For Sergio Wals, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the November 2016 presidential election is far more than a topic of academic interest.
Wals, an immigrant from Mexico who studies the political attitudes of Latin American immigrants to the United States, will be voting for the first time after becoming a U.S. citizen in July.
Wals moved to the United States in 2004 after receiving a full scholarship for graduate studies at the University of Illinois. He gained legal residence in 2010 after joining the Nebraska faculty. After he qualified for citizenship last spring, he noted the irony of his needing to pass a civics exam to gain citizenship when he’s made it his career to teach civics to American students at a public university.
“When I first came to the United States, I actually wasn’t thinking about staying, but I fell in love with this country and my life has changed a great deal since I got here,” he said. “But the law didn’t allow me to do it in an easy way. I did everything by the books and it’s taken me 12 years to become a citizen.”
Immigration, one of the biggest issues in this year’s presidential race, is poorly understood in part because it’s been politicized from both sides of the aisle, he said.
“I’ve said this publicly many times: Immigration is not a problem in and of itself. Strategic politicians make an issue of it so they can present themselves as the solution,” he said.
Today’s leaders should take their cues from Ronald Reagan – the last president to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants – and adopt a more pragmatic and less ideological approach to the issue, he said. Wals said he believes political compromise will provide the solution for the nation’s immigration discussion, with neither “get-tough” nor “go-soft” policies providing a complete answer.
“I for one am tired of solutions that are not solutions,” he said. “I don’t think either Republicans or Democrats have done this right and I just hope that comes to an end, soon.”
Here are some of his thoughts on key questions in the immigration debate:
A path to citizenship?
Those who oppose offering citizenship to undocumented immigrants fail to recognize that not all immigrants want to become citizens, Wals said.
“Surveys have shown that, among eligible first-generation Mexican immigrants, roughly only one in three want to take the path to citizenship,” Wals said. “To fight over something that a good portion of them don’t even want is another instance of strategic politicians creating a problem where it doesn’t exist and presenting themselves as a solution to it.”
Keeping out terrorists?
National security has to be considered in immigration policy, Wals said.
“It’s one basic premise why we have government in the first place, to maintain civil order and protect borders from potential attack,” he said. “In an age of ISIS and fears that terrorists may sneak into the U.S., we need to make sure our processes really help us ensure that people are coming here for the right reasons.
“But we have to recognize two things: First, when we’ve suffered attacks, it’s not been at the hands of undocumented immigrants. Those attackers went through the hoops and we failed to recognize the threat. Second, sealing one of our two major borders is not going to solve the problem. Are you telling me if someone wants to harm us and we seal our southern border tight, they’re not smart enough to try the northern border, which is twice as long and far more porous?”
A path to legalization is necessary so that people already in the country illegally will feel safe to come forward for background checks, Wals said.
Wals paid $680 to apply for citizenship, not including attorneys’ fees. He said he thinks it’s a bad idea to waive application fees.
“I took pride when I wrote that check. I saved for it,” he said. “Plus, many citizens don’t realize that the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services is one of a few federal agencies that work without tax dollars. The fees immigrants pay for different services actually makes these very efficient institutions run effectively and without burden to the American public. They do tremendous work and they work without spending taxpayers’ money.”
One “get-tough” policy – imposing a stiff fine on undocumented workers before regularizing their status – rarely is discussed, though surveys have shown a significant portion of immigrants would pay a fine to gain legal status.
“You have all these candidates trying to look tough, or even on the other side, going very soft, with solutions that don’t seem to be realistic. Yet you have 10 to 12 million people who would pay a fine. If they are fined $1,000 each that would generate $10 to $12 billion that could be invested for economic growth in communities coping with significant immigrant populations.”
An official language?
Communities could provide new immigrants opportunities to learn English, not because it’s patriotic but because it’s the path to economic mobility.
“When people haven’t learned English, it’s not because they don’t want to learn English – it’s because they’re too busy with two or three jobs that they don’t have time to attend classes for English as a second language and they don’t have money to spare for classes. We need community-based efforts to help them. Legal status won’t necessarily make them feel allegiance to our values, our society should help them follow that path.”
New immigrants will add to Democrats’ base?
Wals said neither party should make assumptions about how immigrants from Mexico might vote. His 2013 study showed that first generation immigrants who lean right are more interested in participating in U.S. elections as soon as they are able.
“This should be a warning for Democrats and a message of hope for the Republicans,” Wals said.