Border fences, visas for gay partners and immigrants’ IQs are just some of the issues swirling around the debate over a bipartisan immigration bill. The measure would beef up border security, shift the mix of visas allotted and create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country. We explore the measure the Senate Judiciary Committee is debating.


  • Audrey Singer Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution
  • Patrick Weil Visiting Professor of Law, Yale Law School; Senior Research Fellow, University of Paris, Pantheon-Sarbonne; Author, "How to Be French: Nationality in the Making since 1789" (Duke)


  • 13:06:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, hunger strikes by prisoners, mere distractions or are we moved by them? But first border fences, visas for high tech workers and green cards for gay partners are just some of the issues swirling around the Senate immigration bill being debated today on Capitol Hill. The bipartisan gang of eight has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

  • 13:07:32

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe bill would tighten borders, shift the priorities for who gets visas to come here and provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. The Senate Judiciary Committee opened debate on the bill on Thursday and worked through the first batch of more than 300 proposed amendments fending off a Republican effort to require a 700-mile border fence before opening a path to citizenship for people who are already here.

  • 13:08:01

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe'll look at how the bill aims to shift the emphasis from family-based to employer-based visas and take a look at what the U.S. could learn from Europe's approach to immigration. Joining me in studio is Audrey Singer, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Audrey Singer, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:19

    MS. AUDREY SINGERAlways good to be here, thanks.

  • 13:08:20

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Paris is Patrick Weil, senior research fellow with the University of Paris, Sorbonne and visiting professor at Yale Law School. Patrick Weil, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:35

    MR. PATRICK WEILThank you.

  • 13:08:36

    NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation by giving us a call at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about the Senate immigration bill? Do you think it will get the support it needs to pass? 800-433-8850, you can send email to Audrey Singer, let's start with the big picture. How does the Senate immigration bill shift our focus from reuniting families to rewarding the skills that employers are looking for?

  • 13:09:07

    SINGERThere's a significant shift if this bill were to become law as it was written or even with some of the amendments we've already been through. And it's not a complete shift, but there will be more temporary visas available for both higher and lower-skilled workers and there will also be more green cards available for employment-based workers, but that doesn't preclude their family members from coming.

  • 13:09:39

    SINGERSo there will be a few things taken away and a few things added and it adds up to a greater emphasis on immigrants, both those who are here temporarily and those permanently who will -- who are better suited to our economic needs at this time and a little bit of a shift away from extended family members coming.

  • 13:10:03

    NNAMDIPatrick, the first day of debate on the bill last Thursday was dominated by amendments whose goal was to tighten security at the U.S. border with Mexico. What's your perspective on that effort and how do European countries handle this issue of border security?

  • 13:10:22

    WEILWell, you know, the best border security is a natural border. Water is the best border, for example, to protect the UK, which is mainly an island. And when you want to build a fence or a wall, I mean, it sends a message that I think will not be good for the future of the relations between neighboring countries.

  • 13:10:47

    WEILThe memory of wars in Europe is, of course, the wall that split Western Europe from Eastern Europe. And nobody thinks that we should have a wall now between Poland and Ukraine, which is at the border. Ukraine is not part of the EU, not part of the Schengen system where we have a -- which unifies Europe on immigration issues. And I think we have other techniques of managing migration control than building a wall.

  • 13:11:17

    NNAMDIAudrey, the immigration bill attempts to change the balance we mentioned earlier of who gets the visas to enter the country. Historically, the majority of visas have gone to people reuniting with family. You mentioned this change of emphasis before. Who benefits from this change of emphasis?

  • 13:11:35

    SINGERWell, in theory, the big benefit is to the United States as a whole...

  • 13:11:37

    NNAMDIThe economy?

  • 13:11:38

    SINGER...and the economy and the people that live here, both immigrants and the U.S. born population. I think what we're seeing is new avenues for employers to hire people that they are seeing in demand with a balance of protections for U.S. workers. So there's been a balancing act all along to make sure that this new, this increased emphasis on workers is responding to legitimate demands and also protecting U.S. workers.

  • 13:12:22

    NNAMDISpeaking of legitimate demands there's been a debate about whether there really is a so-called shortage of STEM workers, those people who have degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. How would the bill affect high-tech companies that want to hire foreign workers?

  • 13:12:39

    SINGERIt opens up a lot of new visas, probably doubling over a short period of time the number of temporary visas coming in on the H1B, which is for high-skilled STEM workers, those people that you just mentioned. And there are other specialty occupations that would come in without limitations for other occupations in the higher-skilled end.

  • 13:13:07

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this discussion on the debate on the immigration bill. Do you think we need to make it easier for highly-skilled workers to enter the country and stay here? 800-433-8850, you can send email to You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Audrey, at the other end of the skills spectrum, what does the bill do for farm workers and people who come to work in restaurants or in construction trades?

  • 13:13:36

    SINGERThere are going to be, if this bill becomes law, new provisions for agricultural workers that are very different from the ones we have now. The current system where people come temporarily for three years to work as farm workers will be sun-setted and that will be replaced by a new system that allows employers to bring in people for contract work and other temporary workers.

  • 13:14:11

    SINGERThat cap is now set in that bill over 100,000 workers per year and will be adjustable by the agriculture secretary. We don't know what the amendments will bring or whether this bill will become law, but that's for agricultural workers.

  • 13:14:25

    SINGERThere's also something called the W visa, which is a non-immigrant or a temporary worker visa as well and these are visas for three years for people who are working in lower-skilled occupations or that require little to medium preparation. You know, child care workers would fit under there, under that category, other health care professionals, some blue-collar-type workers in construction and other areas.

  • 13:14:58

    NNAMDIAudrey Singer is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. She joins us in studio. Patrick Weil is senior research fellow with the University of Paris, at the Sorbonne. He's also a visiting professor at Yale Law School. He joins us by phone from Paris.

  • 13:15:13

    NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. How important is it to grant visas that allow families to reunite in your view? 800-433-8850. Patrick, I wanted to get back to the issue that I talked with you about earlier about the wall or fence that's being asked to be constructed here.

  • 13:15:33

    NNAMDIYou mentioned the unhappy experiences in Europe with walls dividing Eastern and Western Europe. The bill here would provide $7 billion in funding for additional funding along 700 miles of the border and it is generally believed that when that bill goes from the Senate to the House there will be an even greater insistence on building that fence.

  • 13:15:58

    NNAMDIWhat do you see as the other practical disadvantages and well, psychological and diplomatic disadvantages of such a fence?

  • 13:16:08

    WEILYou know I think the bill continue the myth. You know, when the U.S. was created, you imported the structure of your immigration law from an island which is Great Britain. And an island is protected in terms of border by the sea. And people would come to the U.S. until 1942 by boat so you had even in the language of your immigration law, you speak about port of entry and you focus on the border.

  • 13:16:39

    WEILBetween France and Germany or between Germany and Poland, there is no natural borders so we control our borders through other means than building walls. For example, I think that when you are dealing with migration from neighboring countries, land-neighboring countries...

  • 13:16:59

    NNAMDIMexico, Canada...

  • 13:16:59 need to favor the possibility of going back and forth for short time period and we have developed in Europe, mutual-annual permits for seasonal workers. Let me give you an example. If you come from Ukraine and you go to Poland or to Germany, you can stay there six months and you can come back the following year and you can do it every year for three years.

  • 13:17:30

    WEILWe do that in France. It works very well and you don't need -- people are happy because they are sure to go back so they come back to their country. They don't stay illegally. I think the wall you are going to build will send a very bad message to Latin America, to Mexico and it will not work. So in 20 years from now, you will have to face another round of negotiations with the same kind of issues you are dealing with today.

  • 13:18:01

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Kathy in Bethesda, Md. Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:08

    KATHYYes, I think official data -- I'm not sure of the exact numbers, but I think about a third of the U.S. graduates in science can't get jobs in STEM fields and, you know, the other odd thing is that we're going to get all these innovators from abroad. That's another myth, I think. I think the fraction of innovators is very, very miniscule.

  • 13:18:33

    KATHYI think what they're really looking for is cheap labor and I think maybe it's about time U.S. policy focused on helping U.S. citizens.

  • 13:18:43

    NNAMDIAudrey Singer, Kathy seems to feel that this is the requirement or the desire to have workers in so-called STEM workers is really just a façade for trying to get STEM workers who work less expensively than U.S. workers. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:19:03

    SINGERSure, just the big picture first. The U.S. is part of a global economy which has become much more competitive since the last time we changed our immigration laws in a big way in 1990. The U.S. economy has changed. The world economy is, you know, particularly big developing countries like India and China have become much more competitive.

  • 13:19:29

    SINGERSo the U.S. is in a position now where we have to think very carefully about our future and our economic future and that's one of the main pushes for bringing in more highly-skilled workers. The second is that we're training a lot of foreign students in the U.S.

  • 13:19:47

    SINGERAbout three-quarters of a million are here right now. And it's viewed as a loss to train them, to educate them, to give them degrees, give them some training. Maybe they get a temporary work visa and then send them off to somewhere else to make their fortune there. So those are some strong arguments about why we need to change the mix. There are other strong arguments on the other side. Some of them have to do with the fact that we train a lot of people in these fields. And they, for whatever reason, don't go into those fields. It may be their choice. It may be trouble finding a job in their area. It may be that they don't have the same kind of mobility that those who don't have roots here have in making a choice about where to have a job.

  • 13:20:33

    SINGERSo we set national policy but immigration and its effects play out at the regional and local level. And one of the interesting things about this proposed bill is there would be some kind of scheme -- I don't mean scheme but bureau or mechanism for a body of experts to understand better through data sources, through research, and how these visas affect our economy. What kinds of changes we should make.

  • 13:21:12

    SINGERAnd the idea here is that we should have more flexibility in terms of the kinds of workers we bring in, the amount of people that we bring in and that it should be a more nimble system along the way, as opposed to changing our laws every 20 years or so.

  • 13:21:29

    NNAMDIWe have two more callers about that. I'll take them immediately one after the other. Kathy, thank you for your call. First I'll go to Mike in Washington, D.C. Mike, your turn.

  • 13:21:39

    MIKEGood afternoon, Kojo. Big fan of the show.

  • 13:21:42

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:21:44

    MIKESo my question ties in a little bit to the previous caller's about emphasizing U.S. students. A lot of the people who come learn in our great institutions and then travel back to their home countries. So in what ways does this bill try to keep them here so their knowledge benefits the American economy?

  • 13:22:07

    NNAMDIOkay. Hold on a second Mike so you can hear exactly what Peggy in Washington, D.C. has to say on the same topic. Peggy, your turn.

  • 13:22:15

    PEGGYHi. Every time Obama talks about immigration, he always talks about giving almost automatic green cards to foreign students who have gotten an advanced degree, that's an MA or an MS or a PhD in the stem fields. I do not see that in the bill, which I've pretty much read. So is that part of it, the automatic green card for foreign students?

  • 13:22:42

    NNAMDIDo you know, Audrey Singer?

  • 13:22:43

    SINGERI don't think that there's anything automatic in this bill. There -- just to sum up those two questions on retention of foreign students, there already are several mechanisms that are in place right now. We offer optional professional training to foreign students for a period of time. I can't remember off the top of my head if that's going to be extended, you know, under these provisions.

  • 13:23:11

    SINGERWe also have mechanisms to move people from a temporary status of student to temporary worker status, usually through the H1B. So there are a couple of things that are related to that that are in play right now.

  • 13:23:31

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Peggy. And thank you very much for your call, Mike. Patrick, you've said the best immigration policies address the will of the people who want to come into this country. Can you explain what you mean by that?

  • 13:23:49

    WEILYes. I think a lot of the skilled workers you get through student visa want to stay in the U.S. and that's fine. It's great to give them the possibility of staying. But some of them would like to go back to their country and back and forth and in the U.S. And it's the same Europe, you know. There's people who want to keep contact connection with their country of origin, sometimes via business between the countries, which in fact favor the U.S. or Europe. And/or families don't favor circulation, you know.

  • 13:24:20

    WEILAnd I think the future -- because now, you know, we are competing. Europe, 20 years ago, didn't want to get (word?) . Now all European countries want to get the (word?) . So the U.S. is competing with all European countries, with Australia, with Canada. And we are all competing. And we need to feel of the consequence of that for the poorest country of the world. We don't want them to fall in the hands of radicals of different kinds. We need them to be democratic and to have a middle class and an elite class.

  • 13:24:59

    WEILSo we have to let the high skilled we have trained to let them be able to circulate and to deadlock the skill they learn in the U.S. or in Europe in their country of origin.

  • 13:25:15

    NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly, Audrey Singer. If this bill eventually passes more or less as proposed, what do you think our immigration system would like ten years from now?

  • 13:25:25

    SINGERTen years from now we'd have a large number of people who legalized under various provisions in the bill. Those who are the so-called dreamers would be one group. Those are people who came here as children and have been living without status, agricultural workers who are another big group, and then the rest of primarily adults who are here without status. That would be one big change. A shift, as we've been talking about, to more employment-based, more economically suitable visas would shift the composition of immigrants in the U.S.

  • 13:26:06

    SINGERWe haven't talked about the visas that are going away, including some of the family and the diversity visa.

  • 13:26:12

    NNAMDIThe diversity visas, the congressional black caucuses are as opposed to those going away because a lot of those diversity visas go to people who are from smaller countries in Africa and the Caribbean and the congressional black caucuses. If they're going away then that's a nonstarter for them.

  • 13:26:29

    SINGERThat's right. And so the latest data that I saw was from 2011. About 48 percent of all of the 55,000 diversity visas went to Africans in that year. So we'll see some shifts to country of origin things. But we're also seeing a lifting of caps for certain -- for the employment-based visa, which means that will open up a lot of people who are in the backlogs. There's going to be a backlog reduction program that would bring in people who have been waiting in line for long periods of time, both family and worker visas that are held up for certain countries.

  • 13:27:12

    SINGERFor family visas it's the Philippines and Mexico. Those people have been waiting in long lines for work visas, India and China. So kind of getting back to the earlier questions, we do see more openings for stem workers, for stem students, for people in those higher skilled areas. And that would change a lot too.

  • 13:27:35

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Audrey Singer is senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Patrick Weil is senior research fellow with the University of Paris at the Sarbonne. He's visiting professor at Yale Law School. Thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, hunger strikes by prisoners, are they mere distractions or are we and, I guess more importantly, policymakers moved by them? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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