Voice in the Wilderness: An Interview with Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez of the Becoming American Institute and the Center for Equal Opportunity

Linda Chavez is a lonely voice for immigration reform. She has held a number of appointed positions, including White House Director of Public Liaison in the Reagan administration and staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, but despite sterling conservative credentials, her stance on immigration attracts criticism. “It’s hard to be criticized by people with whom you agree on 80 or 90 percent of the issues," she says, "but because you have a different approach on this one issue you are—so to speak—bricked out of the movement.” Chavez heads two think tanks, the Becoming American Institute and the Center for Equal Opportunity, and, with the support of Carnegie Corporation of New York, she is now Distinguished Fellow in Immigration Policy at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute.

Ms. Chavez is not an immigrant herself. Her Spanish and Irish forebears came to America from Europe centuries ago. She is interviewed by Gail Ablow, Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy.  The following is an edited, condensed version of their conversation.

I think the reason that large-scale immigration has consistently worked in the United States is because people assimilated in quick order
— Linda Chavez

What is a conservative approach to immigration reform?

Market-based immigration reform is an approach that is consistent with the conservative ideal that government should not tell employers who to hire, what their needs are, or how best to satisfy those needs. In a free, private sector economy we should make it easier for people to come to the country legally, to fill niches in our labor market that would otherwise go unfilled—vacancies that would make our economy smaller and less productive.

Thirty years ago, when I was just out of the Reagan Administration, my position—that we need market-friendly immigration reform that understands the specific needs of employers—was the standard position. Employers have needs at both the top end and the low end of the skills spectrum.

I also preach an assimilation model. I think the reason that large-scale immigration has consistently worked in the United States is because people assimilated in quick order—despite every single group facing discrimination and mistrust. People learned the language and the civic culture. There was upward economic mobility, and ultimately there was intermarriage into the American cultural mainstream. An emphasis on assimilation is more consistent with the conservative approach than it would be with a progressive approach that emphasizes multiculturalism and bilingual education, for example. That is the conservative twist that I put on my immigration message.

How do you convince people that immigrants aren’t stealing jobs? Is that the biggest fear? Or does the fear stem from racism?

I am not going to discount that there is a tendency to fear people who are different from yourself; that is a human psychological phenomenon that you have to fight against. It is part of the problem. But I think that there is generally a misconception that immigration is making the economic situation worse. The message on the right is inconsistent: immigrants are stealing your jobs, but they depend on welfare. It’s very muddled, but most prejudices are not rational.

I have sat on the boards of companies that hire large numbers of immigrants. For a number of years, I was on the board of directors of the largest poultry producer in the country, Pilgrim’s Pride. There was no scheme on the part of the company to hire immigrant labor over native born, or to pay immigrants less. The fact is that the jobs are nasty and extremely difficult. Americans who are well educated shun those jobs. No one is stealing a job; there is a niche in the market.

An overwhelming number of American-born people—whether they are black, white, or Hispanic—have high school degrees now. They don’t spend 12 years getting an education and then go get a job that makes absolutely no use of that education. But someone coming into the country sees this as the bottom rung on a ladder that they hope, over time, to climb higher. Or at least they expect their children to climb higher. It’s a job that pays far more than they would have been able to make in their home country, so they see it as an opportunity.

But I think there is general concern and anxiety. Today, for many Americans, even having a college degree, if you don’t have certain specific skills, doesn’t guarantee you a comfortable middle- or upper-middle-class life. I think that allows for a message that plays on fear and anxiety. People always want to blame someone or something for the problems they are having. That is a natural human instinct. But specifically appealing to prejudice is very, very damaging to the country.

President Reagan gleefully accepts a campaign placard from Maryland Republican Senate candidate Linda Chavez (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)


How do you build a pathway to citizenship that conservatives can support?

I start with legal immigration reform. For people who are living in the shadows, this is a hard message to hear. But the real key to solving illegal immigration, is to pass a legal immigration law that is generous enough, flexible enough, and based on a system that Americans perceive is in their interest. Everybody talks about border security and I am all for border security. We need border security. I am not as worried about busboys coming across, as I am about potential terrorists. But border security alone won’t solve the illegal immigration problem. The only way we are going to solve the illegal immigration problem is to give people who want to come here, and whose skills we need, a way to come legally. So we should be focusing on that first.

And then I think the next step is to give legal status to the people who are here. I reject the idea that we are talking about amnesty. President Reagan did have a true amnesty, but that’s not what we are talking about now. I am talking about a process by which people come forward, undergo background checks, show that they’ve paid taxes. And if they haven’t paid taxes, provide them with an opportunity to pay up, and to pay a fine. Giving people the legal right to stay here, to be able to work—which might be temporary, or might be renewable—I think that’s the first step. For many conservatives the citizenship issue is a bridge too far. They just don’t want to go there. But personally, I favor citizenship because I think it’s bad to have a society in which some people are excluded from citizenship and you have two tiers.

Most conservatives don’t realize that we are at a low point in illegal immigration right now. We haven’t seen the numbers we are seeing now in thirty or forty years. So the problem, in many respects, is solving itself. But when the economy does come back more strongly, we have to figure out a way to give people the right to come here legally, whether as permanent residents or as guest workers. We will need higher numbers than we currently have, but it has to be flexible. There are years when we will need more and years when we will need fewer. And we have to find a way to bring the 11 million people who are here already out of the shadows.

How do you fight the prevailing winds that are against immigration reform?

What we have to do is educate. I go out to conservative groups and I give them actual facts. What has happened to illegal immigration? It climbed between 1995 and 2007, when we had the greatest number of people coming across the border illegally. The pool of people here, undocumented people, peaked years ago at 12 million. So what we are seeing now is a decline. Then I talk about the effects of illegal immigration. Does it increase crime? No, in fact it doesn’t. Illegal immigrants and immigrants in general have crime rates that are comparable to whites. Crime rates among immigrants are much lower than those of blacks, or even Mexican Americans, or other native-born Hispanics.

Then I talk about the niches immigrants fill in the workforce. Presenting people with facts and with a narrative they haven’t heard before—one that combats the myths, and the stereotypes, and the fearmongering—are the most important things that we can do.

I also spend time talking to staff on Capitol Hill, presenting them with material and basically giving them tools so that they can fight back themselves. I think there are a whole lot of conservatives on Capitol Hill who are not comfortable with the kind of rhetoric they are hearing and who really do want to do something. But they are bombarded by anti-immigration groups. And if they don’t have facts to counter the arguments, if they don’t have material to refute some of the nonsense those groups put out, they are left throwing up their hands. The most important thing I can do is to go out there with good information from trusted sources, people they agree with on other issues. That is the role that I try to play.

What hope is there for immigration reform if Donald Trump wins the presidency

The battle will be in the courts. I don’t think his deportation plans would withstand judicial scrutiny. Mostly, you would have court actions to try to stop what is happening. With regard to legal immigration reform, you would still have to get Congress to go along. So I think what we would see is the status quo being maintained if Trump wins the election. I don’t think we’d see any bill passed. But if the entire illegal immigrant population were deported tomorrow, you would have a drop in the workforce and a drop in the GDP that would have devastating consequences. Five percent of the entire labor force, and 15 percent of the construction workers in the U.S. are made up of illegal immigrants.  Without them the impact on the economy would make the 2008 recession look good by comparison.

Does Hillary Clinton have an approach to immigration reform that you can support?

Not really. I think Hillary Clinton makes the mistake of saying that she is going to continue with President Obama’s executive actions, which I don’t think is appropriate. I think she needs to push for legislation to change the status of illegal immigrants in the United States. The approach of trying to give immigration status to 5 million people in contravention of current law is not the right way to go about it. I think she has to approach it from the position of broad-scale comprehensive immigration reform, and she says she favors that. But my worry is that she will be beholden to the unions and will try to double down on the employer sanctions provisions that are in current law, and I don’t think that is the right approach. I think a market-driven, skills-based immigration system is one that serves the interests of the American public better than simply trying to make employers the bad guys for hiring people to do jobs that Americans won’t take.

Frankly, none of the remaining candidates in the race have an approach that I think suits America’s best interests. I believe that you can only really accomplish this by legislation. We will see what the balance in Congress is after the election, and I think you could see legislation move after January.