The following is a conversation between Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, and Denver Frederick, the host of The Business of Giving.

Mark Krikorian, Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)

Denver: Although the pandemic and getting back to school and work are at the top of everyone’s mind, this nation’s policy on immigration remains a key issue heading into the 2020 presidential election. And here to discuss that with us is Mark Krikorian, the Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies or CIS. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Mark! 

Mark: Thanks for having me.

Denver: Share with us some of the history of CIS and the mission of the organization. 

Mark: We were founded in 1985 by a retired foreign service officer who had served in Latin America, and our function is a think tank. In other words, we don’t have alerts to call your congressman or that sort of thing. We don’t do electoral or strictly legislative type stuff. We do think tank research. It will relate to legislation and policy obviously. 

We release reports. We have panel discussions. Nowadays, they’re on Zoom, but we used to do in-person panel discussions and briefings, and we’re a source for reporters. We’ve testified before Congress — I don’t know, I think I had somebody counted 130 times — and talk to reporters all the time. 

We were founded in 1985 as a think tank. I took over in 1995, so I’ve been here 25 years now. It’s sort of hard to believe. And as think tanks go, we’ve grown a lot from when I took over, but we still only have about 14-, 15 employees. We’re kind of a little mammal running between the legs of the dinosaur think tanks — the ones that are huge, you have to have an elevator in the building, and you press four for healthcare and you press five for foreign policy. We’re just a small shop here, but we punch way above our weight because there’s really nobody else that does what we do.

A think tank is…a hybrid between a strictly academic research organization, like at a university or something like that, that doesn’t do work that’s directly related to policy, but a hybrid between a straight academic research institution and a more political advocacy group. 

Denver: You share a floor, much less having a whole bunch of different floors. Talk a little bit about a think tank because “think tank” is a little bit of a nebulous concept to a lot of people listening. What is the appropriate role of a think tank in American society? 

Mark: A think tank is kind of a hybrid between a strictly academic research organization, like at a university or something like that, that doesn’t do work that’s directly related to policy, but a hybrid between a straight academic research institution and a more political advocacy group. It’s sort of advocacy-oriented research or research-oriented advocacy. It’s that kind of thing. It’s a hybrid between the two. That’s why here in Washington, we’ve got hundreds and hundreds of think tanks on every kind of issue you can imagine. 

I’m not even sure where the term, in other words, why it came up with a tank. I have no idea. The first one may have been the Rand Corporation, I think, because Rand is R&D — that’s where it comes from — research and development. And it was, I think, spun off from the military or sponsored by the military originally. So it’s that kind of policy-focused research rather than just examining the mating habits of birds in Mongolia, that kind of thing. You see what I mean? 

Our point of view is that immigration policy needs to be tightened up, enforcement needs to be done more effectively, and legal numbers need to be reduced. But that’s not really a conservative or liberal thing.

Denver: He’s coming up next week. But sort of in a medical metaphor, it’s sort of a translational research, from the academic in the lab to the hospital, and being that niche or that bridge in between to move one to the other. And that’s a very important role.  Now, you know that probably a lot of people describe CIS as a conservative organization. You don’t really think that is truly accurate. What would be a more appropriate label in your mind? 

Mark: Well, we clearly have a point of view. And our point of view is that immigration policy needs to be tightened up, enforcement needs to be done more effectively, and legal numbers need to be reduced. But that’s not really a conservative or liberal thing. I’m a Conservative. I write for National Review magazine, for instance, that sort of thing. But there are liberals who have this perspective as well. Now, you don’t see that very much anymore in the level of elected officials who are Democrats, that sort of thing. Although even 10 years ago, there were congressmen, Democratic congressmen who were skeptical about our immigration policy. That’s been wiped away, but intellectually, it hasn’t. 

For instance, one of our writers was in the Johnson administration. Now, it’s Lyndon, not Andrew, but still it’s a long time ago. And he’s a labor-oriented kind of, you could think of it as sort of social democratic-oriented Democrat who’s concerned about the effects of excessive and badly-run immigration policy on workers. That’s one of our big focuses. 

Likewise, we have a new book out, Losing Control by Jerry Kammer on Amazon, and he really is a self-described Liberal. He’s a liberal newspaper reporter, but an old fashioned Liberal. Doesn’t even call himself a journalist. He’s a reporter, which is why he got a Pulitzer Prize. He sent a crooked congressman, Republican congressman to jail, Duke Cunningham. I don’t know if anyone will remember that. He was involved with the defense contractors. And Jerry likewise is a, again, you could think of it sort of as a social democratic-oriented, in other words, pro-worker-oriented Liberal. 

And what that points to really is that the old I would say kind of Cold War categories of right and left don’t really apply broadly in our politics anymore, and immigration is one of the areas where you see that. Where people who, and I include myself here, I’ve never been a fan of unions. I mean, I am a Conservative. On the other hand, they did serve a purpose because the purpose they served was to speak up for and be a counterweight on behalf of workers against corporations and capital, and I think a lot of people on the right are rediscovering the value and importance of that quite frankly. And I think immigration is one of the places you see it. 

So my point here is that the immigration debate actually reshuffled some of the cards between right and left. It’s just that that hasn’t fully manifested itself in our politics and our media discussion of the issue.

Denver: I would certainly agree with what you said there, and particularly as it relates to those labor unions. If we take a look at a time in this country where it seems that all the boats were being raised at the same time, it would have been from World War II until about 1980, where there was a good, healthy tension between management and labor, and we seem to all pretty much… say that’s how we built our middle class during that period of time. 

I want to ask you something before we get into any of these issues per se. We see so much news coverage on immigration on a regular basis, but it often doesn’t provide us any context. So give us a little bit of Immigration 101, a brief overview of the number of immigrants who come to this country every year, legal and illegal, how many are granted lawful permanent residences, the percentage of the population, you get the drift of what I’m talking about.

Mark: We have 45 million or so foreign-born people among the 330 million Americans overall, in other words, residents of the United States. Of that, roughly 45 million, half of them are naturalized citizens. In other words, they’re Americans now. It’s just that they were born abroad, and so that’s what we mean by immigrant, is someone who is not an American citizen when they were born. 

Of the other half, roughly half of them — so 10-, 11 million people, or a quarter of the foreign-born population — are illegal immigrants. The rest are legal immigrants of one kind or another. Most of them have Green Cards, which is just a shorthand for being what’s called “a lawful permanent resident.” And that means that after a certain amount of time, you take some tests, whatever, you can become a citizen.

Some of the lawful people who were here, the legal people, don’t have Green Cards yet. They may be long-term students or foreign workers who, eventually, a lot of them, will get Green Cards. So that’s the overall picture of how many people were here, like a snapshot. 

Each year — and it will be a little different this year because of the pandemic and everything — but for the past couple of decades, really, we’ve taken about a million legal immigrants a year. That means about a million, sometimes a little more, get Green Cards, get lawful permanent residence every year. We also take in half a million, three-quarters of a million, long-term so-called non-immigrants — foreign workers, what-have-you — a lot of them eventually convert into getting Green Cards.

And then illegal immigration obviously changes all the time. And the past few years, it’s been something like 300,000 a year. This year, it’ll be a good deal lower probably just because everything’s going to be lower. The border, it’s not really totally shut down, but it’s a lot more shut down than it’s been. But that’s essentially, the way to think about it is: we take about a million legal immigrants a year, which is way more, it’s almost twice what we took back during the Reagan administration. So it’s not like this is something that’s been here forever. 

And in fact, the numbers really started to increase in the ’60s because of the — there was a big change in the immigration law in 1965, and it was seen as part of the Civil Rights movement because the old immigration law did have these ridiculous things where there were this many categories from Ireland and this many from Italy, and it was a kind of dumb way to do it. The point of it was to limit the number of people from Southern and Eastern Europe in the ’20s. And so in the ’60s, they said, “Look, we’re cleaning up all kinds of Civil Rights movements, Civil Rights acts, all this. So we’ve got to clean up this holdover in our immigration law.” 

And everybody said, and I’m pretty sure most of the people who’ve sponsored it even believed that it wouldn’t have any effect on the number of immigrants. It was just fixing this kind of archaic mechanism for managing it, but it wouldn’t actually increase anything. Some people criticizing it at the time, they said, “Look. This is going to increase immigration, fellas.” Nobody listened to them. Nobody believed them, I think. Ted Kennedy said, “This will not lead to a million immigrants a year coming to the United States,” et cetera, and almost everything he said turned out to be false. That kind of kicked into overdrive what we’re dealing with now. 

And so the question is: Do we want to continue this or not? Because it’s not going to just stop on its own. There’s 7 billion people outside the United States. A lot of them would like to move here, and we have to decide how much immigration do we want. It’s a federal government program, and like any other federal government program, it’s up to the elected officials of the people to decide how to continue to manage it. Should we downsize it or not? 

Denver: You really don’t believe that the basic nature of people who want to come to America has changed all that much in the past hundred years. But what you do think is that the country and the times have changed significantly. Explain to us how. 

Mark: That is the basic point I try to make, and I think a lot of people get the idea but have never really articulated it that way. The point here is your grandma from Minsk or your grandpa from Palermo wasn’t really any different from some immigrant coming from Guatemala. What’s changed is us.

And there’s good ways and bad ways, but in a modern society, for instance, just to give you some — I have a whole 20-minute talk on this. I won’t bring the whole thing up — but our economy has changed. We have a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy. In the old days, not just a hundred years ago, even 200 years ago, if you were coming into an either agricultural or a manufacturing-oriented economy, you didn’t really even need to know that much. You had a strong back, strong arms, willing to come to work on time every day, and that’s about it. It doesn’t work that way anymore. 

Obviously, those things help, and there’s still work to be done that has to be done with hands, but the vast majority of our workforce, of our jobs, are not in those what they call “primary” or “secondary” sectors of the economy. It’s in what the economist calls “tertiary sector,” service economy. It could be high-skilled, it could be low-skilled. But to get ahead, you need to have education and skills in a way that simply wasn’t true in any previous age of our history. 

Welfare is another thing. Our government was tiny back a hundred years ago. There were some like local church-oriented, or a town would have its own little welfare board or whatever. There wasn’t anything like the social safety net we have today. And it’s not that immigrants today want to be on welfare. It’s that we’re taking in people who have little skills. They’re not a good match with our economy. They get jobs because they’re hardworking people for the most part. They’re regular people; some are bad, some are good. They’re just ordinary folks. But if the only job you can get with your skills — you’re a third grade graduate from Honduras, and you can get a dishwashing job. And say, you’re good at the dishwashing job, you work hard, you get paid… you can’t support a family on that. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with us. It’s just the way it is. You are a mismatch. And so what you end up with is, inevitably, you end up having to rely on taxpayers for your support. And again, this is not something that existed in the past.

The third thing and the last thing I’ll talk about here in this mismatch between mass immigration and modern society is assimilation. A century ago, you couldn’t hop on a plane and go to your uncle’s wedding in the Dominican Republic, and then come back after a long weekend. You had to basically kind of cut your ties. Not entirely. You’d still write letters. Some people would still go back and forth, but you couldn’t Skype home every Sunday night and see how things were going back with ma and pa.

Well, because of that, you were kind of forced by circumstances to kind of reorient your psychological and emotional connection to the new country. You don’t have to do that anymore. And you’re not bad because of wanting to keep that tie with the old country, but circumstances have changed. 

And the other thing on this assimilation that’s different today from any time in the past is that our political, and business, and educational, and other elites don’t value assimilation. If anything, we teach kids not to become American.

…until we get our house in order, how can we keep taking in a million people a year, every year, who have to be Americanized when we’re having trouble Americanizing our own children that we don’t bring about through immigration policy?

Denver: We’re into multiculturalism 

Mark: Exactly. Multiculturalism and kind of broadly that sort of umbrella term covering everything. Look, kids are taught the pilgrims were evil. George Washington was evil. It’s like, “Well, why would anybody want to become part of that?” But again, the immigrants didn’t do that. No immigrant comes here and says, “Please teach my child to hate his new country.” Of course not! It’s bonkers to them. They can’t even believe it.

So until we get our house in order, how can we keep taking in a million people a year, every year, who have to be Americanized when we’re having trouble Americanizing our own children that we don’t bring about through immigration policy?

What those who are saying immigration is the solution, what they’re saying is that having children is a job Americans won’t do.

…surveys don’t show that people don’t want to have children. Surveys show that people don’t feel they can have the number of children they want. 

…I don’t believe the government should be even paying you to have kids, but the government shouldn’t be preventing you from having kids. 

Denver: How do you respond to the concern that some people on the other side of the ledger will have about the shrinking population of the country? Now, you need to have about 2.1 children per woman to maintain the population. I think we’re around 1.7 now. And I think the case that they would make is that: One, you have a less dynamic economy as your population shrinks; and two, although some of them will be supported by taxpayers, it’s going to be overwhelmed by having more young people paying into the retirement system. You need about 5-to-1 to get a ratio to support pensions and old people; right now, we’re at about 3-to-1. So the case they would make is that this is how we will keep the vitality and keep these pension systems afloat. What do you say to all that? 

Mark: A couple of things. First of all, our population is not declining, even if our birth rate, our fertility rate — it’s called total fertility rate — stays at where it is, just the very lower level it is now, our population wouldn’t start declining for generations yet because there’s “population momentum,” they call it. The point is we’re not where Japan and Germany are now , although we could be eventually. 

A couple of points on this: The first point is what those who are saying immigration is the solution, what they’re saying is that having children is a job Americans won’t do. And if that’s the case, we need to figure out why our birth rates are low because it’s not a natural thing. So, are there obstacles that we have created that policy can remove in order to enable people to have the number of kids they want? Because surveys don’t show that people don’t want to have children. Surveys show that people don’t feel they can have the number of children they want. 

So, our student loans? A problem with that? Absolutely, they are. We are saddling a huge share of our population with these unmanageable loans, makes it hard to form a family. Are there tax changes we can make that not so much promote childbirth? Because I don’t believe the government should be even paying you to have kids, but the government shouldn’t be preventing you from having kids. In other words, there may be ways to compensate. For instance, while your kid is a minor living at home, you get a reduction in your payroll tax, social security tax, because essentially, by raising a kid, you are investing in a social security taxpayer in the future. 

So my point is I’m not even endorsing specifically one or another way or one package, but those are the kinds of things we have to look at. How do we fix the problem, not how do we put a Band-aid on it by importing people who will do a job Americans won’t do, which is to say having kids?

The other thing specifically on Social Security and retirement and all that, it’s a Ponzi scheme, by definition. In other words, if we have to import a million more immigrants now to keep Social Security going, well, then guess what? They get one year older every year just like everybody else, and when they retire, who’s going to pay their retirement? Well, then we have to have 2 million the next year, 3 million the year after that. Pyramid schemes, Ponzi schemes, never work. 

The question is, again: How do we address a retirement system that was developed in the ’30s, which is when Social Security was invented, or Medicare from the ’60s? How do we make those sustainable?  Not: How do we avoid hard political choices by just bringing in immigrants to, again, to enable us to avoid making political decisions and adjustments that people would rather not make?

Denver: Well, like Social Security, what’s such an epidemic in our society is that systems are created based on a set of assumptions, and although those assumptions, like life expectancy, change dramatically, we still go with the thing that was created nearly a hundred years ago. 

Mark: Exactly.

Denver: From the perspective of your organization, how would you assess the Trump administration’s record on immigration? Again, you want to have a welcome mat for immigrants to come, but you want the number to be lower, but the promises he made during the 2016 campaign — the wall, DACA, and what you have seen unfold over the course of the past four years. 

Mark: Well, it’s a mixed picture. Obviously, immigration was one of Trump’s main selling points. One of the reasons he won is that our political elite was so out of touch from what a lot of the public was concerned about, that what was a reality TV star is the one who was saying what people wanted to hear said, and so he ended up getting elected. So that’s a real indictment on our political elite.  

A lot of people are disappointed that he hasn’t actually followed through as much as they would’ve liked. I’m less disappointed because my expectations were so low anyway, but there have been some real positives and some real negatives. For instance, the first thing they did on immigration right away was this travel ban. They call it the Muslim ban. I mean, that’s… sorry but that’s just a marketing term by the other side. And it’s not even so much that they limited travel from those countries. There’s a good reason for limiting travel from those countries. It’s that, and this became a kind of hallmark, is that it was done in a slapdash and poorly thought-out, poorly organized way. They didn’t work through the existing mechanisms. 

And I think that was on purpose. I don’t think a lot of people in the administration had government experience, obviously. And so they figured, “Well, we’re just going to push this through. We’re just going to bull our way through this thing.” Well, it doesn’t work that way. You know what I mean? And I think some of that was unavoidable because unlike, say, if Hillary had won or unlike, in some alternate universe, had Jeb won, they each had essentially governments in waiting, in think tanks, in all kinds of other places, people who had government experience that they could then plug in.

Trump didn’t have that. Trump staged a hostile takeover of the Republican party and then had all kinds of outsiders, not just himself as an outsider but everybody else, and you ended up with all kinds of screw-ups. Essentially, there were a lot of learning curves going on. 

That said, there have been a significant number of people who are doing the work inside the bowels of the system to change regulations and issue new regulations in a way that is making a difference. So I think if he does manage to get himself reelected, I’m confident you’re going to see more progress in immigration, maybe not in the photogenic areas, like wall construction, but more real progress.

Ultimately, though, without legislation, without Congress actually making changes to the law, there’s just only so much you can do in the executive branch. And Obama really pushed the envelope, I think exceeded the envelope on that. Trump has tried to do that, and if Biden wins, I think you’re going to see even more executive policymaking trying to make an end run around Congress.

Denver: Which is never good in the long run. It really isn’t. You know what I mean? That’s short term, and it gets back to what you were saying before about Band-aids. We really need substantive change. 

Speaking about the other side, Mark, you can’t have a stance on anything these days, without someone questioning your motives for the position you’re taking. And in the case of your organization, you’re going to have people say that the reason you want to limit immigration is to maintain the US as a white majority nation, and to limit the inflow of potentially democratic voters. What do you say back to them? 

Mark: We don’t really have an official motto, I guess, but our motto has been “Fewer immigrants, but a warmer welcome.” What we try to do is make a case for a pro- immigrant policy of low immigration. If I hated foreigners, then why did I deliver the naturalization ceremony speech at Mount Vernon last year? And I’ve done that half a dozen times in various places where new citizens are sworn in, and there’s usually a keynote speaker. I’ve done that a bunch of times now in different places, on the West Coast as well as on the East Coast. 

People we have lawfully let in, we should be welcoming. But, again, immigration is a government policy, and why should it be the one million we have now instead of two, or three, or five million or half a million? In other words, the idea that this is something that can’t be discussed and that the current arrangements of how we run immigration are the best of all possible worlds is absurd. 

This racism, xenophobia, nativism charge is sometimes true. But for the people for whom it’s true, and I’ve met some people like that, they’re usually not shy about it. They just say, “Well, of course, we only want European immigrants or whatever.” In other words, they just come out and say it. But that perspective has nothing to do with the mainstream immigration limitation movement, whether it’s us… there’s two major advocacy groups. NumbersUSA is the biggest one, and then there’s one called FAIR, which is older, which is still pretty big. I know those people. That’s just not what this is about. 

This racism charge is simply a political weapon to shut people up. When somebody says, “I think you’re motivated by blah, blah, blah,” what they’re really saying in English is “Shut up.” All that is is “Shut up,” and we won’t shut up.

Denver: No, you won’t. You know, without a new COVID-19 stimulus package, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, I think they’re going to furlough like 13,000 people by the end of the month, about two-thirds of their staff. What are the implications of that? 

Mark: Well, the reason it’s happening is that USCIS, that’s what’s called “Citizenship and Immigration Services,” part of Homeland Security, they’re the ones that do the Green Card citizenship stuff, not the enforcement so much, but the service side, they call it. Well, the pro-immigration people said, “Let’s separate what they do from Congress’s control so that their funding comes from fees.” So that even if there’s a so-called government shutdown — we’ve had a couple of those over the past, recent few years — USCIS doesn’t shut down because they have their own money source.

And it’s kind of… it’s a problem. It was done that way because of the loose-borders-high-immigration people wanted USCIS to keep functioning no matter what, go on autopilot. The problem, of course, is when you have a pandemic, and they have to close all the offices, there’s no more money coming in. So even though tax money is coming in, USCIS doesn’t get tax money. If there’s no fees, there’s no USCIS. And they have a reserve, a buffer or whatever, but it looks like they’re going to be out of money. It was going to be I think the end of this month is when they’re talking about… It was originally going to be the end of last month, and then they sort of moved some money around. They did whatever it was. 

But the point is Congress, the Democrats want USCIS to keep running because otherwise, nobody gets their Green Cards. Nobody gets sworn in as new citizens. But it galls them to do it because they think that the Trump people are secretly manipulating this and creating this situation, when in fact it’s the virus and the shutdown that made this inevitable. 

What I would like to see is, next year, maybe, they re-examine this so that USCIS would still charge fees for all of their things, just like the State Department or the Forest Service, all kinds of people charge for services. But it would go into the general fund, and they would get appropriations from Congress so that they wouldn’t run out of money unless the government shuts down. But that doesn’t happen all that often, and that’s a whole entirely different problem. But anyway, that’s what would happen. And what it would mean is Green Cards would stop, citizenship services, all of that stuff would basically stop. 

Denver: To a halt.

Mark: Yes. RIght.

Denver: You mentioned before we can’t live on executive orders, and we need a comprehensive immigration bill, something that we’ve talked about I think since my childhood, or so it seems. What has to happen for that to occur? Is there a way to reframe the issue to get something done? Or are you not all that optimistic about it? 

Mark: Yes. I think the starting point of the problem is thinking about a comprehensive bill. In other words, trying to fix everything in one big, 2000-page piece of legislation.

Denver: Like any problem, break it into chunks. 

Mark: Exactly. That’s what you need to do is baby steps. There are specific things that can be done. Some that the pro-control people would like. Some say some chunk or bite of something, and let’s pair that up with a small chunk or bite of something that the high immigration people would like.

And there are things like that we can do. Legalize the DACAs. The DACAs, they have their amnesty; Obama amnestied them because they have work permits, Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses. But upgrade them to regular immigration status– Green Cards in exchange for, say, mandatory rollout of E-Verify, that’s the online program so that when employers check whether a new hire is legal, they don’t just do the phony-baloney look at the fake document. They actually put the number and name and stuff in and see whether it’s real. So something like that. 

Those are two pretty significant things. They could be put together, but they’re not the whole problem. It’s kind of like peace between Israel and the Arabs. You have to agree on what the shape of the table is, and then you have to agree on say, “Let’s do a little of this and a little of that,” and then once they do that, it’s kind of confidence-building measures. Then maybe let’s do the next step in exchange for one more. So that’s the way to think about it. Bites at a time, rather than some overall massive bill.

…the deal then, the “grand bargain” as they talked about it back then, was to legalize the illegal immigrants who are here and established…in exchange for making it illegal to hire illegal immigrants in the future. Because until then, it was explicitly permitted by the law to hire an illegal immigrant. but it was illegal to be an illegal immigrant. 

Denver: I always get the sense that they’re so concerned that if they give in on one of those things, they’ll lose leverage later on in the process so they don’t want to give in. So why hasn’t that occurred? Look, if you read any book on problem-solving, what they’re going to tell you to do is to break it into seven little bite-sized things that you can tackle. Why have we not done that? 

Mark: I think the starting problem, the fundamental political problem, the reason that prevents anything big or small from getting through on immigration is the legacy of the 1986 Amnesty Bill, which was the last big comprehensive immigration reform, and it was a complete lie. 

Because the deal then, the “grand bargain” as they talked about it back then, was to legalize the illegal immigrants who are here and established — and about 3 million got Green Cards — in exchange for making it illegal to hire illegal immigrants in the future. Because until then, it was explicitly permitted by the law to hire an illegal immigrant. but it was illegal to be an illegal immigrant. So they bore this sort of hapless, Mexican, illegal immigrant for the consequences of his illegality, but the guy hiring him who knew he was an illegal alien, was scot-free 

Denver: Employers had a free ride. 

Mark: Exactly. So that changed, but it only changed on paper. What happened is everybody got the amnesty up front and the enforcement was abandoned. We actually did a booklet tracing this. What Happened to Worksite Enforcement? it’s called. It’s a short thing. It’s like three bucks or four bucks on Amazon, but it’s reported by Jerry Kammer, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter I mentioned. He actually did reporting. He talked to people in immigration. He’s lived in Arizona when a lot of this happened, and it’s appalling. Republican and Democrat. 

There was even one instance where there was a raid plan on a Luby’s cafeteria in Texas. This is a big chain of buffet eateries in Texas, and a lot of illegals there. So there was a raid plan. The congressman got wind of it, the local congressman, and he called up the local, then INS immigration service guys — it was before it changed — and said, “Hey. These guys are a big employer here in our district, and we shouldn’t want to hassle them.” And the INS guy says, “Look, I got my orders, Congressman. I can’t just ignore the law.” Twenty minutes later, Attorney General Janet Reno called up the INS guy who worked for her and said, “Cut it off. Pull the plug on that. You’re not doing it.” And it’s not just a Democrat thing. This happened with Republicans, too. 

Denver: Ignore the law. I’m sure it’s across the aisles. Yeah, absolutely. 

Mark: So my point is that betrayal poisons, has poisoned the discussion of immigration because anything that the pro-control people give away… if, for instance, we upgrade the DACAs to amnesty premium — they have amnesty light now — and we give them amnesty premium, let’s say, they get Green Cards… the fear is the other side will just welsh on the deal again, that whatever they agreed to in return, once they get their amnesty, they’re going to screw us. 

So, the only way around I see that is to have some smaller deals that the other side can claim credit for — I’m okay with a DACA amnesty — in exchange for significant enforcement measures. And for instance, mandatory E-Verify. Once that’s up and running… it’s actually working, not a promise, not on paper. It exists now, but it doesn’t exist for all workers; it’s still a voluntary program. Once everybody’s enrolled, you phase it in over three years, make sure there’s some actual follow-up, people are getting audited; if they’re not using it, they’re getting fined and all that. Then, maybe, there’ll be enough appetite in the public or enough tolerance to say, “OK. We didn’t get screwed on this deal. Let’s now look at the next deal.” 

Breaking down the problem into little bites is the way to go, but even those little bites, there’s justifiable concern that we’ll see a small-scale replay of the betrayal we saw in ’86. For me, that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything. We can do small things and then hold them to account and see what happens. 

Denver: But as you say, it’s really difficult to get anything done once trust has been lost, and it’s hard to rebuild trust. We all know that.

Mark: My point on this, Denver, is that not only has the trust been lost, but the other side — the Democrats in particular, but also the libertarian Republicans — aren’t even willing to concede that they want to concede anything. In other words, they’re not even willing to talk about compromising on anything. Actually, I think the odds of their welshing on the deal are greater now than they were back in 1986.  

Denver: In some ways, I think, from my perspective — I’m not a political analyst by any stretch of the imagination — but gerrymandering has created a situation that if you give in a little bit, the only way you’re going to lose a primary in your district is from somebody in your own party running to either the left or right of you. So the idea of trying to give a little bit to get something done, to serve the American people, is not good for your electoral future. And that is a sad commentary, but I’m afraid that’s the way it is 

Mark: Good point. Good point. 

That most immigration is legal, not illegal. I think for a lot of people, they imagine that there’s some small number of good legal immigrants and this huge number of illegal aliens. The fact is only one-quarter of all immigrants are illegal immigrants. 

Denver: Finally, Mark, from your perspective, if there is one big misconception that the American people have about immigration that you could dispel, what would that be?

Mark: That most immigration is legal, not illegal. I think for a lot of people, they imagine that there’s some small number of good legal immigrants and this huge number of illegal aliens. The fact is only one-quarter of all immigrants are illegal immigrants. And each year, something like one- quarter of the new legal immigrants, the people who get Green Cards, are former illegal aliens themselves. So this idea that legal and illegal immigration are like two completely different things is incorrect. They’re just two sides of the same coin. And the legal side of it is far and away the bigger issue. 

So that if you are concerned about the effects that immigration has, whether it’s on the job market, on public services, on assimilation, whatever it is, legal immigration is the much bigger part of the problem. And so we need to talk about both. It doesn’t mean you ignore illegal immigration. It’s illegal. That’s bad, obviously. But that’s not the whole problem because if only illegality were the problem, we would just let everybody come in and then nobody be illegal. You know what I mean? That’s the one thing I’d point to. This is mainly a problem of established policy on legal immigration.

Denver: Well, that’s a great point to close on. And it also shows you how the media influences our perception of what a real issue is, and that has certainly been the case. 

Mark: It’s also people are more comfortable thinking about it that way, too. In other words, “Well, my grandma came here legally and that’s good, but these illegal aliens, that’s bad.” It’s sort of almost a psychological coping mechanism that the media helps reinforce because, after all, it’s easy to take a picture of a fence. How do you take a picture of an interview for a Green Card? It’s just not very photogenic. It’s not very evocative. Whereas a picture of a fence, that’s a good picture.

Denver: We’re a visual society. For listeners who want to learn more about this issue and the work of the Center for Immigration Studies, tell us a little bit about your website and the information you have there. 

Mark: We’re online at, Center for Immigration Studies, and we have blog posts almost every day. All of our research, everything is there. Videos, you name it, all the stuff is there. We also have a Twitter account for the center, which is @cis_org. That’s kind of straight, “Just the facts, Ma’am!” about our work. I’m on Twitter myself, personally, and if you have a taste for snark and sarcasm, then @MarkSKrikorian is my Twitter handle.

Denver: I’ve been there. They’ll get a full dose of it, I can assure them. Well, thanks, Mark. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program. 

Mark: Thank you. Happy to do it.

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