In One Man's Story, Two Sides Of The Immigration Debate

Jan 6, 2014
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So that's one story, but we want to get more perspective on the immigration story we just heard and also in the broader debate about changes to immigration policy. So we've called, once again, Ali Noorani. He's the executive director for the National Immigration Forum. That group tends to favor more expansive immigration policy. And Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies - it tends to favor a more restrictive approach. Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us once again and happy new year to you both.

ALI NOORANI: Happy new year. Thanks for having us.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Happy new year.

MARTIN: So, Ali Noorani, I'm going to start with you because that's obviously a very sympathetic person - Osiris Hoil is obviously a very sympathetic person. He works hard, he's well spoken, has not broken the law - except for the fact that he overstayed his visa. But people listen to a story like that and they would say, you know, this is why reform needs to happen - people have an entirely too casual approach to the law. And what would you say to that?

NOORANI: Well, I mean, the amazing part about immigration policy is that, at its heart, it is about people. There are very few public policy issues that Congress takes on that have such a real-life, real-time impact on people's lives. And the story we just heard is a perfect example of that. And whether it's one person, one restaurant right here in D.C., or millions of people across the country, there are folks who are working hard making - you know, creating jobs and paying their taxes.

MARTIN: OK, but the argument I think some people would make is if he'd come here and robbed a bank one time.


MARTIN: Right. Even if he'd gone on to serve an - and had an exemplary life, you wouldn't say it's OK that you robbed that bank one time. Even if you robbed that bank and you started a restaurant and gave, you know, coats to the poor and things of that sort, you wouldn't say it's OK that you did that. There would have to be some sanction. And there hasn't been in his case.

NOORANI: And what we're calling for actually is for folks like Osiris, who are here illegally, to be sanctioned - to pay a fine, go through a background check, pay their debt to society. But then after that, get right with the law. And the fact is right now our immigration laws provide no opportunity for the majority of undocumented immigrants to get right with the law and get on that road to citizenship. And his case is the perfect example of why it should happen.

MARTIN: Mark Krikorian, turning to you now, this story of Osiris Hoil - a lot of people say immigrants like him are a drain on society, this is exactly why we need to tighten up our policy. But others would look at his story and say this is exactly why we need to do the opposite because he's come here with little and he's creating opportunity for others as well as for himself. How do you respond to that?

KRIKORIAN: There are millions of immigrants and any large group of people is going to have every kind of person represented. There are going to be, you know, hard-working guys like this who are entrepreneurs. There are going to be criminals. There are going to be most people who are sort of, you know, a little bit good and a little bit bad. That's the way it is. You can't make policy based on one either sympathetic or, you know, horrible anecdote. The question is, overall, how do we structure our immigration policy so we don't have a situation where we have another 12 million illegal immigrants?

MARTIN: But going to Ali Noorani's point, I mean, isn't - don't we make policy based on these personal stories? Isn't the example of these stories exactly why you have policy? Isn't it that the way it really works?

KRIKORIAN: Well, I mean, sometimes it does, partly because these kind of anecdotes are, you know, media-genic and people like to listen to them. I get it. But...

MARTIN: And there are the other type of stories, too. There are people who are undocumented who go on and commit horrible crimes. And people say that's exactly why...


MARTIN: ...You know, and then people say, well, those are atypical, too.

KRIKORIAN: Yeah, but that's my point is that they are - they're both atypical in some sense. You don't make policy based either on Sirhan Sirhan or on...

MARTIN: Osiris Hoil.

KRIKORIAN: ...Osiris Hoil. You know what I mean? That's the concern. My broader concern here is that by, you know, typifying every immigrant as somehow comparable to this guy, we objectify them. We sort of turn them into, you know, a vitamin B shot for American society when they're people like anybody else. There's good. There's bad, and there's in-between.

MARTIN: Well, Ali, what about that point? If undocumented immigrants like Osiris Hoil are building lives here under the current law, why does the law need to change?

NOORANI: Well, I mean, he was lucky enough to marry - I'm assuming his wife...

MARTIN: Yes, he did.

NOORANI: ...Is a U.S. citizen who was able to adjust his status. There are a lot of people who don't have that opportunity. So, you know, while, you know - I would agree with Mark. We don't want to base an entire policy change on any one story. The fact is our immigration policy as a whole is undermining our economy. And if there is anything our economy needs, it is a vitamin B shot. And that's a fix to the immigration laws.

MARTIN: What about his point that he says that these individual stories objectify the individuals? It kind of makes immigrant - if I understand you point - is it him in particular as an individual story? You're saying the whole idea of kind of immigration as...

KRIKORIAN: Well, I mean, both. But, yes, you're right. The narrative as it's usually portrayed is that these kind of sympathetic guys tell us everything we need to know about immigrants, and then immigrants aren't really people. They're kind of things that we need for, you know - to benefit society.

MARTIN: Interesting. All right. Let's just take up that point. We need to take a short break. But when we come back, we're going to continue this conversation about this particular example and also the way forward on immigration reform. We're speaking with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies and Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum. We hope you'll stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.