

Americans on Immigration: Protect Borders, Welcome Those Here

Americans favor citizenship for those here, but worry about allowing more in.

By Richard E. Meyer

THEY FEARED THEY WOULD BE KILLED, so Roger Waldinger’s grandparents fled. His father’s parents came to America in 1938. They brought a son. He was 15. Waldinger’s maternal grandparents landed in 1941. They brought a daughter. She was 14.

Hitler was marching across Europe. Both families were Austrian, and they were Jewish. “My grandparents conveyed their desperation about whether they could get out,” Waldinger remembered. “This phenomenon is personally meaningful to me.”

The two teenagers went to high school and college in the United States. They met as graduate students at Columbia University. They married, and Roger Waldinger, their son, has dedicated his life to studying migration. “I’m the first American born on both sides of my family. It was deeply implanted in me as a child that both my parents and grandparents were recent immigrants.” More than anything, that fact had the biggest impact upon his future. “That was probably the most powerful influence.”

In a series of interviews around a book-strewn table in his office and at Lu Valle Commons, a campus eatery, Waldinger, distinguished professor of sociology at UCLA and director of the UCLA Center for the Study of International Migration, spoke of the relocation of people among nations as a global phenomenon with political, economic and sociological implications. He said the strength of America’s core belief in immigration is evident from the difficulty President Trump has encountered in temporarily closing the nation’s doors to people from several predominantly Muslim countries as well as to refugees from around the world.

“Immediately lawyers mobilized against his efforts,” Waldinger said, “and it wasn’t just the American Civil Liberties Union; it was a broad range of groups. The states of Washington and Hawaii took his entry ban to court, joined by many others, including Microsoft, Facebook and Google.”

He focused his concern, however, on unauthorized immigrants already within the United States, many of whom are feeling the lash of Trump’s aggressive deportation policies. Waldinger, who has recently finished his ninth book, which studies the American born or raised children of immigrants, said the undocumented face immense uncertainties in the era of Donald Trump. In the immigration debate, Waldinger is a welcome rarity: an intellectually honest analyst who sees both the benefits of immigration and the dangers of open borders, a scholar willing to acknowledge that the evidence in this divisive conversation sometimes favors one side and sometimes the other.

Protect Those Here

Research shows that American public opinion supports legalization — even citizenship — for the unauthorized, Waldinger said. “If you look at polls, what’s striking is that people are much more strongly in favor of controlling immigration — having fewer immigrants, or not increasing their number. But there’s no question that the public is open to legalization [for migrants who are already here] — and if not legalization, then long-term authorization and a route to citizenship. Inside our borders, in effect, it’s one people. Whether they have citizenship or not, they’re part of the community. They’re part of the social fabric.

“There is an undocumented students program at UCLA,” Waldinger said. “There is one at every UC campus.” In the main hallway of the Sociology Department, near Waldinger’s door, is a rack where copies are available of a “Statement of Principles in Support of Undocumented Members of the UC Community.” It says: “The University of California welcomes and supports students without regard to their immigration status.” Short of a court order or other judicial demand, the university says, “we will not release immigration status or related information in confidential student records, without permission from a student, to federal agencies…

“No UC campus police department will join those state and local law enforcement agencies that have entered into an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or undertake other joint efforts with federal, state or local law enforcement agencies, to investigate, detain or arrest individuals for violation of federal immigration law.”

Not only polls or policies, but ethical considerations, as well, distinguish between immigrants already in the United States, regardless of status, and migrants seeking to enter, Waldinger said. “There’s a difference between the outside and the inside, which relates to the books I’ve been working on. Outside is different. In other words, ‘Who should we let in? They’re not our neighbors. They’re not our friends. They’re not our coworkers.’ The ethics of ‘who should we let in’ is a big mess. But on the inside, the ethical solution is easier. The ethical solution on the inside is to give unauthorized migrants a route to citizenship.”

It is also ethically right, Waldinger said, to facilitate their access. “It costs more than $675 to file for naturalization, and that’s going to go up. This is a significant sum for a family of four. And you have to put together a tremendous amount of paperwork. If we want these people to become Americans, why are we putting roadblocks in their way?”

“The rooms for our talks are filled to capacity.”

Roger Waldinger was born in New York City. He is 63 years old, tall, serious but easy-going, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. (‘You can’t hear it? I’m a New Yorker.”) He grew up in Washington Heights, surrounded by immigrants. “Everybody’s parents spoke with an ac-cent.” He attended Brown University, then worked three years for labor unions, including the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which was built by immigrants.

During graduate work at Harvard, he took a course from an MIT professor writing a book about migration, who offered him a job as a researcher. Waldinger’s work grew into a dissertation for a Harvard doctorate. For eight years, he taught at City College of New York in West Harlem, where many students were immigrants or the children of immigrants. He came to UCLA in 1991, where he directed the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, then became chair of the Sociology Department. He has served as interim associate vice provost for International Studies. For the past 10 years, he has been instrumental in creating the Center for the Study of International Migration.
“Our goal is to generate an interdisciplinary community of migration scholars,” he said. Interest is high. “The rooms for our talks are filled to capacity. I think we connect with a significant audience.”

Two years ago, Waldinger published The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands. The book has growing contemporary significance. It shows how migration knits societies together. Many scholars of U.S. immigration stand with their backs to the border and study what happens to migrants after they arrive. “What they’re forgetting,” Waldinger said, “is that immigrants are also emigrants, and they have very significant ties to the places and people left behind.” He calls it inter-societal convergence. Money goes back. The migrants go back and forth. Information goes back and forth. So does political activism. “The things that go back foment more migration. ‘I’m a success!’ And others come. It’s one of the things that makes migration hard to stop. Societies get intertwined.”

The Cross Border Connection also shows how migrants become changed by their new countries. Migration causes inter-societal divergence, as well. “Migrants get turned into people who are different than the ones left behind,” he said. “And it’s often a source of conflict.” Sending states see their citizens abroad as potential assets: a source of remittances, a provider of returning skilled labor, an ethnic lobby. “We usually talk about immigration policy,” Waldinger said, “but, in fact, there’s emigration policy, in which the states of emigration connect with their citizens abroad.” Some policies seek what sending states can gain from their emigrants. “But other policies try to protect them,” Waldinger said. “After all, the emigrants, when they land, are aliens and non-citizens — but they retain their citizenship from their place of origin.”

Last year, Waldinger published A Century of Transnationalism, a collection of case studies of migrations around the world, edited with Nancy L. Green, a history professor at The School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in France. One study, by historian Monica Raisa Schpun, is a stark account showing how a migration can have unexpected consequences.

World War II caused a split among Japanese immigrants in Brazil. Kachigumi, or “victory groups,” believed in the invincibility of the Emperor and were convinced that news of Japan’s defeat was American propaganda, Schpun wrote. Makegumi, or “defeatist groups,” recognized the fall of Japan. One victory group, the Shindo Renmei, viewed some of their countrymen as traitors to Japan. The Shindo Renmei “committed a score of assassinations of members of the [Japanese immigrant] community,” Schpun said, “and left a much greater number wounded.”

Waldinger’s current book, After Migration: The Making of the Second Generation, focuses on the children of immigrants. Included are those with only one U.S-born parent and children who came to the United States when they were younger than 12, some without authorization. Waldinger calls them the 1.5 generation. He is writing the book with two of his former graduate students. They are Renee Luthra, now a senior lecturer at the University of Essex in England, and Thomas Soehl, now an assistant professor at McGill University in Canada. The book is based on large-scale surveys done at the City University of New York and at UC Irvine.

“One of the things we try to do,” Waldinger said, “is to show the ways in which differences in home-country cultures and home-country orientations affect a range of outcomes, including socio-economic achievement, political behavior, etc…. The important thing that we show is that coming from societies where secular rational values are more important is positively associated with educational and occupational achievement.”

In the immigrant 1.5 and second generations, Waldinger said, “there is a progressive disconnection from the places from which their parents come. The kids are shifting to English. Even the kids who speak the foreign language well, they prefer English.”

Another sign of Americanization is that “the children of immigrants believe in immigration control. They’re not in favor of open borders.”

No border is secure

Borders, however, can’t be made leak-proof. “Given the incredible amount of interna-tional travel and traffic, there are always going to be people who are going to enter without authorization and are going to stay without authorization,” Waldinger said. “The idea that we’re going to end unauthorized immigration — even if we build a wall — it’s not going to happen. . . .

“So you have to learn to live with it.”

One option, of course, would be to open America’s borders entirely.

“I think open borders would be economically and socially disruptive,” Waldinger said. “So if we can’t let everybody come, then we have to decide who. How are you going to select? And there is where it gets messy. There isn’t an ethically satisfying solution. You can think about an ethically preferable migration system, but not one where you say, ‘Well, that would really solve the problem….’
“I’m obviously in favor of immigration. [But] all of the economic research has shown that it’s basically a wash…. There’s a lot of disagreement about this. People have been working very hard to show that it’s a net benefit or a net loss. But it’s a wash….

“One of the things that has facilitated American economic growth has been the dynamism in the labor market, in part induced by the fact they we’re pulling people from the outside. [But] they may be competing with American workers… And there are social costs. Low-wage workers use services. Their children require education…”

On the other hand, Waldinger said, “the smartest people in the developing world come here. Developed societies benefit from high-skilled migration…. An incredible proportion of U.S. Nobel Prize winners are foreign born. One study shows that a disproportionate share of patents have been earned by Indian-born scientists in the United States. Going back to the influx of Jewish refugees [during World War II], it had an incredibly positive impact on American science and a bad impact for German science.”

If you can’t end immigration, Waldinger said, then the question is: “Can you manage it?” The United States, he said, could manage immigration more realistically.

One way might be a temporary migration plan, like the Bracero Program. “We let people come in, but we also make it possible for them to go home…. The craziness of building a wall is you make it so difficult for people to cross it that once they come in they don’t go home.”

A second way might be a version of a 2013 bill passed by the Senate. “It was legalization with a long road to citizenship. It was a bipartisan bill. I think Republicans in the House might have gone along without the road to citizenship.” That would have made it a long-term work authorization program, Waldinger said, and it would have unleashed people with a lot of talent, a lot of energy and a lot of determination.

But the House, controlled by Republicans, rejected it. “In retrospect, it would have been better if it would have passed, because look at where we are now.”

A third way might be a variation of the Dream Act, which died in Congress, but would have provided conditional residency, then permanent residency. “The Dream Act,” Waldinger said, “had a lot of support…. Immigration is always going to be a mess. But it can be a better mess.

“With fewer human costs.”

Richard E. Meyer

Richard E. Meyer

Meyer has been a White House correspondent and national news features writer for the Associated Press and a roving national correspondent and editor of long-form narratives at the Los Angeles Times. He has written two stories that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and edited two that won. At Los Angeles magazine, he acquired and edited a story that won the National Magazine Award. He has won the Sigma Delta Chi award for magazine reporting and shared the Merriman Smith Award for deadline writing and the Worth Bingham Prize for investigative reporting.

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