Immigration reform is not a zero-sum game | Opinion

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently joined former Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President and CEO Richard Fisher in discussing America’s immigration system. In a conversation with George W. Bush Institute Executive Director Holly Kuzmich, the pair explained what immigration reform might look like.

Question: Immigrants are key drivers of our economic growth. But it doesn’t seem like public sentiment is there to reform our immigration system. How do we overcome that?

Jeb Bush: The first thing is to solve the problems that people feel about immigration, which is that the rule of law is being violated. You need to make sure that illegal immigration is contained, and that you have a serious plan to deal with the large numbers of people who are here illegally because they have overstayed their legal visa.

This year, 60 percent of all illegal immigrants will be in that category. A great country should know who those folks are and figure out how to deal with them. Legal immigrants are to be respected and not put under the same net as the folks that come here illegally.


Secondly, you deal with border security issues and verify those things are important. There’s good work being done on that front, but it’s hard to measure enforcement. The numbers of people being caught often goes down, which means you’re doing your job better.

It’s hard to make that case but those who want broad-based immigration reform so it can sustain economic growth need to make a compelling case. Clearly, the president and the administration are going to expect and demand that, and I think Americans will want that as well.

But once you get beyond that, you can see that the legal immigration system can provide huge opportunities for sustained economic growth. You have to advocate for this, defend this, and advance it.

Right now, those on the side of reform are timid rather than being bold. They’re fearful of the tweets and the anger. We need to assuage people’s fears and then offer hope that this is not a zero-sum game, that high-sustained economic growth will benefit everybody.

It’s there to be done. And who knows? I mean, (Richard) Nixon went to China. Maybe (Donald) Trump is the immigration reform guy. A girl can dream here and that’s what I’m gonna do.

Richard Fisher: When I was at the Dallas Fed, I always said that I would talk about the economics of immigration, but I am not going to get involved in the emotional side of this debate. I am the child of immigrants. Of course, we are all the children, grandchildren or descendants of immigrants.

This issue is going to be joined by the reconstruction of Houston and California. You cannot build Houston without Mexican labor. You cannot rebuild those homes in California without Mexican labor.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reports that before Hurricane Harvey, there were 587,000 temporary and perhaps illegal Mexicans living in Houston. The estimate now is that it will take a million Mexicans to rebuild Houston.

These are our southern neighbors. We want a prosperous Mexico. We need to be very careful about this business of immigration, the wall, and tearing NAFTA apart. We need to think about the signal that the wall sends, and how it is done.

We do need security. But we have 120 million people living south of our border. If we keep poking Mexico with a stick, their next president could be Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an extreme left-winger.

I don’t want Venezuela on my southern border. That would threaten my security, and that of my children and grandchildren. So, I hope we’re going to be very thoughtful. We need immigrant labor. We cannot build without them. They take certain jobs that nobody else has wanted to take in our country.

From a legal status viewpoint, we obviously have to make sure we have the right kind of people coming in. We need to give them incentives to come legally. But we cannot propel our economy without immigration.

Jeb Bush: The solution is a guest worker program that exists based on demand and that ebbs and flows based upon our economic needs. We’ve had that in the past. Other countries have it. The Canadian immigration model is the one probably to emulate.

The other point about immigration is that we’re becoming a nation of tribes. We’re really righteous in our own beliefs these days. We get our news all from the same source and it’s just validating how smart and right we are. This makes us less tolerant of other people who are on the other team, whatever team that is.

What has sustained the American experiment is a set of shared values. Immigrants can play a constructive role in reminding us of them.

But there has to be a contract if you come to this country. You embrace American values. You learn our history. You learn English. You aspire to greatness. You achieve earned success. You are tolerant of other people. You allow people to express their faith as they see fit.

If we politely require this, immigrants will embrace those things that are part of our heritage. They will remind us of the power of our values. Many Americans have lost sense of a shared set of values.

This also would lessen people’s fears and angst about a changing culture. We don’t have to change who we are as Americans.

Most immigrants totally understand this. And to allow them to embrace these values gives real energy for our country. Civics education. Being proud of our heritage. Honoring the flag and the institutions that have created the greatness of this country. We should redouble our efforts to embrace these. We should do this with respect, not in a jingoistic way, and encourage everybody else to embrace this as well.

This interview appeared in the winter edition of “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.” This is distributed by

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