In the wake of the November elections, Democrats and Republicans around the country are taking a renewed interest in comprehensive immigration reform. Polling shows that a majority of Americans want reform, and are amenable to the specific proposals in question, but that Republicans are more skeptical. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, is taking up the issue, on the premise that Texans, particularly conservative Texans, have the knowledge and experience to craft an approach that other states might find credible. Brooke Rollins, the president and CEO of the foundation, talked to Texas Monthly last week. (For more background on Texas's approach to the issue, see here.)
So the TPPF is gearing up on immigration. Is this in response to the last election?
It was always very clear that the issue would blow up. It wasn’t a matter of “if”; it was “when.” And, sure enough, I think this election pushed it to the forefront.
Do you mean that you thought the issue was going to blow up nationally, or in Texas?
Oh, nationally. It’s a federal issue. There’s no question. But Washington, D.C. can’t fix itself. I hope I’m wrong on that count, because I would love for Washington to come forward with a viable solution that works. But their discussion is all about what to do with the undocumented population that’s here currently. There isn’t even discussion, really, about how to fix the problem long-term.
We do need to discuss what to do with the people that are here. They are not going back to Mexico. They have families here. They have children. They have grandchildren. They’re not leaving, so we do need to have a very serious discussion on a normalization process. But, more importantly, we have to figure out how to fix the underlying problem, which is the illegal movement of labor across our border.
So what are you thinking at this point?
From the forties through the sixties, we had the bracero program, which was a United States-Mexico collaboration that fulfilled the demand for the unskilled laborers. You had a way for unskilled labor to cross the border, work, and go home. You didn’t have this situation that we’re in today. The system today, from my perspective, was created by the left and by the unions [in a political alliance primarily between Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and national Democrats]. It still continues to benefit the unions and the American left. Those of us who believe in markets and freedom and entrepreneurship are sort of standing there saying, “Wait, what’s happening?”
That’s what we really need to focus on. We have to look back at the program we had that was very successful until the sixties, when it was shut down. How do we emulate that for today? No one has really put their arms around this yet and come forward with a very specific policy solution. And we will get there, we being the Texas Public Policy Foundation. We have a couple of more months of significant research that we need to do to make sure that we fully understand what the current situation is, how the situation in the forties, fifties, and sixties actually worked, and then how we apply that to the current context.
Texas is an interesting state in this context, because we have perhaps as many as two million unauthorized immigrants living here, but the issue has never been as inflammatory as we’ve seen in other states, even border states like Arizona. If anything, the state’s been moderate. What’s your interpretation of that?
I think that’s correct. I think that Texans, or most Texans, inherently understand that this is a crisis, the status quo is broken, and that something needs to be fixed. And at the end of the day, we’re a state that shares roots with Mexico that go back hundreds of years and that has a very collaborative and open approach to jobs and the economy and market-based policy. So it’s not surprising that Texas is more receptive to this idea than some of the other border states like Arizona may be, or that Texas is going to lead the way back to a sane, sensible, workable immigration policy.
Well, ‘sane’ and ‘sensible’ are two words I always associate with Texas. I’m sure our friends around the country do too.
People in Texas need to understand that the guys in Washington that are working on this—including Marco Rubio and others who are great conservatives—are working within the current debate, which is what to do with the millions of undocumented immigrants that are here. I think they’re very sincerely and thoughtfully trying to work towards a solution, whether or not you agree or disagree with what they’ve come up with. I also believe that the White House doesn’t necessarily want a solution. You know, when President Obama said a week or two ago that he wanted to include a gay marriage or same-sex couples policy within the same exact debate—the fact that he would even try to inject that issue into the immigration debate is, I think, a pretty telling sign about how serious he is about achieving significant bipartisan reform.
People bundle a lot into these proposals. We’ve touched on the idea of a guest worker program for unskilled labor, but on the other side of the skills spectrum, do you see us expanding the number of visas for highly skilled workers?
Yes. That, I think, is the easy solution. I don’t know of anyone who is against that—Republicans, Democrats, educated, not-educated, blue collar, white collar.
And how about the border security part? Do you think border security and immigration reform should be pursued simultaneously?
I do. Border security has to be at the very top of the list, there’s no question. However, what’s happening now is that we are using so many resources on so many people that just want a job, that are not a threat to security, that are