Interview with Michele Wucker

Aug 11, 2009

"People should be able to pursue whatever helps them to fulfill their greatest potential, and that's what migration is about," says World Policy Institute's Michele Wucker.

JULIA KENNEDY: Welcome to the Carnegie Council's Global Ethics Forum. I'm Julia Kennedy.

Today we'll be hearing my recent conversation with Michele Wucker. She is senior fellow and executive director of World Policy Institute in New York and author of two books. Wucker was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009.

Through her research, Wucker has explored a vast array of issues related to citizenship and migration, from labor and global development to social and gender impact.

Most frequently, she examines gaps between policy realities and ideals when it comes to migration.

Wucker began by telling me how she became interested in the subject of immigration.

MICHELE WUCKER: My mother was born in Belgium and came to the United States when she was three years old. Her grandmother looked at her and said, "Well, at least she doesn't have rickets." Then my mother and her mother weren't allowed to speak French to each other because it was rude to speak a foreign language in front of other people, even though my great-grandmother and her family still spoke German and they had been in the States for 100 years.

So some of the prejudices and double standards of immigration in the United States have certainly impacted me personally, and my family has come at several different stages of immigration, including the Great Wave 100 years ago.

JULIA KENNEDY: Migration was always sort of around, percolating in your family, then. How did it become more of an academic interest for you?

MICHELE WUCKER: I spent the summer after college in the Dominican Republic. I went there to study the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti through the lens of Belgium: What happens when you have two or more different languages and cultures that bump up against each other? I very quickly discovered that it wasn't just the linguistic or cultural differences; it was real policy issues. The center of that was migration, migration from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, from the Dominican Republic and Haiti to the United States.

JULIA KENNEDY: The U.S. often has reacted in a political way in terms of immigration policy. There is a big school of thought now saying that that needs to shift to an economic priority in terms of migration policy. Where do you lie in terms of what priorities you think the U.S. should be having in its migration policy?

MICHELE WUCKER: As I talk about in my second book, LOCKOUT: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong when Our Prosperity Depends on Getting it Right, economics is very much what the central question should be. There's a lot of debate over how the economics of migration turns out. The real point that needs to be made is that there are some people who feel that they are unfairly displaced, there are some studies arguing both sides of the issue, but, I think, general agreement that there is some downward pressure—but very small downward pressure—on the wages of high-school dropouts, the lower-skilled Americans, that needs to be addressed, but that overall immigration benefits Americans as a whole.

We have heard way too much talk about "let's throw out the baby with the bath water." Because a very small part of the population is impacted somewhat negatively, we should make everybody else give up being better off. I think that's important.

The other question is really about how America was built in the first place. It was on the idea that people should be able to pursue whatever helps them to fulfill their greatest potential. That's what migration is about.

That also applies, not just to migrants who are risking a lot and taking very, very big chances but also a very big vote of confidence in their own abilities by migrating here, but we also need to look at opportunity for all Americans—the high-school dropouts, the lower-skilled Americans who are at the center of a lot of this debate. Why aren't we doing better by them? Why are so many people still dropping out? Why are so many people feeling that the only jobs that are available to them don't have health benefits, don't really get them anywhere?

That's a question we have to address as part of the immigration question, even though, on the surface, it seems like an entirely different issue. If we were taking care of all Americans the way we ought to be and ensuring that all Americans are able to really reach for their full potential, we wouldn't be having the debate that we have been having over immigration.

JULIA KENNEDY: On a more global scale, a lot of development economists talk about migration as a component of globalization, that free-flowing migration can make a more efficient allocation of resources. What are the positives and negatives of that kind of approach?

MICHELE WUCKER: It goes back to the question of human potential. There are many people, particularly the world's best and brightest, who are in developing countries where they can't do what they really want to do. For example, when I was writing LOCKOUT, I interviewed a young Pakistani medical informatics technician, who had come to Massachusetts to study medical informatics. There is a huge demand for IT in health care these days. That's something that he would never have been able to do if he were back in Pakistan.

At the same time, there are many countries, particularly in Africa, where you have skilled health-care professionals who are emigrating, and you no longer have enough doctors or nurses in hospitals in those countries. That's a real problem. The wealthy countries that are benefiting from skills from this migration have a certain moral responsibility to the countries that people are emigrating from.

There's a really interesting set of possibilities right now in terms of the global economic crisis, because you are seeing many skilled migrants, as well as unskilled migrants, return to their countries of origin. Countries around the world are starting to think, "Okay, what do we do with this? How do we reintegrate these people into our society?"

Bangladesh, for example, has put in a few dozen—a small number—training centers to try to help reintegrate people. Other countries are starting to think, "Hey, we've been complaining about brain drain. Some of these brains are coming back now. Do we have the sort of infrastructure, the channels, the economy, the industries, the entrepreneurs who can help to find a way for us to put those skills to use in our country, so that everybody will be better off?"

That's a question that is really not resolved yet. Finding ways to reintegrate skilled migration is going to be one of the central challenges of the global economic crisis, but also, I think, one of the central opportunities, one of the silver linings, if we know how to take advantage of it.

JULIA KENNEDY: Do you think that this issue of migration as part of economic cycles is sometimes overlooked?

MICHELE WUCKER: There is certainly talk about it. We've heard talk in the United States, really, on the bad side. You heard about the letter that Senator Grassley sent a few months ago to Microsoft, saying, "If you're going to fire anyone, fire the foreigners first."

You saw the provisions in the bank bailout bills against H-1B workers.

But again, I think there's a huge silver lining in this, if we know how to take advantage of it. There are many migrants who are not making the decision to go to another country. There are, I guess, potential migrants who are not seeing that potential. You also hear anecdotally stories of some migrants who are going home to their countries of origin.

So all of a sudden you are seeing a real easing of a lot of the demographic and migratory pressures that have played into some of the tensions we've seen over the past several years. It give us a little bit of a breathing space and also gives an opportunity, logistically, to think about a legalization program. People put a little too much emphasis on the idea that if immigrants can come, then they will. The truth is, it's a very sensitive, very sophisticated labor market. If people know that there aren't jobs in whatever country they are thinking about going to, guess what? They're not going to go, even if there are visas that say that they're going to go.

In fact, I was just hearing recently that this year's H-1B applications haven't yet reached the quota, which is interesting, because for several years they were running out of H-1B visas within a couple of hours of the time that it opened for each year's quota.

So it's clear that we have a lot of spots that are going unfilled, employers who are not looking to take on more people, and, as a result, migrants who remain potential migrants, because they are not going someplace because there is no economic reason to go. So in that slightly eased situation in terms of population pressures, I think there is a very strong argument that this is the time to do some sort of legalization in the United States. That's apart from the many economic benefits that we would get from a legalization here.

JULIA KENNEDY: Do you feel like, though, perhaps, without the pressure, this might fall off as a priority for policymakers?

MICHELE WUCKER: There have been a lot of discussions among the pro-immigration community, which feels that we really lost opportunities in 2006 and 2007, when there was a lot of debate. Many of the anti-immigration groups have lost some steam. A lot of the members of Congress who opposed immigration were not reelected or didn't run again last year. The Republican Party, which had the largest contingent of immigration opponents, is really struggling right now. You have movement on all sorts of big, important reforms that have been postponed.

Are we going to get "reform fatigue"? That's a big question. But immigration has really been an urgent issue for quite some time.

The polls show that Americans want the system to be fixed. Even in 2007, the polls very steadily showed a very significant majority of Americans in favor of an amnesty, as long as it included some sort of restitution—a fine or something else—to make up for having been here illegally in the past.

Americans were solidly in favor of this a couple years ago. Now they are even more solidly in favor. One of the few polls that did not show two-thirds and above in favor of legalization two years ago just was redone in April, and it went from 49 percent in favor two years ago to 61 percent in favor now.

So there is definitely public support for it. People are really tired of the status quo.

JULIA KENNEDY: What role do corporations take in setting immigration policy?

MICHELE WUCKER: Big corporations have been, of course, very involved in the debate, from Bill Gates being in favor of H-1B visas—even more importantly, I have heard three or four different corporate leaders quoted on the same thing. I'm not sure who the first one was, but he said, "Hey, we should be stapling a green card to the back of every advanced diploma of foreign-born students." In fact, Thomas Friedman just quoted that again in his column. The idea is that people come to the States and they are able to pool their skills and create a cluster effect, so that you have the potential to invent things, to come up with innovations and progress that you wouldn't have otherwise.

You have a real array of corporate positions. You have agribusiness, which is interested in, certainly, a very reliable supply of low-income laborers on a seasonal basis.

But you also have companies who are interested more in innovation, in technology, in things like that, whose interest is very much in having immigrants come here on green cards, permanent visas, and perhaps even becoming citizens. There are also manufacturing companies that require some amount of training. Without the assurance that they have a legal workforce and don't have to worry that someone is going to have their home raided in the middle of the night and their foreman is not going to show up at work the next day—they also have a very strong interest in legalization.

Then you have the good-apple versus the bad apple businesses. I get in a lot of arguments with people on the left, particularly the far left, on this question. They argue, "Oh, all corporations are evil, and they just want cheap, compliant workers."

I keep saying, "Look, if you go back to Henry Ford, he said that the best way to run your business is not to pay the workers as little as you can get away with; it's to pay them as much as you can afford." Once Ford started putting that policy into place, they saw much less turnover, fewer strikes, higher productivity. So it's a question of investing in your workers.

The good-apple corporations absolutely have an interest in pushing for legalization or more permanent visas and also not being undercut by the bad-apple businesses, the people who will not pay overtime, who will not follow workplace safety and health regulations, who will pay late, who sometimes don't pay at all. I can't tell you how many times I've heard stories of immigrants, saying, "Hey, I worked for three weeks and I came to get my check, and they said, 'Oh, you're illegal. I don't have to pay you.'"

I hear stories of companies who, under the current immigration laws, have used a loophole that says that if a company cooperates with government immigration enforcement efforts, then it's not going to be punished for having hired undocumented workers in the first place. A lot of the bad-apple companies use this as ways to deter immigrants from organizing. They'll tell the meek and humble workers who aren't organizing to stay home on a day when they know that immigration authorities are going to come and enforce the laws. Immigration authorities detain the workers who are organizing and trying to stick up for their rights, and the company has solved its problem.

JULIA KENNEDY: That's pretty sneaky.

MICHELE WUCKER: There have been a lot of court cases about this. It has been widely documented.

There was a Supreme Court case on this, where an undocumented worker complained about workplace violations, inability to organize. He was suing for back pay and penalties. The Supreme Court said, "Look, you weren't here legally, so you're not entitled to any of these awards."

So even though he won—the company was doing the wrong thing—the company didn't really have a significant financial penalty, apart from the legal fees and the bad publicity, which certainly aren't something that you want. But those ended up being a drop in the bucket compared to what it was making by being able to have the option of saying there's no penalty for these abusive practices.

JULIA KENNEDY: Among the good-apple companies, do you ever see organization around this issue or lobbying or education of legislators from the corporate side? Or do you generally see them say, "Yes, we'd like to have more of these visas," but it kind of ends there?

MICHELE WUCKER: There has been very active organizing on the corporate side, although some immigration advocates say they would like to see more participation from the businesses, and some sort of strange-bedfellow arrangements—unions and big companies working together. The real tension over that issue came in 2007 over the question of guest-worker programs. There were a lot of different points of view on this. A number of people thought, "Look, this reform is not the best we can get, but let's push it through because it's what we can get." At the center of the reform was basically what the agricultural industry had pushed through, which was, I believe, 400,000 temporary guest-worker visas, which, of course, didn't leave anything for the companies that are more interested in green cards, in long-term productivity.

The unions split over this. The question was, is a bad reform that still leaves us better off than we were before worth it, or should we wait and go through when we can really push for green cards instead of guest-worker visas?

My sense now is that that was the right decision. But there was a very big split, both among unions and between unions and businesses, at the time. Going forward, I think the businesses that do have an interest in longer-term visas, in productivity, in competitiveness really need to be speaking up more than they have been in the past and pushing for any reform going forward, to include green cards, to emphasize much more permanent visas, as opposed to these guest-worker visas.

JULIA KENNEDY: Let's talk about global warming and its effect on migration. How are you seeing global warming affect migration now and how do you think it will affect migration trends in the future?

MICHELE WUCKER: There's a huge debate over the size of the impact of global warming on immigration, but there's no debate over the fact that it's definitely big.

Many of the world's biggest migrant-sending countries are also the countries with the most amount of coastline, which means that they are right on the front line of being affected by global warming, as sea levels rise. So you're likely to see a lot of migration from those areas, particularly as we see more hurricanes, more natural disasters related to climate change.

Not all of that migration is going to be international. A lot of it's going to be internally, within a country, which is something that hasn't gotten enough attention. Often these areas where climate change provokes migration are also areas where you have ethnic instability, a history of problems. Migration in many cases is going to exacerbate existing ethnic tensions.

The question is, what do you do about it? Do you tell people, "Look, you've got to move"? Do you find a place for them to go somewhere else? How do you get anyone living in that other area to agree to it? What sort of planning do you have in place for any natural disasters? What happens after houses and towns and streets have been destroyed? Do you let people go back afterwards? Do you come up with other alternatives?

It's a very, very tough question. The saddest part about it is that many of these countries that are most dramatically affected by global warming are the ones who contributed the least amount of global greenhouse gases contributing to it. I say that particularly about the Dominican Republic and Haiti, both countries very near and dear to my heart, who over the last few years have suffered incredibly traumatic storms, hurricanes, loss of life—real problems. Haiti lost almost all of its agriculture when it went through, I believe, four hurricanes and tropical storms within just a month.

JULIA KENNEDY: What would you like to see in Michele Wucker's ideal world? You do all this work looking at gaps between policy and reality and migration, and how to address those gaps. So what would you really like to see in terms of where policy can move to address global migration, which is real and is going on?

MICHELE WUCKER: My ideal world, that's a great question. Imagine the world as you'd like it to be, which is, I think, the way we need to think about policy. Where is it that we want to be going, instead of just, "I'm against that, I'm for that, I'm against that."

I would like to see a clear and workable legal path for migration. That doesn't mean absolutely everybody can go wherever they want to. That means that governments have taken a hard look at where their labor markets are at, what some of their workforce needs are, and the impact of migration on sending countries with whom they have a relationship.

So in my ideal world, you would have (1) legal, orderly paths for migration; (2) you would have much more attention to the root causes of migration. Why are people leaving behind their homelands, their families, in order to go other places? Instead of focusing the majority of our migration-control efforts on border barriers and enforcement and things like that, let's take a really hard look at putting some of that money into the kind of development work, with the consultation of the countries involved as to what their needs are on how we create a world where people don't have to leave behind their homes and their families in order to survive.

That discussion I would like to see in a much more sober tone than what we normally get—you see a lot of emotion around immigration and declarations and "this ought to be" and "that ought to be"—asking people real questions about what their goals are, what is the most important to them.

Is it most important to them that we punish someone who has come here illegally or is it more important that we set up a system where people who come are legal? Is it more important to make sure that all the drivers out on the road have driver's licenses and are insured or to punish people who came under a very murky system, where, if we're honest, the United States sent a very, very big wink-wink-nod-nod message that if you come here illegally, we'll look the other way and pretend it's all right.

We have to take some moral responsibility for the message that we have sent, because we very much have encouraged people to come and we haven't set up a legal system that allows it to happen aboveboard. Americans want immigration to be aboveboard. They want the rule of law. They want the rules that we have set out to be respected. But the other side is that we really want the rules that we have set out to be deserving of respect.

When we have a situation where everyone knows the system doesn't work but we haven't changed it, then we really have a lot of responsibility there for fixing it before we complain about people not respecting the system.

JULIA KENNEDY: Michele, thank you so much for sitting down with me in the Carnegie Council.

MICHELE WUCKER: Thanks for having me. It's been really fun.

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