Steamboat Springs Immigration policy expert and activist Tamar Jacoby told an attentive Steamboat Springs crowd that America’s self interests eventually will lead to comprehensive immigration reform.
“The question is what can we do to speed that up,” Jacoby said. “I don’t think it’s a question so much for me. It’s a question for you as citizens.”
Jacoby was the third speaker of the 2011 Seminars at Steamboat series Thursday evening at Strings Music Pavilion. Before becoming an activist, she was an author and journalist, having worked for publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She has gained a reputation of being one of the foremost experts on immigration and is now president of ImmigrationWorks USA, which represents small businesses in the ongoing national immigration debate.
Jacoby said the United States is witnessing a huge wave of immigration that rivals the iconic wave from the 1880s to 1920s when immigrants would migrate to the United States through Ellis Island. About 1.5 million people are immigrating here each year — about 50 percent of those are Latino and 25 percent are Asian, Jacoby said.
Her talk was titled “Still a Nation of Immigrants?,” and she addressed that question right away.
“In some ways, its preposterous to ask if we are still a nation of immigrants,” Jacoby said. “Of course we’re a nation of immigrants.”
Jacoby argued that immigration is a given of the modernized world and that, by large, it’s good for us.
“We know what needs to be done,” Jacoby said. “Comprehensive immigration reform.”
She said the problem is public opinion and politics, where anti-immigration rhetoric has become a staple in elections and likely will prevent reform from happening before the November 2012 presidential election.
Jacoby has a simple answer to the question of why immigration is an issue we are dealing with right now.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” she said. “In 1960, half of all American men in the workforce were high school dropouts. Today, six percent of American men are high school dropouts, but we still need an unskilled workforce.”
Despite the economy, Americans still are not willing to do the backbreaking work in agriculture or move across the country to clean toilets seasonally, and unskilled workers are a staple of the American economy, Jacoby said.
Still, she acknowledged immigration has created some negatives.
Jacoby said that while economists have found little evidence that immigrants are taking Americans’ jobs, immigration has affected the wages of people with little education and few skills. Taxes also are funneled to the federal government and are not distributed locally where basic services are demanded.
“I think the worse problem is the illegality,” Jacoby said, adding there are 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Those here illegally are afraid to report crimes, meet teachers and assimilate, she said, and the two-thirds of immigrants here legally are starting to feel like they are in the crosshairs.
Jacoby said the goal of reform should be to maximize benefits and to minimize costs while balancing moral and political values.
She said to do this there needs to be reform to border enforcement and a system for amnesty that would allow those here illegally to become legal by, for example, paying a fine or learning to speak English. There also needs to be a system for employers to hire Americans first, but if they are unable to, they need to be allowed to hire immigrants quickly, she said.
Two things will prod the United States to adopt comprehensive immigration reform, Jacoby said. First, there is what she called chaos in the individual states, which are passing contradicting immigration laws. Second, there is the issue of the children of immigrants, who statistically have more children than Americans.
“This is the workforce of tomorrow,” Jacoby said. “This is the workforce that we can’t afford to waste, and we can’t afford to raise them angry and alienated.”
— To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com