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Q&A: Stanford Scholars On Immigration Reform

Publication Date: 
February 01, 2013
Stanford University News
Brooke Donald

Professors Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, Jayashri Srikantiah and Rock Center Fellow Vivek Wadhwa spoke with the Stanford Daily's Brooke Donald to discuss the latest efforts in Washington to overhauld the U.S. immigration system. 

A new effort is under way in Washington to revamp the nation's immigration system. The Stanford News Service asked scholars to offer their perspectives on the proposals. Each expert was asked a question based on his or her research and study of the topics at issue.


Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar is a professor at the Stanford Law School, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. His research focuses on migration, international security, administrative law and executive power.

One of the proposals put forth by a bipartisan group of senators would tie citizenship to increased border security. What's the history of that connection and why is it so contentious?

At least since passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that legalized over 1 million undocumented immigrants in 1986, policy makers have routinely told the public that border control is an important element of any effort to align immigration statutes with the realities of immigration to the United States.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, interest in border security only increased. In less than 20 years, Americans have gone from fielding fewer than 5,000 border patrol agents to more than 20,000.

The logic of border security seems to appeal intuitively to many voters, while the full range of complexities inherent in immigration policy are more opaque. Far less common, for example, is attention to the fact that more than a third of those who are undocumented immigrants become unlawful residents by arriving with documents and then overstaying their visas, or to the mixed messages about domestic compliance with immigration laws that allow large numbers of household and businesses to employ undocumented labor.

But if border security has become an important concern for lawmakers and some members of the public in recent decades, providing broad but carefully screened access to citizenship for long-term lawful residents has also been a long-term feature of our immigration laws.

If lawmakers approve legislation with so-called triggers, the details of the statute will determine whether the resulting provisions are realistic or whether they serve as a de facto, long-term impediment to the full regularization of millions of prospective immigrants who, according to the outline of the legislation, would have already paid a fine, learned English and otherwise complied with the law.

Jayashri Srikantiah is a professor at the Stanford Law School and director of the school's Immigrants' Rights Clinic. Her research focuses on immigration detention, deportation and human trafficking.

Beyond securing borders and providing pathways to citizenship, what other opportunities are presented in the proposals?

Comprehensive immigration reform means different things to different lawmakers. Several components are typically discussed, including increased enforcement, legalization for the undocumented and temporary (guest) worker programs.

One critical question is often overlooked in the public debate: Previous amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act removed discretion from immigration judges to consider the individual facts of each immigrant's case. The result has been the deportation of individuals with long-standing ties to family and community in the United States. The current reform effort presents an opportunity to restore discretion to immigration judges, and thereby add more individualized consideration of immigrants' cases.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at the Stanford Law School's Rock Center for Corporate Governance. He is author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent.

Why is immigration reform important for Silicon Valley?

Immigration reform is important for Silicon Valley because immigrants are what have given the Valley its dynamism, motivated its natives to work harder and think smarter, and to develop world-changing technologies. During the most innovative period in recent history – the Internet boom – they founded 52 percent of its companies. Sadly, our flawed immigration policies have been driving the world's best and brightest away from the U.S. and have been impacting the Valley's ability to innovate. It is imperative that we fix this problem, and fix this now.