An Interview With Mark Krikorian

John Hawkins:: Some people support giving illegal aliens “amnesty,” i.e. simply letting all illegals currently here become US citizens. Do you think that’s a bad idea? Why so?

Mark Krikorian:: Yes, amnesty is almost always a bad idea because it doesn’t solve the problem of illegal immigration, it just relabels the illegal immigrants. And it encourages more illegal immigration in the future as people get the message that sneaking into the United States eventually will pay off.

It also demoralizes the people who work for you and me, i.e. the immigration authorities whose job it is to enforce the law. When the President made his amnesty proposal in January, the guys out in the field, in the border patrol, were aghast. They’re asking themselves, “Why are we risking our necks when the President is essentially telling the world that illegal aliens are better Americans than we are?”

The only circumstance under which you could even make a case for amnesty, and I’m not endorsing it in that respect, but at least it’s arguable, is as the last stage of a multi-year effort to reassert control over immigration. In other words, if we actually started enforcing the immigration laws again inside the country and got Social Security & the IRS together with Immigration Officials to identify the illegals, and states & localities were cooperating with the Federal government, and a whole list of things like that, then at the end of seven, eight, ten years, it might be worth it to look at the illegals that were still here and maybe you could say that an amnesty might be appropriate then. I don’t know, I’d probably say “no” even then, but at least you can make the argument for it then. You cannot argue for amnesty as the first stage of any immigration enforcement effort because it immediately undercuts the whole point of what you’re trying to do.

John Hawkins:: Now, I’m sure President Bush would claim his plan isn’t an amnesty proposal. That’s what he’s saying…

Mark Krikorian:: They have people in the White House working overtime thinking up with euphemisms for amnesty. Even before 9/11 when (Bush) floated the idea, they were calling it “normalization,” “legalization,” “regularization,” I even forget some of the other euphemisms. But, people who broke the law are pardoned and allowed to stay. That’s an amnesty. The President seemed to be implying that what he proposed was not an amnesty because every illegal alien didn’t get a Green card right away. But, even the big amnesty that Congress passed in 1986 didn’t work that way. Any government program is going to have requirements that have to be met. If it’s an amnesty for illegal aliens, certainly if you have a criminal background you’re not going to be able to get it. You have to demonstrate that you were here before a certain date or have worked for a certain number of days per year. You know what I mean? There are always going to be requirements like that. That doesn’t stop making it an amnesty….

John Hawkins:: Let me ask you this, Mark. From what I heard of it when they originally announced it, I think the Bush administration said “Ok, we’re going to give people workers’ passes, they’re going to stay here three years, maybe six years, then they go home and never become American citizens”….

Mark Krikorian:: Well, that’s not exactly what they said and even to the extent that these arrangements will be nominally temporary, they would in fact turn out to be permanent. Let me start from the beginning. The President did not place any time limit on the renewal for these three year permits. In other words, they’d be renewable at least once, but the number of times they’ve been renewed would be up to Congress. The experience with a couple of Visa programs shows us that Congress is always going to move in the direction of making these kind of Visas renewable for longer and longer periods of time, ultimately indefinitely.

For example, there’s something called the H1B Visa, which is used a lot by computer programmers from India, it’s in the news every once in a while. That Visa is good for six years. It’s three years, renewable once. So it ends up being six years. The only reason people agree to come into this country on this Visa is because they can’t get in any other way and they use it to get their foot in the door. In other words, they get in the country somehow and then get the employer that’s bringing them in to sponsor them for permanent residence. So it’s a tryout immigration program even though that’s not what it’s supposed to be and they swear up and down to our Visa officers that they don’t want to live here. They’re lying, pure and simple. Well, even before 9/11 the whole bureaucratic system was choking because immigration was so massive that we just couldn’t handle it and when you add the security checks on top of it, it slowed down even more. So, it took more than six years to get your green card if you’re on this Visa. So what did Congress do? They just made it indefinitely renewable. If you had a Green Card application pending, you just renew one year at a time forever, for the rest of your life until you get your Green Card. That is, I guarantee you, what would happen with the President’s proposal. That’s number one.

Number two, the President even said that his proposal called for an increase in permanent immigration as well so as to accommodate who came in temporarily, but decided they want to stay permanently. Of course, that’s almost all of them. So that part of the President’s proposal doesn’t really mean anything because there are no numbers on his recommendation.

Number three, just look at it practically. You let someone live here for six years, bring his family, his children will be born here and be citizens automatically because the White House explicitly said they weren’t calling for a change in our citizenship rules, and we’re going to expect them to leave after six years? It’s fantasy. It’s so divorced from reality, that it’s clear no one in the White House knew anything about the politics or the policy of immigration, nothing whatsoever, and they just kind of made it up over coffee. That’s the only conclusion I can come to.

John Hawkins:: Most estimates I’ve heard claim that there are 8-10 million illegal immigrants in the United States today. In your opinion, would you agree with those numbers and what do we need to do to get rid of them?

Mark Krikorian:: The estimates are pretty accurate. At this point, it’s nine or ten, maybe getting to eleven, maybe not. The estimates are probably sound because different people have come at them from different ways and come to more or less the same conclusion.

“How do we deal with it” is the 64 dollar question. Usually, this issue presented as a Hobbesian choice. Either mass round-ups, driving people through the desert in the middle of the night by the millions or amnesty. Either it’s the President’s slow motion amnesty or the Democrat’s jackpot overnight amnesty, whatever it is, some kind of amnesty. Well, the fact is that there’s a third way, attrition. In other words, start enforcing the law, start squeezing the illegal population, consistently across the board, and what you’ll see is that instead of growing one year after the next, the illegal population will start shrinking. Not even just because of deportations although we’ll need some increase deportations, no question about it. But, most illegal aliens who will leave the United States, will end up doing it on their own. Deporting themselves because we will have sent a clear, unmixed message that the immigration law is going to be taken seriously.

We’ve seen instances of that on a small scale. Pakistanis, for instance, after 9/11 were on the list of Middle-Easterners who had to come in and register with the INS. Pakistanis were the biggest illegal alien group out of all the Middle-Easterners on the list. And what we found was that thousands of them left the country on their own because they were presented with a couple of choices. One was go to the INS and be arrested as an illegal alien. The second was not going to the INS and becoming a fugitive illegal alien from the Middle-East in the United States. Well, you know a lot of them didn’t want to do that. So what a lot of them did in order to preserve their ability to come back in the future, maybe as a visitor, maybe as an immigrant if they had an application pending, (was leave). They left and went to Canada, went to England, went back to Pakistan, they deported themselves. That model can apply more broadly to the illegal immigration problem if only we decide to do it.

John Hawkins:: One of the most disturbing things to me about illegal immigration is that we have government officials, some of them even in the Senate, doing everything in their power to make sure our immigration laws aren’t enforced. For example, can you tell people a little bit about Georgia’s Vidalia onion harvest in 1998 or Operation Vanguard which was conducted in 1998-99 in Nebraska?

Mark Krikorian:: Sure. In ninety eight, the border patrol noticed that the work force picking onions in the vidalia onion fields of Georgia appeared increasingly to be illegals, so they did some raids, arrested a few dozen illegal aliens, and all the rest of them ran off. So the farmers were there stuck with onions in the ground and no one to pull them out. It was all their own fault, they knew what they were doing, but nonetheless, they were outraged. They called their Congressmen, and by the end of the week, three of Georgia’s Congressmen and both Senators, Republicans and Democrats, wrote a joint letter to the Attorney General demanding that the Immigration Service stop enforcing the law. Because they said the INS does not understand the needs of American farmers. Which in ordinary English means, “Let them pick the onions, then arrest them — preferably before we have to pay them. Well, the INS got slapped down and stopped.

So what they tried as an alternative to raids, was something called Operation Vanguard in Nebraska. It was sort of the first effort at something like this to see if it worked. They didn’t do raids anywhere, all they did was subpoena personnel records. And they didn’t just pick one or two employers, they did all the meatpacking plants in all of Nebraska, so that no one of them would be inconvenienced while the others benefitted. They took the personnel records back to the office, checked the Social Security numbers, and came back with a list of people who seemed to be illegal, who did not have authorization to work. They said, “We know some of these people are legit and the records are wrong. We want to fix those people’s records and the ones that are illegal, have to leave of course”. They came back with four thousand names. One thousand people showed up and got their records fixed and three thousand were never heard from again. They were illegal aliens. It worked really well and it was intended to be repeated every two to three months so as to wean the whole industry off of the use of illegal aliens.

After one effort like this, the political and business elite in Nebraska went insane. The ranchers and the meat packers teamed up with the governor. The governor’s predecessor, now Senator Nelson, was hired as a lobbyist to put an end to this initiative. Senator Chuck Hagel made it essentially his mission in life to see that this was never repeated and it wasn’t. And the Senior INS official who thought it up in the first place was invited to retire early — and he did. If you’re a bureaucrat and you have kids in college, you’re going to take the hint: Congress doesn’t want you to enforce the law. So the Immigration Service essentially gave up enforcing the immigration laws inside the country. They focused on the important, but narrow, issues of criminal aliens and smugglers. I’m all for that, criminal aliens and alien smugglers are the scum of the earth, but there’s a lot more to the issue than just that. But, going after those parts of the issue doesn’t get you in trouble politically. So that’s what they did, they gave up because Congress told them to stop doing their jobs. They really haven’t changed that much such 9/11.

John Hawkins:: Now, a lot of politicians cater to illegal immigrants in hopes of pulling in votes from Spanish-Americans. However, from what I’ve seen in elections across the US, that doesn’t seem to work. What’s your opinion on the subject? Does it work?

Mark Krikorian:: Does it work as a political issue?

John Hawkins:: Yeah, does catering to illegal immigrants, does that bring in a much bigger share of Spanish American voters?

Mark Krikorian:: Politically, this doesn’t work… In a practical sense, tighter immigration control is what’s going to win votes….Clearly, a reasoned, sober, well thought out position in favor of effective immigration control, immigration law enforcement, and secure borders, is a political winner. At some point, somebody is going to pick it up. I used to think that the Democrats could take up the opportunity against President Bush, because he is extraordinarily vulnerable on the issue. The problem of course is, the Democrats would much rather lose than call for tough immigration controls and they may end up getting their wish. For them, even electoral victory is less important that embracing multi-culturalism and post-Americanism, so that’s not going to happen. But at some point, this is a political opportunity that somebody is going to pick up on.

John Hawkins:: What do you say to people who claim that stopping illegal immigration would have a massive, negative impact on the US economy?

Mark Krikorian:: They don’t know what they’re talking about. To say that there are jobs that Americans won’t do or that in the absence of illegal aliens, tomatoes would cost $12 apiece, or whatever, is economic gibberish. If the supply of immigrant workers was reduced and the labor market tightened as economists say, two things would happen. Employers would start offering more money and better benefits to attract the workers who are around and secondly, they’d look for ways of getting rid of some of the jobs that the illegals had been doing through mechanization, more efficient ways or organizing the work, that sort of thing. So you’d end up with a new equilibrium as Economics 101 would explain.

With a smaller number of legal, low skilled workers, but more productive and making more money. That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. That sounds like a free market way of giving the poor a raise rather than a big government attempt at simply legislating higher minimum wages. And the practical result wouldn’t be that great. In fact, an agricultural economist just did calculations I read yesterday and he said if farm workers were paid forty percent more than they are now, the amount each household would pay extra for food would be eight dollars a year. So, it’s ludicrous to claim that this would have a huge economic effect and there’s no surprise there because all unskilled labor, immigrants and natives, legal and illegal, in all fields, all the unskilled labor in the United States, only contributes about four percent to the Gross National Product. That’s because without skills, you work just isn’t worth that much. If you increased the price of that labor, which is to say increased the salaries, it can’t have that much effect, it’s just not possible.

Then the other positive benefit is by reducing the number of and future importation of poor people into a modern welfare state, you reduce future social costs, future costs of government services. Because in fact, there’s nothing as expensive as cheap labor…

John Hawkins:: Related question here: Taking everything into consideration, are illegals a net plus or minus for the American economy?

Mark Krikorian:: They’re a big net minus…

John Hawkins:: Why so?

Mark Krikorian:: Let’s start with fiscal costs, the government costs. The fact is that immigrants have low levels of education, low levels of skill, so they can’t earn a lot of money. No matter what their legal status is, their jobs are going to be low paying. That means they don’t pay a lot of taxes, because that’s the way our tax system works. And because they’re poor and because they tend to have big families, they’re going to use a lot in government services of whatever kind. And those government services aren’t going anywhere. There are a lot of improvements we can make in the way we run our welfare system, but it’s never going away. So right there, immigrants in general, and illegal aliens specifically, are a net drag on government coffers….

John Hawkins:: Another related question: Can you tell us what percentage of legal and illegal immigrants are allowed to get government assistance? Also, can you explain why the sponsors of legal immigrants are not being asked to support them financially instead of the taxpayers?

Mark Krikorian:: …Illegal aliens on their own behalf can’t collect welfare. What they can and very often do is collect benefits on behalf of their US born children because kids born in the US, because kids born in the United States are US citizens, regardless of their parents’ legal status. So, I’m looking at welfare use by legal and illegal Mexican immigrants. The use of any major welfare program by natives is about fifteen percent of households. By illegal Mexican households, it’s about twenty-five percent and by legal Mexican households it’s about thirty-four percent.

As I said, the illegals get it on behalf of their kids. Well, that’s a lot of money. (So) Congress in 1996 managed to impose a Libertarian view of this, which they summed as, “immigration si, welfare no.” In other words, let in lots of immigrants, but make sure no one can use the welfare system. The fact is, it doesn’t work like that. As soon as Congress passed the law, which had holes in it anyway, they started putting more holes in it, rolling back parts of it. Then the states in almost every instance picked up virtually all of the slack anyway. So all it really did was shift most of the cost from Washington to the state capitals. The fact is that in a modern society, we are not going to throw some quadriplegic old woman out of the nursing home and into the street because she’s not a US citizen and is no longer able to become a US citizen. It’s not going to happen. So attempting to use the welfare system to fix problems with immigration is a mistake. What we need to do is fix immigration problems directly rather than use welfare as a kind of proxy.

(Then to the other part of your question), in the late fifties I believe, the sponsorship requirement, in other words, sponsors made a promise to support the immigrants that they were sponsoring in case they lose their jobs or whatever — that was ruled by the courts to be no longer legally enforceable — in other words, merely to be a statement of moral intent and not a contract. In 1996, Congress finally, almost 40 years later, got around to saying, “No, that actually is a legally enforceable contract.” Well, let me put it this way: once it’s enforceable, that’s nice, but there has to be some way to actually do the enforcing. What that really would require is for Social Service agencies to check with the Immigration Service every time a non-citizen applies for welfare benefits and then the Immigration Service has to have some way of then checking who that person’s sponsor is and tracking him down — none of that has happened. So even though technically, sponsors can be held accountable, I haven’t heard of a single instance of anybody being sued by the Federal Government or a state or local agency, or having their wages garnished, or anything like that, ever, because one of the immigrants they sponsored went on welfare.

Again, it’s one of those things that looks good in theory, but isn’t workable for two reasons. We have a sprawling Federal system where there are thousands of layers of government and the Social Service bureaucracy that would have to cooperate to enforce this provision, is hostile to it. They reject the concept of denying welfare eligibility to anybody or holding anybody accountable to welfare rules, so there’s no way to do that. You have to let in fewer poor and unskilled immigrants, not try to fix the problem after they’re let in.

John Hawkins:: Speaking of that, how much of an effort is the Mexican government making to stop illegal immigration?

Mark Krikorian:: (Laughing) None whatsoever because they have no interest in doing that. There are three big benefits to Mexico from mass immigration to the United States, legal or illegal. One is those people send money home and that money sent home, remittances they call them, is the second or third source of currency for Mexico. And, that’s saying something because Mexico is a big county with 100 million people, it’s not a little speck like El Salvador. If that’s their second or third largest source of foreign currency, that’s saying something.

Two, Mexico sees this as a way of exercising influence over the United States, in other words, essentially exporting a lobby into their powerful neighbor, so as to have a voice in our decisions, so we do more of what they’d like than we would have done otherwise.

The third benefit to the Mexican elite is that the people who would challenge the corrupt, kleptocratic system in Mexico, come here instead. That is, everybody with get up and go, gets up and goes instead of starting a political party, marching in the street, and trying to get elected. Those things don’t happen as much or as quickly, because the people who could help bring them about have moved to Chicago and Los Angeles.

John Hawkins:: Because of those reasons, do you think we’re allowing too many immigrants from Mexico and Latin America to become US Citizens?

Mark Krikorian:: Well, we’re permitting too much immigration, period. But, part of the reason that immigration is different today than it was in the past, is because it’s increasingly less diverse. People often say “Immigration is contributing to diversity,” but what they really mean is that immigration isn’t white and America is too white, and they want to make it less white. The racialist concern. There are people who don’t like immigration for racialist reasons as well.

But, my concern is that this immigration flow is not diverse enough in itself. In other words, too large a portion of the immigrants are coming from a single foreign language group. Because Spanish speaking Latin Americans, Mexicans mainly, but also Central and South Americans, dominate the immigration flow in a way that no immigrant group has, ever, and this matters.

When you had European immigration a hundred years ago or even today’s Asian immigration, you get a wide mix of groups that speak different languages, have different religions, have different backgrounds, and they don’t like each other very much, so becoming more American when they get here, is the only way they can interact with each other.

For example, in New York a hundred years ago you had Chinese, and Italians, and Eastern Europeans Jews. What were they going to do? They didn’t have anything in common with one another. They had to assimilate into America to operate with each other. It’s the same thing today in regard to today’s Asian immigration. You’ve got Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, they all hate each other, so there’s no possibility of forming any kind of block that would resist immigration.

With immigrants from Spanish speaking Latin America, it’s very different. Even though they do have national rivalries, a Mexican is not the same as a Peruvian or a Cuban, there is an overarching cultural commonality. When they come here, that becomes stronger because none of these people are Hispanic until they come here. They’re Cuban, they’re Mexican, they’re Peruvian, then when they come here, then they become Hispanic. You see the proliferation now of two major Hispanic television networks that are in a lot of cities bigger stations than one of major TV networks. Likewise with radio. There are now Spanish newspapers that are going beyond the level of amateur ethnic press and becoming serious professional media operations in the United States that operate in another language. That kind of thing is only possible because of mass immigration of large numbers of people with a large proportion of the immigration flow from a single ethno-linguistic background and that’s a problem. Not because Spanish is a problem, but because of the concentration of immigration flow from one group. If we had seventy percent of our immigration coming from China or eighty percent of it coming from Romania, we would have similar problems, although maybe not as severe since those places aren’t physically next door to the United States. (But because of the numbers), it may potentially be a real challenge to successfully Americanize these immigrants.

John Hawkins:: If we’re talking about legal immigration and let’s say George Bush came to you and said, “Mark, how many people should we let in this year and how should we decide who those people are”, what would you say?

Mark Krikorian:: I have to say that our objective with regards to legal immigration has to be to decide what kinds of people we want to let in and then let all of them in every year. What we have now is a system that creates backlogs and waiting lists. We essentially over promise and under deliver. What I would look at is the three parts of any legal immigration system. Which are family immigration, employment or skill based immigration, and then humanitarian immigration.

So start with the first, which is family immigration. Now we accord immigration rights to all kinds of family members. To grown up sons and daughters, to brothers and sisters, to parents. I’d get rid of all of that except the husbands, wives, and little kids of US citizens. Now, we’ve never had restrictions on the husbands, wives, and little kids of US citizens. Even in the twenties, when we had the so called immigration cut-off, if you got married to a foreigner, that person got to come in. In fact, my mother’s mother came in during the late twenties as the spouse of a US citizen and that’s just common sense. There isn’t anybody who is going to disagree that if you adopt a little Chinese girl or if you visit Peru and meet the love of your life and get married, that you shouldn’t be able to bring that person with you, without any numerical caps or waiting lists. But beyond that, sorry. If some culture describes a family as including cousins and grand nieces, well that’s nice, but it’s not how we describe it. So it’s our description of family that matters. So if we limited family immigration to spouses and little kids, you would still end up with something like 250,000 people immigrating. It would probably decrease over time, because the majority of American citizens who marry foreigners are themselves immigrants who go back to the old country to find a wife or something. But, it would always be fairly high, over two hundred thousand or so.

Then the second component is skills based or employment based. People imagine that’s “Einstein immigration,” the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, yada, yada, yada. Well, there’s some of that, but it’s mainly a “bunch of B students from Hyderabad Community College.” What we need to do is to turn that component of the immigration stream into a real “Einstein immigration.” Maybe twenty five thousand people a year who really are the top people in their fields. You know, PhD’s, rocket scientists, nuclear physicists, that kind of thing. If you keep the standards pretty high, then twenty five thousand is more than an adequate number.

The third thing is humanitarian immigrations. That’s refugees and political asylum. You know, there too, the system has become politicized and corrupted. We imagine it as a way for the most desperate people in the world, fleeing impending death, to come to the United States and live. In fact, it’s turned into a way for politically attractive ethnic groups to get more of their members into the country & as a way for family members to get more of their relatives into the country. What we need to do is tighten that up so that the people who qualify really are not just refugees, but refugees who have no possibility whatsoever of staying where they are for even another week. People who are never going to be able to go back, who can’t stay where they are, people with no options at all, anywhere. If we made that fifty thousand people a year, we’d be fulfilling our share of responsibility for taking people like that in.

So you end up with, say, three hundred to three hundred fifty thousand immigrants a year.

John Hawkins:: Down from what? Seven to nine hundred thousand?

Mark Krikorian:: No, down from over one million a year. The last couple of years it has been one point one million. I have no idea what it’s going to be for 2003. They haven’t reported for 2003, who knows when they will. It might be down some because of processing or it might not, I don’t know. The point is, it’s a million, million plus a year, this would be cutting it by something like two thirds. That’s not ending immigration, that’s still three hundred, three hundred fifty thousand people a year. That’s way over the average level that we’ve had immigration at for the last couple hundred years if you averaged out all the peaks and valleys. So it’s in no way ending our tradition as a nation of immigrants, it’s just applying a little bit of rationality and control over the process.

John Hawkins:: Last couple of questions. Are there any websites or blogs you could recommend to our readers?

Mark Krikorian:: Well, our website,: The Center For Immigration Studies, I would of course recommend and all our work is available there for free. The other site I would recommend is: NumbersUSA. We’re a think tank, they are more of an advocacy group. They help citizens contact their Congressman, to help educate citizen groups, that kind of thing. I would strongly recommend them to someone who wants to actually get involved, you know get their hands on the issue and do something. Those are the two I’d recommend on this issue.

John Hawkins:: Is there anything else you’d like to say or promote before we finish up?

Mark Krikorian:: No, well other than that the center is a non-profit organization and contributions to: CIS: are tax deductible and you can make them at our website. Other than that, no.

John Hawkins:: Fantastic, thanks for your time.

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