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Education, jobs called keys to dealing with immigration to U.S.

STANFORD -- The United States must make a commitment to quality education for all of its citizens if it is to deal effectively with immigration in the 20th and 21st centuries, said panelists at a Sept. 29 Stanford University centennial roundtable on "Crossing the Borders: Peoples and Cultures in Motion."

The country must decide, said Henry Cisneros, former four- time mayor of San Antonio, "whether we believe that investing in education is the highest priority for our national security and our future." In addition, he said, taxpayers must decide whether to make that investment in a school population that is increasingly made up of ethnic minorities, many of whom do not speak English as their native language.

The creation of jobs to meet the needs of a growing population depends on a "more educated, better prepared work force than we now have," said Doris Meissner, the senior associate and director of the Immigration Policy Project for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"We are not turning out people from our public school system who can fill jobs that will allow us to compete economically," Meissner said.

Where will the jobs come from? asked Joaquin Otero, international vice president for the Transportation Communications Union. As someone who was born in Cuba and who immigrated to the United States when he was 20, Otero said he favors the principle that America must remain a nation open to immigrants.

But, he said, unless "we have a society that cares about whether every American has a job," illegal immigrants in particular will be subject to exploitation by employers who force them to accept low wages under threat of being reported and deported if they complain.

Cisneros said that the free-trade agreement between the United States and Mexico could reduce migration by creating more jobs in Mexico. But Otero countered that the establishment since the mid-1960s of U.S. factories in Mexican border cities has not slowed emigration.

In response to a question from moderator Tom Brokaw, anchor of the "NBC Nightly News," about whether an increasingly diverse U.S. population might fragment along ethnic and cultural lines in the 21st century, David Kennedy, Coe Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford, said that is a "distinct possibility."

There used to be an assumption that "all immigrant groups would somehow or other assimilate themselves into a larger society. For a variety of political, cultural and demographic reasons, that is no longer an ideal with which we are terribly comfortable in this society."

Kennedy said that, on one hand, he finds this a wonderful development in that it encourages the preservation of a cultural, ethnic and racial variety. But on the other hand, "We don't have many well- documented experiences of societies organized in that way that managed to conduct their affairs in a peaceful, civil fashion over a long period of time. Usually the fissures that develop in societies develop precisely along ethnic lines."

Author Bette Bao Lord said she feels no pressure to choose only one identity. "I can be an American and I can be Chinese," she said.

But, she said, she believes that the preservation of ethnic and cultural traditions should be the job of families, communities and churches, rather than the job of the government. "I would rather have the government spend money on teaching every American to be proficient in the English language," she said.

In a global look at migration, Patricia Weiss Fagen, senior public information officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the world is becoming more nomadic. This movement of peoples is driven less by free choice, she said, and more by the pressures of war and economic and environmental devastation.

While she is the last person to defend policies restricting the free movement of people, she said, "You can't have three-quarters of the world's population all trying to go to one-quarter of the world's area." More attention has to be paid to improving conditions in the countries that so many are fleeing, so that those who want to stay will be able to do so.


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