Immigration 101: Understanding the Journey to Citizenship

with Mario H. Lopez of the Hispanic Leadership Fund

According to the Pew Research Center, 10.5 million undocumented immigrants resided in the United States in 2017.

Mario H. Lopez, President of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, provides an in-depth look at the legal immigration process, and discusses solutions to border security.

Posted on:

Aug 29, 2019

Hosted by: Nathalia Ortiz
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Ortiz: Immigration has been a controversial issue for decades. It's a hot-button topic that can spark intense debate. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Nathalia Ortiz. Joining me for discussion about the legal immigration process is Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund. Mario, welcome.

Lopez: Thanks, Nathalia. Thanks for having me.

Ortiz: Thank you. The system for legal immigration is cumbersome. That's not a secret. You've described -- your organization has described it, taking 7 to 20 years to immigrate legally to the United States. Talk to us -- break that down. What does that process look like? Why so long?

Lopez: Sure. Well, we have these different, artificially imposed government categories that have been around, many for years and years. Some of these, they have quota systems in the different categories. These visas disappear sometimes within minutes of being made available, so you have areas where you have 50,000 visas for certain types of jobs in certain sectors, and they're gone right away. So what happens is these government-imposed limits create a system where the legal process is disincentivized.] People are disincentivized from using that process because of the lack of availability, and so that fuels illegal immigration. And while we -- you know, that doesn't necessarily excuse what individual people might do, it creates this problem where we have more people coming illegally than anyone really wants.

Ortiz: Mario, how has the immigration process or the legal immigration process, let's say, changed from the 20th to the 21st Century?

Lopez: Well, it hasn't, really, and that's the problem.
Ortiz: All right, let's go with that.

Lopez: We need a system that reflects the needs of our economy, the needs of the country for the 21st Century for the types of jobs we're gonna have, the types of industries that are blooming, so that is low-skilled and high-skilled, in both areas. And I think that that's part of what we've been advocating for for such a long time. And that's what, I think, policymakers really need to focus on if they want to actually solve this issue. Ortiz: But wouldn't you agree that with the Hispanic population specifically, the high-skilled jobs are more appealing now to people who perhaps before or decades before from the Hispanic countries were coming just to fill the lower-skill jobs?

Lopez: Right, right, and that's, you know, again, we're transitioning into this economy. There's gonna be automation and robots and things happening in the 21st Century, and so we need a workforce that reflects all of those realities. But I do think that low-skilled workers shouldn't necessarily be pushed to one side because there's -- what people sometimes call low-skilled is actually very high-skilled in other areas. I couldn't do a lot of the work that some of these so-called low-skill workers do, and so our economy needs all of that.

Ortiz: I agree, and actually, I think -- I want you to talk to me about guest worker programs, which were much more common in the 1960s, and why are they not as common now? What can we do, if anything, to reinstate them? What do you recommend?

Lopez: Right. Well, this is an interesting point because when we had a guest worker program in the '60s, called the Bracero Program, and one of the main ways that the Border Patrol kind of tracks illegal entries is by a metric of illegal apprehensions. So you can extrapolate from that how many people are coming.

Ortiz: Sure.

Lopez: When we had that, illegal apprehensions at the border dropped 90%.

Ortiz: When we had the guest worker program?

Lopez: When we had the guest worker program from one year to the next. Illegal crossings dropped 90%, which is an amazing statistic. What it proves is that when you give people legal avenues to come that don't take 7 to 20 years, then people will avail themselves of that, and we will be better off because we will know who people are. We'll be able to vet them, and we'll have less people crossing illegally who are just trying to come to work. And our security at the border can focus on people who may not have those good intentions, may have other intentions.

Ortiz: So then -- I hate to focus just on this, but it seems like it's a win-win. So then why isn't it around anymore? Why aren't these guest worker programs around?

Lopez: Well, unfortunately, labor unions killed that guest worker program for fear of competition. I think it's interesting that some of those dynamics have shifted a little bit in recent years, but that's essentially why. Now, why we can't have something like that now is because, unfortunately, both parties here in Washington and elsewhere just are not in a mood to compromise, it seems, in recent times.

Ortiz: Okay.

Lopez: And so that's what you kind of need, I think.

Ortiz: Okay, I want you to explain the concept of patriotic assimilation, which you have referenced in some of your literature. What does that mean, patriotic assimilation?

Lopez: Sure. Well, we are very pro-immigration. We want people to come to the United States. We think that it's been -- immigration has been part of America's secret sauce throughout history.

Ortiz: I like that word. [ Laughs ] Yeah.

Lopez: People come here, and they're motivated to work. They're motivated to succeed, and they do that. create a better life for themselves and their families. It's the American dream. And what we want to see is, we think there's no shame in informing people of that history and educating immigrants who come here about the beauty of the constitution and the Declaration of Independence and what it means to be an American and what it means to have inalienable rights and all those sorts of important bedrock principles that have helped shape our country, as well.

Ortiz: Thank you, Mario Lopez, from the Hispanic Leadership Fund, and thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I'm Nathalia Ortiz.

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