Take Five: Tamar Jacoby, former journalist turned immigration-reform advocate
At 8 a.m. Friday morning, a regional task form will come together at the RCGA Regional Collaboration Center to discuss “Immigration and U.S. Competitiveness: A View from St. Louis.” The event will report the findings of a 45-member task force organized by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which is working to mobilize work around immigration in the Midwest. The event, moderated by former Gov. Bob Holden, also features a report of the task force findings by Tamar Jacoby. Her organization works to bring together small business owners to advocate for immigration reform, but Jacoby didn’t start her career in advocacy.
“I actually went to Arizona to write a story about one of the first anti-immigrant efforts there; it was a ballot initiative,” says Jacoby, who previously worked as a senior writer and editor at Newsweek and as a deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page.
“I had interviews set up with Republicans, Democrats, business and labor and states groups all in Phoenix. I realized after setting up the interviews that they all opposed the initiative but that none was talking to each other. And I literally said, 'I’m canceling my interviews, we’re having a meeting, we’re starting a coalition. C’mon folks, none of you can win this alone'.”
Now, Jacoby is the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA. Before the forum, she spoke with the St. Louis Beacon about immigration reform that still needs to happen, and how she thinks the country might get there. (The interview was edited for length and clarity.)
I was reading stories that were on your website from 2007, when you felt as though we were getting close to real immigration reform. Do you think we’re any closer now to real reform or is everyone still polarized and worrying about the wrong things?
Jacoby: Everyone is still polarized; and when you look back to ‘06 and ‘07, those now seemed very hopeful times (when) we were very close. We’re very far away now.
Comprehensive reform of the kind we were hoping to achieve then ... I won’t say never, but I think not in the foreseeable future. But the comparison is not to that high point, but perhaps to a year or two ago, and I believe we are seeing a thaw.
For six years, it’s been a frozen tundra in Congress. Now we’re starting to see representatives propose small solutions to smaller pieces of the puzzle, fixes to the legal immigration system, fixes for one group, like young people brought here as children. So my hope is that next year when Congress gets back, it won’t be anything like ‘06-’07, but we might see some incremental progress.
To what do you credit the thaw?
Jacoby: There is a realization that the legal system is broken. We can’t wait to fix some of these problems with the legal system until we have a solution to the controversial part, which is dealing with unauthorized immigrants.
One of the premises of the event is that the economic future of the Midwest depends on immigration. Can you explain that more, because I think when most people think of immigration, they don’t think of economics?
Jacoby: The myth is that immigrants take jobs and they drain resources. Nothing could be further from the truth. Immigrants create jobs and they help Americans become more productive. High-end immigrants who are entrepreneurs bring skills and help our workers become more productive ... but so do less-skilled immigrants.
If we don’t have enough immigrants to continue with labor-intensive farming, and that labor-intensive farming moves to Mexico or Brazil or some other country, that’s jobs we’re losing here. If we don’t have enough people to work in food-processing plants and those food-processing plants shrink or move, that’s jobs for more skilled Americans that are going to be lost. So immigrants help create jobs, sustain jobs, and they help the Midwest in particular. In parts where the population is stagnant or dwindling, they help those regions remain economically viable.
A new task force in St. Louis is working to attract more immigrants, based on a study that showed that in St. Louis immigrants make up a fairly high percentage of highly skilled, well-paid workers, and the region wants more of them. What needs to happen, on the policy front and in the business community, to bring more immigrants to St. Louis?
Jacoby: Municipalities and states can’t fix the broken immigration system. St. Louis can’t issue more visas to highly skilled workers, only the feds can do that, and the feds have to do that because we don’t have enough visas for highly skilled workers. But St. Louis can make the city and the region as attractive as it can to immigrant workers, make the kinds of changes that are needed to make sure that they’re welcome.
We’re not going get the changes we need at the federal level until business start to speak up. It’s one thing to have Latinos marching in the street, and that’s great. It’s another thing to have Latinos voting. But we need some center-right elected officials who are thinking about center-right voters, who are arguing this for America’s interests. It’s about making a city welcoming, but also making your voice heard so that the people in Washington get the message.
What does real immigration reform look like, what needs to happen and who needs to make it happen?
Jacoby: We need better enforcement. The old “nudge nudge wink wink,” the government doesn’t enforce the law and everybody else looks the other way, that’s got to end. Tougher enforcement, better enforcement is part of the answer.
Pillar No. 2 is there has to be some answer for the 11 million people who are here without papers. Most of them are not going home, some of their children just got temporary visas, but over the long haul, we’ve got to come up with some answer for those people that’s realistic.
And then No. 3 (and) this is most important, we have to fix the legal immigration system so there are enough visas for highly skilled workers and enough visas for low-skilled workers, and people can come legally. It’s not about more people coming. The number coming responds to the market, it doesn’t really respond to the number of visas. The number coming isn’t going to change, but we do need them coming legally.
What this task force is saying that’s really newsworthy is we think it’s OK to start where you can start, Congress. Ultimately we want everything done, all these pieces need to get made, but it doesn’t make sense to wait another 10 years to wait for everything to happen at once. Let's start where we can start and make some progress. That’s the headline.