2013 Emma Lazarus Lecture on Rethinking Immigration Reform: Shifting to Human Rights

2013 Emma Lazarus Lecture on Rethinking Immigration Reform: Shifting to Human Rights

With Jagdish Bhagwati, University Professor, Economics, Law, and International Affairs, Columbia University
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
6:00 pm
Contact: Geraldine, 212-854-0049

On November 12, 2013, Economics, Law, and International Affairs Professor Jagdish Bhagwati presented the 2013 Emma Lazarus Lecture. Columbia University Provost John Coatsworth welcomed guests, and discussants included New York University Professor of Sociology Guillermina Jasso and Temple University Professor of Law Peter Spiro. The event was hosted by Columbia Law School and the Center on Global Economic Governance (CGEG) at Columbia | SIPA.        

“Instead of being driven by pursuit of the impossible, that is, an America free of illegal immigrants, we need to accept the reality that they will always be in our midst. Treating them with humanity is the shift in focus that is now required,” Professor Jagdish Bhagwati asserted. According to him, recent efforts at passing the proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation will not end illegal entry. “As long as immigration restrictions remain in force, illegal entry will persist”, he said.

First, Dr. Bhagwati gave a historical context: “Pro-immigration politicians have been forced into draconian measures that have made matters worse for illegal immigrants. Thus, President Clinton militarized the border, driving illegal immigrants into crossing the desert and risking their lives. President Obama has overseen the highest-ever number of deportations. None of this has served to reduce the number of illegal immigrants in a significant way”.

Professor Guillermina Jasso, co- author of The New Chosen People: Immigrants in the United States, praised Bhagwati’s reasoning about how illegality is endemic to restriction. “55 percent of people who get green cards are already living in the U.S.”, Jasso pointed out. She presented statistics on the leading origin countries of all immigrants in 2012, with Mexico accounting for 14.2 percent, followed by China (7.9 percent), India (6.4 percent), Philippines (5.6 percent), and Dominican Republic (4 percent). Furthermore, the majority of visa recipients are female (54.7 percent in 2010), and young (33.2 percent under 25 years old in 2012).

Finally, Peter Spiro, author of Beyond Citizenship: American Identity after Globalization joined the discussion: “Post-nationalism is characterized by the incapacity of the states to control their borders. Federal policy on undocumented immigrants is inhumane and unfixable. The Federal government —even in the hands of Democrats— is capable of great cruelties.” From Spiro’s perspective, the more promising vehicle for advancing rights is through competition among states. “State level action in the context of immigration can be a constructive force”, he said when talking about the advantages of region-based visas.

The discussants agreed that even if immigration reform managed to get through Congress, it would do little to stem illegal immigration. “Borders are beyond control, so controlling the border is not a valid option, treating people with humanity is” Dr. Bhagwati concluded. Their recommendation for policymakers is to shift their focus to a bottom-up approach: letting states compete for illegal immigrants.

Along the theme of this lecture, Professor Bhagwati feautured an op-ed with Francisco Riviera-Batiz at the Los Angeles Times titled On immigration, look at the states: The nation needs a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach to reform.


Co-Sponsored by the Columbia Law School