If there is one thing on which Republicans and Democrats can agree these days, it’s that the country’s current system of immigration isn’t working. However, the parties seem too polarized to work together to fix the system.
Kristie De Peña, the Niskanen Center’s vice president for policy and director of immigration policy, believes that the parties can still find common ground. She recently coauthored a New York Times op-ed pointing out that even some very conservative lawmakers have recognized a need for some level of immigration to address severe labor shortages in the Midwest and other parts of the country. This once was a relatively uncontroversial position within the Republican Party. President Ronald Reagan, for example, emphasized America’s tradition of sheltering people fleeing oppression and the importance of offering immigrants to this country a pathway to citizenship. But even now, as Kristie and her coauthors underline, there are ways that red and blue states can lead in welcoming refugees. She adds, “Democratic and Republican governors should also have the opportunity to weigh in on the specific needs of small business manufacturers and families.”
In this wide-ranging podcast discussion, Kristie De Peña discusses the origins of the Niskanen Center, the ways in which the U.S. immigration system has become outmoded, and the channels through which policy can progress in a divided Washington. The memories of the big immigration reform efforts from earlier decades may need to be “[sent] off on a Viking funeral into the night.” Instead, “we need to start talking about not only [the demands for reform] now…but what does migration looks like in this hemisphere…in the next 10 or 20 years?”
Kristie De Peña: And we need to start thinking about it in terms of what Mexico, the United States, and Canada can do jointly to not only share in the responsibility of some of these bigger mass migration movements, but also capitalizing on the skills and culture that some of these folks are bringing from different parts of the world.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to The Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m delighted to be joined today by my colleague Kristie De Peña. She is the vice president for policy and director of immigration policy at Niskanen. And like many other larger-than-life political personalities in this town, she is also known by her initials as KDP — and in fact her Twitter handle is @kdpindc. Welcome, Kristie!
Kristie De Peña: Thank you so much for having me. I am, of course, an avid listener of The Vital Center, and I always learn something from you, Geoff, which I email you about often. And I always learn from your esteemed guests, so I hope to be as informative a speaker as they have been before me.
Geoff Kabaservice: I am sure you will be. I should add that you are in the process of returning to D.C…
Kristie De Peña: That’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: …but at this present moment, you are in the Denver, Colorado area, which I understand had an epic amount of snowfall this winter.
Kristie De Peña: Yes. It’s been glorious if you are in the mountains, less so if you live in the city.
Geoff Kabaservice: Ha, okay. I wanted to invite you on the program, Kristie, partly to say congratulations on your op-ed on the need for immigration reform that appeared in the New York Times just a few weeks ago. But this month also marks the two-year anniversary of this Vital Center podcast. And as you know, I was on C-SPAN over the weekend talking (or attempting to talk) about the podcast as well as the Niskanen Center more generally. And since you are coming up on seven years with the organization, and because you play such a key role in defining and shaping Niskanen’s mission and composition, I really wanted to get your perspective at the start of this new year and the new Congress. So can you tell me something, first, about your background, education, and the path that led you to Niskanen?
Kristie De Peña: Sure. I always think that one of the best parts about your podcast, Geoff, is learning something personal about the speakers, but I have always found that talking about myself as a person is extremely difficult. But I’ll do my best. So I’m from a small town in south Texas, Corpus Christi, and I spent some years there and just outside of Houston in a small suburb called Spring, Texas — which is no longer small. But primarily I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in a very little town called Quakertown, which almost no one will know unless they’ve been on the PA Turnpike and seen the exit — which is how almost everybody I ever meet knows of Quakertown.
I grew up in a pretty Republican household, but I really didn’t start thinking about politics until I was in college, and at that point there were a lot of things going on. The first time I was able to vote, I voted in George Bush’s reelection. I started getting involved in campaigns. I worked for John McCain’s campaign in 2008. I helped run the Iowa caucuses at that time. I got really involved in Iowa politics because at the time I was going to law school at the University of Iowa. And at the same time, all of these things were happening at the intersection of immigration law and national security law, in the legal space, and I was learning about all of these new constitutional cases that were coming up. And I kept looking for authorities that were talking about immigration with the lens of national and domestic security, as it was pretty rapidly changing at that point.
From there, I knew that I wanted to focus more on that intersection of national security law and immigration, and that’s what led me to go to George Washington University’s Law School. I went and got an LL.M. in National Security and Foreign Policy there, and I was thrilled to learn under a bunch of really incredibly smart professors, many of whom were counsel in some of these cases that were going in front of the Supreme Court at the time. So I got a lot of context about what these cases were really about, and more importantly the people that they were about — not just the policies that were coming out of some of these cases and the law, but really the people that were behind some of them.
And as I was thinking about what to do next… A lot of my cohorts in the same program were going to the CIA or the FBI or the Department of State, and I was very seriously considering some of those options. But by chance I had a friend reach out and say, “I know about your interest in immigration law and national security, and there’s this really interesting think tank that just started, and I think you might be able to explore a little bit more of the law and policy there.” So the rest is history. I’ve been at the Niskanen Center since then.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s terrific. So you worked for people like John McCain who were very concerned to try to bring about some kind of immigration reform and were working at that on the Republican side.
Kristie De Peña: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: Did your interest in immigration come about because of the things you were studying in law school or were there other reasons behind your interest in this field?
Kristie De Peña: It’s a good question. A lot of it really did come from law school. I have just always been really interested in immigration law at large. But I also come from a family of immigrants, like many Americans. My grandfather was a first-generation American. His father immigrated from Mexico; he was a shoemaker. And my grandfather, very famously, would always talk about why he wanted to become a lawyer and then a judge, which was that he wanted to buy and eat ham at any point that he wanted. That was his dream. So he ended up being the first Hispanic judge in Nueces County, which is Corpus Christi. He held that position, I think, for close to 30 years. So I think a lot of his stories and the information that I heard from him trickled down in the background of my more academic pursuits.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s a terrific origin story, Kristie. Speaking of origin stories, my understanding is that Niskanen’s founder, Jerry Taylor, was for many years employed by the libertarian Cato Institute, another think tank here in D.C. And he was, in effect, their director in charge of climate change denialism. But after, I guess, almost two decades in that role, he had a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion and realized that, actually, climate change was real and caused by humans, and that the science documenting this was overwhelmingly accurate. This conversion led him in short order to be expelled from Cato, and he created the Niskanen Center with a few other former Cato employees who shared his heretical position on climate change. Does that sound about right to you?
Kristie De Peña: I think so, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: So in my C-SPAN interview, I was asked about why our center has its name, and I was able to remember that the late William Niskanen was an economist who was the longtime chairman of Cato’s board of directors. So I guess he had that personal connection to the center’s founders. He also was an architect of Republican president Ronald Reagan’s economic program. But I think that just mentioning that the Niskanen Center was founded by former libertarians and named for a Reagan-era economist gives maybe a somewhat misleading idea of what we stand for now and how we go about it in our think tank work. So how would you characterize what Niskanen is?
Kristie De Peña: It’s a great question, and it’s one that I think is an evolving question. I think that in the initial year of Niskanen’s founding, it was more libertarian-leaning. It looked a little bit more like Cato. But I think in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, it became a little bit different. It became sort of a home for a lot of folks who felt like the Republican Party, and in particular President Trump at the time, was no longer reflective of the ideas that they thought were a good counterbalance to the ideas and the policies coming out of the Democratic Party.
So if you look at the Niskanen website, you see messages like “the war on ideas” or this idea about “what we believe” — because at the time it was very reflective of Niskanen looking for new roots, a new party to align with. And I think that we’ve sort of shifted since then — in a way that the Republican Party has continued to shift, but in ways that we don’t always support. But I think what really makes Niskanen stand out these days is not that anything has changed about the challenges that we see. I think I can speak accurately for Jerry and Joe Coon when they were thinking about what policy departments to have at Niskanen — they really wanted to tackle the most daunting challenges of the 21st century. And that hasn’t changed for Niskanen, but I think our approach to changing some of that has, in several different ways.
We talk about transpartisanship a lot which means, for a lot of people, this kind of oatmeal-flavored, split-the-difference policymaking compromise. I would argue that it is something completely different. I think that it is really looking at the best ideas from the left, the best ideas from the right, and not just taking them but thinking about how we might be able to re-envision them, thinking about new ideas that are similar to those, and then really messaging them in a way that encourages folks to come together and talk about some of these ideas — and, fingers crossed, actually pass some laws that are reflective of some of those best ideas.
I think that one of the things that Niskanen benefits from is not being tied directly to one party or another — although I would still argue that we lean center-right. But we are really trying to get the win for whoever puts the best policy forward. It’s not about the party, it’s about the issue, and it’s about the people that Niskanen is trying to benefit from some of those reforms. And I think that’s part of what makes our approach to policy really different. And I’m happy to jump into some of the tactics, because I think that’s kind of the meat-and-potatoes of what people see that Niskanen does that makes us unique.
Geoff Kabaservice: Part of the beauty of the Niskanen Center is that no two people who work here will define it in quite the same way, which makes it fun. And of course, Niskanen’s new president, Ted Gayer, will have a big impact on shaping what Niskanen stands for…
Kristie De Peña: Absolutely.
Geoff Kabaservice: …as well as its approach in the years to come. I guess the only thing I would disagree with, which is what you and Ted have both said, is that Niskanen takes the best ideas from left and right. It does do that. But the nature of our ideological conflict is such that a lot of both the left and the right are stuck into positions, which means that they overlook a lot of good solutions that are floating around in no man’s land, so to speak. And I think it’s part of our job to try to pick those ideas up and run with them.
I agree with you also that Niskanen still leans center-right. And I think, generally, we have a difference from other think tanks in Washington D.C. in that we are interested in working with Republicans as well as Democrats. But of course that’s a much more challenging job because of what the Republican Party has been going through in recent years. As you know, there was an opinion piece published a few days ago by Julius Krein in Philanthropy Daily entitled “What do conservative donors want?” Krein is a sometime Trump supporter as well as the founding editor of American Affairs, and I’m sure we have many points of disagreement with him. But I do agree with him that it’s significant that the Republican Party hasn’t had a platform for years and that this reflects a kind of paralysis of ideas that comes from being stuck between an outdated zombie Paul Ryanism and a Trump-style populism that’s more about cultural grievance than anything else. So in this context, do you think it’s possible to work with both Republicans and Democrats to get the kind of transpartisan ideas that you’re talking about passed into legislation?
Kristie De Peña: I know it’s possible, although I know that there are lots of people who might argue with me. I think just in President Biden’s State of the Union — when was that, last week? — he cited 300 or so bipartisan pieces of legislation that he has signed since becoming president. That is an impressive figure, first and foremost. But I think that it almost belittles some of the importance of some of the pieces of legislation that had bipartisan support. I think immediately of the Violence Against Women Act, the Electoral Count Reform Act, which I know you have spoken about and we agree on the importance of its passage. I think that that sort of adds some credence that there is some kind of guidance from the Republican Party about what policies they want to move towards. But I actually think it is more to the credit of individual lawmakers who are really dedicated to the business of passing legislation. And I think that should be celebrated.
I echo the call by the Republican Party for a policy platform. It seems as though we have been longing for some kind of pragmatic, well-reasoned, well-researched, well-supported argument that balances a whole host of policies that we hear from on the Democratic side. And I think, in the absence of those policies, we are really struggling to figure out what is in the middle — where compromise can live amongst some of these muddled moderates where most of the country lives — in saying, “Well, I’m not sure the far right is right and I’m not sure the far left is right, but it feels like there could be compromise in the middle.” And I think if the Republican Party could get it together and really put down some policy ideas that in some way answer some of the things that they’ve been complaining about — for, at this point, well over a decade — it would not only be to their benefit, but it would also force the Democratic Party to sharpen some of their policy ideas.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think that’s very well put. Just to pick up on something you said, it is true that 300 bipartisan pieces of legislation got passed in the last Congress. A cynic could say, “Well, that was 290 post office naming bills and maybe ten other things.” But some of those bills were actually very significant. In addition to the ones you mentioned, there was also the CHIPS and Science Act, I think you mentioned the infrastructure act, the Defense of Marriage Act, even a gun safety measure for the first time in like 30 years. But I think something about all those pieces of legislation is that the Republicans who signed onto those largely Democratic-supported bills were not the same people every time. There isn’t a moderate wing of the Republican Party at this point. What there is are shifting, ad hoc coalitions of Republicans and Democrats who can come together on particular issues to actually get majority support for these individual pieces of legislation.
Kodiak Hill-Davis, who is Niskanen’s vice president for government affairs, and I wrote a piece about that. And we actually do draw pretty heavily there on the idea put forward by Niskanen senior fellow Matt Yglesias in his piece, “The Secret Congress,” where he sort of is speculating that Congress is not dysfunctional — things can still get past Congress, but not big issues that draw partisan attention and media spotlights. Did that sound about right to you? Or in what ways would you agree or disagree with Matt?
Kristie De Peña: I do think that it sounds right. And I think that you have beautifully articulated the reference that a lot of Niskanenites make to these kinds of strange-bedfellow coalitions. We find people that are interested in certain pieces of policy. Some like this little piece of immigration reform, but they hate piece Y. That’s fine. We’ll just ignore what they think on piece Y. We’ll take them for piece X and we’ll move forward. And I think that that’s one of the things that makes Niskanen unique. I think the other piece that speaks to this kind of “secret Congress” idea is that we are willing to consider and talk about policy reforms that don’t necessarily solve the entire problem. And I point especially to immigration, because we see this all the time. The status quo in immigration is so bad at this point that any incremental reform, any incremental policy change that we can make, is a win in my book.
And I think that that is true across Niskanen’s policy departments. In most cases, that speaks to this idea that there is this “secret Congress” working, even though to me it sort of smacks of this idea of Fight Club: “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.” But I think it speaks to the idea that there are these lawmakers and it is a shifting group of folks who are interested in small issue X, Y, and Z. They know they’re not going to get a ton of political backlash for it because, by and large, they fall under the radar of most of the issues that the public is paying attention to.
Because for good or bad, it’s always these huge issues like: What are we going to do about climate change? What are we going to do about immigration and the border? What are we going to do about all of this crime that people are experiencing? And so I think Niskanen has an advantage in some of these quieter moments to lean in on some of the relationships that we have across the board in some of our policy departments with lawmakers, in sort of unique areas and small niche policy areas. And we encourage them by providing what we always call this kind of legislative subsidy: to get those members together, get them in a back room of Shelly’s if that’s what it takes, and get them to pass some of these important pieces of legislation, no matter how small.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s very well put, Kristie. And you’ve offered a good transition to talk about your New York Times op-ed. It’s entitled, “Over 75,000 Job Openings in Iowa Alone. Millions of Refugees Seeking Work. Make the Connection.” And your co-authors, who also share an Iowa connection with you, are Robert Leonard, the news director for radio stations KNIA and KRLS in Knoxville, Iowa; and David Oman, who was chair of the Iowa Republican Party for eight years as well as being chief of staff to Iowa Republican governors Robert Ray and Terry Branstad. So let me first ask you how you know your co-authors and how you came up with the idea to write this op-ed.
Kristie De Peña: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I am smiling because I enjoyed meeting and working with them both so much. So I was introduced to Bob Leonard by a fantastic colleague who I met many years ago in the immigration space, Ali Noorani, who until very recently was heading the National Immigration Forum and who is now the program director of U.S. Democracy at the Hewlett Foundation. And one of the things that I think Ali does really, really well is remind us about the humans that are behind a lot of the immigration policies and reforms that we’re all working on. And I’ll talk about very… I’ll quickly reference two books that I always recommend people read on immigration that he wrote, which are There Goes the Neighborhood and Crossing Borders. So as a natural extension of his work, he always ends up meeting these really fascinating people across the country.
And I consider myself pretty lucky that he’s always willing to extend some of these connections to me, one of which was Bob Leonard. So I jumped on a Zoom call with Bob Leonard one day and we’re just sort of sharing our individual stories. And he has this incredibly interesting background. He’s an anthropologist by trade. He authors a fantastic Substack called “Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture,” where he talks about politics and culture of Iowa and the Midwest more generally. But he’s an incredibly thoughtful person. And as somebody who grew up, was raised in Iowa, went to school primarily in Iowa, it was really refreshing and awesome to hear about his own personally deep commitment to just getting to know people and cultures unlike his own. And I think it’s an important acknowledgement that for a lot of people sometimes that can be very uncomfortable, and you’re worried about making a misstep even coming in with the best intentions.
And he has this whole host of stories about the interesting people that he has met, his missteps along the way, and learning about how to talk to people from different cultures and different places. And he was really just… He just made the idea of writing this piece that was accessible to folks in the Midwest and even in states across the U.S. that are often left out of immigration debates, because it’s traditionally considered more of an issue of federal law — just kind of looping them in, making them part of this discussion, highlighting what they’re seeing in places like Iowa and letting them know that they do have an opportunity to exercise some control over immigration in their own state and what that could look like.
Geoff Kabaservice: And tell me about your other co-author, David Oman.
Kristie De Peña: And so of course Bob introduced me to David. David has this incredible background of service for the state of Iowa. One of the things that I thought was really impactful was the stories that he told about his time working for Governor Ray and his commitment to humanitarian efforts in assisting refugees to relocate to Iowa in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. And we were all sort of in agreement that this kind of humanitarian leadership is really laudable, and we also noted that at the time this kind of leadership, especially in the humanitarian space, was a very bipartisan effort. There was support across the board, Republicans and Democrats alike, that believed in our refugee resettlement system in particular, and wanted to protect it, and didn’t want us to shy away from global humanitarian commitments.
Geoff Kabaservice: Robert Ray was governor of Iowa from 1969 to 1983, and his view about refugees and immigrants more generally hardly made him an outlier in the Republican Party. The Republican Party at that time was very supportive of immigration.
Kristie De Peña: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: Ronald Reagan, for example, during the 1980s repeatedly emphasized America’s tradition of welcoming people from other countries and particularly those who were fleeing oppression. And he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, I want to say it was, which allowed immigrants who’d entered the country illegally before 1982 to apply for legal status if they paid fines and back taxes and could demonstrate good moral character and some command of English. And this allowed around three million immigrants to become citizens. What does it seem to you were the primary drivers of Republican support for immigration in the past?
Kristie De Peña: It’s a good question. I think that… Well, I think Reagan said it best in one of his speeches in talking about the United States being “the shining city on the hill” — a quote that my colleague Matthew La Corte loves to put in pieces written by the Niskanen Center. But I think that outside of trying to be a global example of what it means to lead on humanitarian efforts, there were a lot of other drivers for the Republican Party. There were economic drivers, there were drivers about reunifying families. At that point there were obviously different demographics about the kinds of people that were coming into the United States and the kinds of folks that were legalized under this program — it was primarily single Mexican males who were coming here for work — but there was an acknowledgement about how difficult it might be to try to reverse these policies that had existed for decades, separated families that had been created in the United States, what that would do to the economy, to society, all of those things. There was sort of a broader recognition about what these reforms would do and what would happen in the absence of those reforms. And I think at the time President Reagan was really just a powerful leader in this policy area. And we were dealing with different safety considerations. I think that everything after 9/11 really changed the way people started to think about domestic security. And certainly the standup of the Department of Homeland Security, and the increased security that we built on our borders, has sort of fed into that narrative. And that didn’t exist to the same extent back then.
Geoff Kabaservice: I also like that same “shining city on a hill” rhetoric that Matt likes. But I was reading a book about Reagan by William Inboden recently, and there was an additional quote that Reagan made (I think maybe in one of his last addresses) where he was talking about the shining city on the hill. And he said that if there had to be city walls, well, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will in the heart to get here. And that was very much of a Cold War contrast.
Ronald Reagan’s most famous quote, of course, is, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” — speaking of the Berlin Wall. And that was the point. In communist society, people were dying to get out, and they wanted to come to a place like America, which is open to people with talent and heart and drive. But, as you say, 9/11 did change that picture a lot. But I also think there had been an undercurrent of xenophobia, that has always been present in American history, that leaders like Ronald Reagan had kept underground, perhaps is the way to put it. And that started coming more and more to the surface in the years following the Cold War and following the Reagan presidency.
Kristie De Peña: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. And I will plug a piece that Niskanen wrote several years ago called “Restoring the United States Refugee Resettlement Program.” And it has a fascinating review of the policies that came out of the Cold War that directly impacted who and when we were bringing certain refugee populations into the United States. And it very much centers around this idea that the United States was encouraging people to vote with their feet, vote against communism by moving out of those places and coming to the United States where you can actually prosper. And I think that that was really a powerful message. And it’s kind of unfortunate that it seems like that is sort of breaking down as a tenet of the Republican Party, but it does seem as though we’re headed in that direction.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. Let me go back to your point about the business orientation of the Republican Party. You begin your op-ed with the sentences, “Across the globe refugees are seeking safety, many of them adults in search of work. At the same time, severe labor shortages in the United States and many other high-income countries have left businesses clamoring for workers.” So it would seem that there’s an obvious case of supply and demand here, and Iowa certainly does seem to be a case study for a state experiencing a severe worker shortage. Does that sound right?
Kristie De Peña: I think that’s exactly right. And my guess is that where we’re going is that this would’ve been a message that I would have thought would’ve gained a lot of traction with the Republican Party of yore — even 10 years ago. I think this would’ve been a message that very much resounded with Republican leaders, but probably less so today.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, you cite the Iowa Business Council, for example, which is kind of a Reaganite-type organization, which is pointing out that there are 75,000 job openings in the state, that employers are unable to meet growing manufacturing and service demands, and that there’s particularly severe shortages in mid-skill industries like healthcare, information and technology, tourism and hospitality.
Kristie De Peña: And in places… I think Iowa is a great example of this too, but in more rural areas in the United States, we are increasingly seeing more demands for a spectrum of healthcare needs. And this is one of the things that I think is going to really start resonating, especially in some of the Midwestern, Deep South states where they really just don’t have access — not only to the kinds of specialists that the aging boomer population are going to start needing, but also the kinds of folks that make life easier, that help you stay in your home for an extra 10 years as opposed to having to go to a residential facility, for instance.
And so I think leaning in on that healthcare aspect is a really important message. A lot of these healthcare roles don’t require significant training, though they do require some licensure depending on what state you’re going in. But there is a real opportunity to look at the number of folks that want to come and work in the United States for many reasons — obviously for economic reasons, but also for reasons of safety for their families, so that their children can grow up and go to school in the United States — and they would be eager to take these jobs, which we are going to be clamoring for increasingly in the coming years.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. That hit home kind of personally for me because my dad, prior to his death in 2020, really experienced severe mental and physical decline, and he would not have survived in a hospital. And we got to spend several more years with him than we would’ve otherwise precisely because there were talented and dedicated people who had immigrated to this country who were available to work as home health care aides. And without them, we would not have been able to find people to do those jobs. There simply was not a pool of native-born labor that was willing to supply this need. It was either rely on people who come from elsewhere or Dad goes to a hospital and dies.
Kristie De Peña: Right. And it’s a sad truth, but that’s increasingly becoming a more common anecdote. And I think there’s a lot of evidence in medicine that suggests that basically once you are out of your home, the decline happens more quickly, and so it’s important to try to give people that kind of support. And it takes a very special person to want to do that job — it takes a lot of patience and a lot of caring — and we want people that want to do those jobs. And right now Americans do not want to do those jobs.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s true. So speaking of odd bedfellows earlier, Ron Johnson is not somebody who the left is particularly fond of — the Wisconsin senator who recently won reelection. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds is another conservative in very good standing. And yet both of these figures have put forward programs that you cited to support refugees and devised guest worker programs. So it’s possible on the Republican side to see people who still have good standing, even in a populist anti-immigration Republican Party, who are making constructive efforts to solve some of these immigration problems.
Kristie De Peña: I think that’s exactly right, and just try to think about them in a different way. And I think these examples are really important. Everybody’s always talking about this very polarized world that we’re living in, but it is easy to label the opposite side as the enemy: either Democrats are the enemy or Republicans are the enemy. And in this case, it really breaks down that narrative. Hearing that Governor Reynolds is interested in and funded programs that are specifically aimed at helping Afghan refugees is an incredibly important and laudable program that I want Democrats to be aware of. I want Democratic governors to see what she’s doing to lead in some of those areas. I want other Republican governors to see that. And the same is true of Senator Johnson’s bill.
Geoff Kabaservice: Unfortunately, the Congress has failed to pass legislation that would allow Afghans who literally shed blood on behalf of our country’s effort in that country to remain in this country – although I know efforts on that are still ongoing. I a few weeks ago had Suzette Brooks Masters of the Better Futures Project on this podcast, and she had moved out of law practice as you did and had begun to work on immigration issues around 2000 and worked in that field for two decades. But she told me that at the time she started work, there was consensus across both parties that immigration was in the national interest and the immigrants were good for the country. But over the next two decades she saw “growing extremism and ideological purity on both sides. And so the center fell out.” I was wondering if her perspective resonated with you.
Kristie De Peña: It’s certainly a perspective that I understand, and I think we hear it a lot in this space. There have been folks that have been around for a long time working on some of these reforms, they’ve been in and out of administrations, they’ve been on the Hill and off, they’ve been in advocacy for a long time, and there is frustration about how little movement there is on a lot of immigration policy. But unfortunately, like I said before, the status quo is such that it requires — and increasingly so requires — some kind of change.
And it may be terrible, but I am an optimist. I do think that we will eventually get there. I do not think that we can rely any longer on some of these big reform efforts. We hear a lot of talk still about “the Gang of Eight bill.” I think that we need to let those go — send them off on a Viking funeral into the night. And we need to really start talking about not only what the demands are for reform in this moment, what needs to change right now for us to have a more functioning immigration system, but we really need to start thinking about what the future looks like. What does migration look like in this hemisphere of the world in the next 10 or 20 years? And we need to be doing that in parallel to the efforts that need to change tomorrow.
Geoff Kabaservice: As you know, my role at Niskanen is partly to be the in-house pessimist. So as much as I like your Viking funeral metaphor, I have to go back to the fact that activist groups on both left and the right seem to have gotten further apart and more intransigent in their positions, with less and less in common, over the last several years. And further, as you point out, the last comprehensive immigration bill to pass the Senate was in 2013 with that Gang of Eight, and Congress hasn’t passed a significant reform to the U.S. immigration system since the 1990s.
And I think the reason a lot of people get tired and pessimistic is that there have been so many efforts over the years that have just fallen short, whether it’s Carlos Curbelo’s discharge position in 2018 or, more recently, the collapse of the bipartisan framework for immigration reform devised by Republican Senator Thom Tillis and then-Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema. And the Republicans at this point in the House seem to be more excited about impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, for his alleged failures at the border than they are in getting any kind of agreement on immigration. So I wonder if you could just tell me a little more about your case for optimism in getting things passed.
Kristie De Peña: I mean, one of the best things that I always say about working at Niskanen is that there’s always someone that’s going to challenge your ideas and you are really forced to defend your positioning on some of them. So this is a great example of that. I would flip the rhetoric on the Tillis and Sinema effort, less to focus on the failures of that effort and more to focus on the positives of that effort, which was that we got pretty close to policies that both the Republican side and the Democratic side were in support of. And although there was some chatter among some of the advocacy groups about pieces that may have been in there or may not have been in there, and there was some hesitation about supporting it, there was by and large broad support for the provisions that we did see, the framework that we did see of the bill — including by CBP, who came out in support of this effort and, quite frankly and surprisingly, by a lot of the same House Republicans that you are talking about who are interested in impeaching Secretary Mayorkas.
And to me, when both sides recognize how close we were getting on the policy — and that’s not to say it was perfect, and it certainly wasn’t by my estimation, based on what we at Niskanen saw. But when you see people that are both equally optimistic and equally uncertain about what is in a bill, I think that is where you have hit the sweet spot. Procedurally, I think that there were things that needed to change and be done differently, and the time crunch was a very, very real challenge.
But I think that there is opportunity for some kind of similar legislation to move this year. We know that a whole host of House members and senators went down to the border. Suddenly there was a lot more interest in the Dignity Act, which was introduced by Representative Maria Salazar from Florida two years ago, which was an enormous piece of legislation that tackled those who are here undocumented, Dreamers, work permits, E-Verify… I mean, a whole gamut of issues that we need to talk about. And suddenly there was renewed interest in what that bill included and where there might be opportunities for compromise. To me, that suggests that there are still lawmakers that are interested in finding the pieces of this puzzle that they can move now with bipartisan support.
And I will be the first to call out… I think that there is no movement on immigration reform without buy-in from both Republicans and Democrats in this moment. We saw Democrats try to do it single-handedly two years ago, and it failed spectacularly. I know a lot of effort went into trying to move that reconciliation bill, but unfortunately it’s just not going to move without Republican buy-in. And so we’re trying to give Republicans thoughtful policy ideas to stand on and contribute to this conversation.
Geoff Kabaservice: And there is actually a tacit agreement between Republicans and Democrats that the current system isn’t working.
Kristie De Peña: That’s true.
Geoff Kabaservice: So there is at least that.
Kristie De Peña: That’s right. Did you just come over to my side?
Geoff Kabaservice: Maybe. I’ve also was struck, in your op-ed, that you’re looking for opportunities, yes, at the congressional level, but also at the state level where actually often you do find more room for maneuver. And you cited, for example, the Ron Johnson legislation that would allow states to devise guest worker programs along the lines of Canada’s Provincial Nominee Program. And you also then suggested that President Biden’s administration could establish what’s called a “global skill partnership.” What is that?
Kristie De Peña: Niskanen joined up with the Institute for Progress and the Center for Global Development in a paper we published at the end of last year on this general idea about how we could build a partnership to better train folks from nearby countries, primarily Central America, to not only come to the United States and work but also to stay in their own home countries and contribute to their own economies and societies in thoughtful ways. And there are a whole bunch of different iterations of what that could look like. But it very much rests on this idea of supply and demand in many cases.
We’re seeing a lot of people coming to the border to claim asylum. I have helped many people make asylum claims in the past. I would say that less than 1% of the people that I have ever helped actually understand what asylum is or whether or not they might be eligible for it. By and large, they’re all coming from situations and circumstances that everybody in the United States would themselves flee from. But again, nobody in the United States also knows what it would take to really qualify for asylum. The asylum handbook that I have on my desk is about 1,200 pages. So it is not a simple process. But in many cases a lot of folks want to come here just so that they can work and live a life that is safe. And asylum is not the pathway for those people to come to the United States.
We need to create opportunities and pathways for more migration and different kinds of migration from Central and increasingly South America. We need to start thinking about migration more as temporary flows. And we need to start thinking about it in terms of what Mexico, the United States, and Canada can do jointly to not only share in the responsibility of some of these bigger mass migration movements, but also revel in some of the benefits of capitalizing on the skills and culture that some of these folks are bringing from different parts of the world.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me ask you: How big of a thing is it that the Biden administration passed the Welcome Corps from its State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration?
Kristie De Peña: I think it’s incredibly wonderful. Niskanen for many years now, really since we began, has been talking about how private sponsorship of refugees should complement the current refugee resettlement structure. And this is essentially the Biden administration’s first pilot into doing this in a more organized way. So we had a slow roll-in. There was the program that helped sponsors assist Afghans that were coming or were already here in the United States, then Ukrainians. There’s a separate parole operation whereby folks can help resettle Venezuelans and potentially (depending on the lawsuits) Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans.
And this is building on this idea that we should capitalize on the interest that Americans have in helping resettle refugees and our general philanthropic spirit, which really hasn’t changed that much over the decades. People are excited to help other people resettle in the United States. They want to introduce them to their churches, they want to introduce them to their communities, they want to help their kids get acclimated to school. And we want to capitalize on people’s desires to do that, in addition to helping people from different parts of the world come to the United States while allowing Americans to shoulder a lot of the fiscal burden of refugee resettlement.
Geoff Kabaservice: I should also point out that your talented team members Matthew La Corte, Cecilia Esterline, and Gill Guerra enumerated “5 immigration proposals the Biden Administration should consider this year.” And one of them was that the Welcome Corps should be expanded somewhat by enabling private sponsorship by institutions of higher learning.
Kristie De Peña: Absolutely. We’ve been talking about this aspect as well. And our friends at the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration are also doing a great job of championing some of these efforts. Universities provide this incredibly unique environment for a resettlement. They have a lot of language services already there. They have a built-in healthcare system. They have classes that people can take. They have housing. There’s a lot of volunteers available for free on a university that generally want to get involved in some of these. And we’ve seen these successes in previous programs like the ECAR program, which started at Guilford College, I believe in North Carolina. (It might be South Carolina.) Basically they started welcoming refugee families onto their campus, utilizing the services that they have available therein. And people loved it. Not only did the students love it, but the communities loved it. And if we could expand on some of those opportunities, allow the universities and colleges that want to be involved in the program to get involved and help, I see it as a win-win.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’re so upbeat and knowledgeable about these policies and the possibilities that I feel bad that I’m going to introduce another note of pessimism. But that is my job.
Kristie De Peña: Let’s hear it.
Geoff Kabaservice: So I do feel obliged to point out that a lot of thinkers on the center-right, who are generally aligned with us on most policies, would dissent from elements of your view on immigration. And just to pick one: David Frum, for example. He does agree that immigration has huge benefits to the country. And he would be the first to point out that of the Americans who won a Nobel Prize between 2000 and 2018, almost a third of them were immigrants. And in so many ways, the United States is a richer and stronger and more dynamic country because of international migration. But he also points out that under present immigration policies, the U.S. population is likely to exceed 400 million in the next 30 years. Nobody’s really planning for this population growth. The gains from immigration often tend to be divided unequally: immigrants reap most of them, wealthy Americans get much of the rest, low-income Americans receive comparatively little benefit and maybe are worse off depending on who’s counting and what method you use.
And then, I think of the most concern to him, we’ve seen that across the developed world, very high levels of immigration in a relatively short space have really sparked a populist counter-reaction, which has led to illiberalism and the decline of democracy. And of course David has that famous quote that “If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.” So how do you push back on this kind of criticism coming from the friendly side, I guess, of where we find ourselves?
Kristie De Peña: Sure. I mean, I think it’s true that most… I’m not even sure I would put Frum in the category of immigration skeptics, but most people that question some of these pieces about immigration policy will acknowledge even briefly the tremendous gains that the U.S. has made from welcoming immigrants; David Frum himself is an immigrant and he has done so repeatedly, to his credit. I think even those on the far right have moved on some of the policies like providing a permanent pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. But often the follow-up to that question is when we’ve had enough immigration to absorb its positive aspects, but not so much as to have to deal with its real or implied downsides. And I think that comes from the piece that you’re quoting that Frum wrote in 2019 about how much immigration is too much.
So a lot of the concerns that you’re highlighting run the spectrum of immigration policy. But I think one of the easiest ways to tackle some of these criticisms is just to talk about labor, because that seems to be a very big sticking point with a lot of the immigration skeptics. And part of it, of course, comes from a lot of misinformation that is out there. By and large, almost all of the economists who are well respected in this field come to the same conclusions about low-skilled immigration — for instance, that lower-skilled immigration does not actually hurt natives, that it doesn’t reduce wages, that it’s not taking jobs from people who otherwise would have wanted those jobs. There was just recently a case that was thrown out on an aspect that was kind of in this similar vein that claimed that immigrant workers were going to take the jobs of natives.
The other kind of piece of it that I think a lot of people get wrong is this idea that we’re not really thinking about what kinds of immigrants to bring into the United States. I will be the first to admit that the system as it exists now is very broken. We have 140,000 high-skilled immigration visas. 5,000 of those go to folks without a bachelor’s degree every year. There really is no pathway for “lower-skilled immigrants” to come and stay in the United States and work unless they are temporary workers or agricultural workers. So this idea that there are all these people coming in and taking these lower-skilled jobs is just not reflective of the actual truth.
That said, I do think that there is very much an opportunity to have a discussion about what kind of immigration we want. What are the specialties that we need in particular right now? Do we want to bring in more doctors? Do we want to bring in more fashion models? What is it that the United States needs? And what are the things that we need to think about for a future system that is more responsive to these changing needs? Because right now ours is not responsive in any way to these needs.
And that points to something, for instance, that Niskanen is working on with regard to Schedule A: trying to get the Department of Labor to update their list of occupations that are in critical shortages that would allow people to have their PERM applications processed more quickly to come and work in the United States. It’s a small improvement, but it is one that is, I think, reflective of this kind of broader question about, okay, if we are going to tackle what we want in an immigration workforce, who do we want to stay permanently, who do we want to move temporarily? I think that there is room for a discussion about our needs that can trump what labor is available at any given time. And I think that that discussion, to be very clear, is separate from a discussion about our responsibilities on the humanitarian side of things.
Geoff Kabaservice: When was that Schedule A last updated?
Kristie De Peña: I want to say 1990.
Geoff Kabaservice: So it’s possible that there are Republican legislators out there who, just on grounds of pragmatism, would agree that we probably need fewer Jazzercise instructors and Betamax repair technicians and more people even under the terms of Schedule A who are better suited to the needs of the present economy.
Kristie De Peña: I think that is very accurate.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, thank you, Kristie, for your very articulate and forthright explanation of what it is that Niskanen is doing and seeks to do in this space.
You texted me that you had watched my appearance on C-SPAN over the weekend, which I’m a little embarrassed about. I hadn’t really thought through what it means to appear on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” It’s a great program. Mimi Geerges is a real pro. But I biked over there in the wind and didn’t bring a hairbrush, so already it was off to a bad start. And somehow or other, I thought it was going to be kind of a casual discussion about the Vital Center podcast. And instead, I’m really pretty quickly on the hot seat. And it’s kind of as if, you know, your friend invites you over to play catch and then all of a sudden you’re in an actual baseball stadium and Jordan Hicks is throwing 105-mile fastballs at your head.
Anyway, it was an interesting discussion. But I did want to actually say that I started this podcast two years ago because we’d had these Meetings of the Concerned, so-called, going on since 2017, which at that point were largely disillusioned Republicans who wanted to talk about where the party was going and what they might do to change its trajectory. And those were great conversations and some wonderful things came out of that. But these are off-the-record, closed meetings, and I thought that some of those discussions should really reach a broader public.
And I’m really grateful to everybody who has been on this podcast and I’m grateful to everybody who listens to it. I’m also grateful to our comms team, Louisa Tavlas and Kristie Eshelman, that they haven’t actually told me anything about the numbers of the audiences behind the podcast. I saw in the latest annual report that they said the podcast’s numbers doubled over its first several months, but that could be from 12 to 24. I just don’t know.
Kristie De Peña: Maybe they just don’t want you to get a big head.
Geoff Kabaservice: That could be too! But I also think it’s good that they’re keeping me a little bit in the dark, because I think the things that people do to try to increase the numbers of their podcast’s audiences take away from some of the things that are good about the podcast in the first place. And I certainly think that would be the case here. This is actually the second podcast that Niskanen has, the first being Matt Grossman’s The Science of Politics, which is really taking a deep dive into the latest political science literature. I don’t have anything quite as well-defined as that. Largely it’s sort of me just seeking out what I’m most interested in. But I am, I think, concerned that I stay away from the culture-war angle — even though that would no doubt increase the audience — because that’s not really what Niskanen does, nor do we see it as part of our mission.
I also don’t really debate people who come on, because I’m more concerned to let them tell me whatever it is that they are arguing — particularly if they’ve written a book, just to sort of get out that side of the argument and have it heard at length — than I am to actually rebut it. I’m also not much of a debater. So there’s that.
And I think then, too, that it is possible to bring on people who have an audience. I know a lot of people have told me that they liked my interview with Tom Nichols. And he had just written a book, which I thought was an important book, which needed to be talked about. But what most people liked about it was that we spent most of the time telling jokes to each other and cackling like drunken raccoons.
I’m grateful that there isn’t the pressure to sort of increase the audience because I also want to be able to reach out to people that nobody has heard of yet, like Joshua Tait, who was just a grad student who wrote his dissertation that few people outside of his dissertation committee had read — but I thought it was the best exposition of the conservative intellectual movement that had appeared in 30 to 40 years. Likewise, Michael Mazarr at the RAND Corporation — probably not a lot of people are going to read his book on the societal foundations that define successful global civilizations. But his enumeration of the kind of qualities that made for American success — which are not limited to one side or the other of the left/right divide — has been really influential to me.
I also think that this podcast is a little different maybe from most in its focus on books. And having been on book-talk radio and TV myself in the past, I know it’s also pretty rare to actually get somebody who reads the book all the way through. But it’s been great to have in-depth conversations with people like Bev Gage, who wrote about J. Edgar Hoover, or Richard Reeves on Of Boys and Men, or Niki Hemmer talking about the Republican Party of the early ’90s, or David Corn writing about American Psychosis. I don’t want to leave anyone out and therefore insult them, but it’s been a great angle to approach.
And I think, again, it’s kind of hard to know how all of these necessarily fit into Niskanen’s mission. But I do think that we are an organization that tries to keep ourselves open to lots of different points of view, and to some extent that’s what I’m doing by talking to people on both the left and the right as well as, let’s say, people like Aurelian Craiutu who are more moderate and defining themselves as such. And I wonder if there’s any books or people you’ve run across — who you’ve listened to as podcasts, or people who you think are getting out the message in your world of immigration reform — who you think are particularly worth noticing?
Kristie De Peña: Oh, it’s such a good question. And I really wish that I had prepared a really incredible answer, because the number of books that I have read that have been fantastic and really formative for me in immigration is long. And I can actually grab some of the ones that are behind me. One of the best books that I read was by Tara Watson and Kalee Thompson, which is The Border Within. I already cited both of Ali Noorani’s books, but I’ll cite Garcia Hernandez’s book on Crimmigration Law, which was an incredibly fascinating read about how immigration law has really changed since the ‘90s. And this is my most recent read by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan on Streets of Gold — which has been, again, an incredible read.
But I will say that a lot of the books that have really stuck with me in this space — and this is kind of true, this is sort of how I see a lot of what you’re doing, Geoff, with this podcast — is you’re providing an opportunity for people to tell stories that are tangential to all of the work that we do but aren’t directly related. And I think, at some point, some of these books and papers that you’re talking about and the interesting people that you’re talking to may not be extraordinarily relevant in this moment — but they suddenly will be. I remember in about 2018 I got this academic paper from a scholar on wheat from Ukraine, and what the process of exportation looked like, and how that wheat moved, and what it did for the whole country. And it was very interesting, but I didn’t think it was particularly relevant — until suddenly it was relevant. And I pulled that paper out and I was like, wow, I’m really glad that I met that person and read that paper.
And I think telling some of these stories, and allowing people the space to talk about their own origin stories and how they got to be thinkers in these sorts of unique fields, really helps ground our policy ideas in something that is really accessible for more people. It’s not just a bunch of elitists in Washington, D.C. saying, “I’m sure that we’re a hundred percent right,” but really opening the door to have some of these conversations and hearing stories about regular people who are trying to do things in the ways that they think are the best ways to accomplish change. And I think that’s valuable.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Kristie, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, and thank you for all the work that you do to accomplish change and make this country a better place.
Kristie De Peña: Thank you so much for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.