MOUNT DESERT — Welcoming people from other countries has always been one of America’s greatest strengths, a part of its “secret sauce,” a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service told Acadia Senior College members at the Northeast Harbor Library last Thursday.
But Doris Meissner said immigration isn’t seen that way by some members of society “who feel left behind and to whom leaders do not explain why it is taking place, why it serves our interests, and what we need to do to regulate and manage it in a way that is not chaotic.”
She said the resulting anger and frustration is largely responsible for the candidacy of Donald Trump.
“This is chickens coming home to roost,” she said. “[Trump] has based an entire presidential race on the critique of immigration because we haven’t tended to our knitting. We know, as a policy matter, what the answers are, but our political system is completely locked and paralyzed … .”
She said a large majority of Americans are in favor of giving the estimated 11 million people who are currently in the country illegally the opportunity to achieve legal status
“But you can’t do that without legislation,” Meissner said. “Until we crack through the legislative impasse, we’re going to continue to be in a very bad place as a country.”
She said that since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States has made massive investments in immigration enforcement that “have fundamentally kept us safe.”
She said three-quarters of the $19 billion the government spends on immigration enforcement each year is focused on the U.S.-Mexico border, even though that is “not a place of vulnerability for terrorism.”
“But it has become equated with vulnerability to threat and is completely misunderstood in the public debate. The idea that people are stealing into this country in willy-nilly fashion, taking us over, is belied by the facts.”
One of those facts, she said, is that “large-scale illegal immigration from Mexico is over.”
“We now have more people returning to Mexico from the United States than are coming here from Mexico. But, of course, you would never know that from our political discourse.”
Meissner served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993-2000. She is now senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program of the Migration Policy Institute.
She said that prior to 9/11, immigration officials were treated as only “bit players” in the country’s national security apparatus and that even the government agencies that had a direct role in national security didn’t talk to each other. She said all that has changed with the post-9/11 integration of the government’s databases.
“This is an example, to me, of the amazingly fast shift in the public mind,” she said. “Before 9/11 we had this basic outlook that the government should not be sharing information across agencies because that could lead the government to be oppressive and violate our rights.
“That argument is still out there, but as a practical matter, our public attitudes about the government’s responsibility to protect us … has shifted very quickly out of fear of an outside threat as compared to a fear of what our own government might do to us.”
Meissner emphasized that she believes America’s continuing acceptance of immigrants is “one of the great comparative advantages that we have as a country.” And despite the problems with the current system, she said, “the United States still does immigration better than any other country.”