Divide highlighted at immigration debate
By Lou Fancher
The conversation between Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and unregistered immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas and best-selling author and award-winning conservative columnist Michelle Malkin was cordial and at moments surprisingly personal at the recent "Great Immigration Debate."
But the discussion is far from over.
Despite finding multiple areas of overlap and remarking on their shared Filipino ethnicity, a sharp divide on solutions to the problem kept them in separate camps at the Newsmakers Lesher Speaker Series.
Vargas, who has Bay Area roots, is widely known for "outing" himself in 2011 as an undocumented immigrant in an essay for The New York Times Magazine.
Malkin is a syndicated columnist who penned four nonfiction books and launched three conservative websites.
At the Knight Stage 3 Theatre at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, they were asked about their positions on The National Council of La Raza (a Latino advocacy organization). Malkin said they were "political separatists" raising "troubling questions" and sinking "tentacles" into classrooms. Vargas declined to comment.
On the issue of illegal immigrants who have paid Social Security taxes but can receive none of the benefits, Vargas said the same government that determined he is in the country illegally has allowed him to contribute $130,000. Malkin agreed that government inefficiencies underlie the country's immigration problems.
United States immigration policy, she said, "is a collusion of big government -- Democrats who see the immigration system as a way to gain a permanent ruling majority -- and big business. It's a toxic alliance that is to blame for the paralysis."
Malkin's words encapsulated the difficulty of the dialogue -- labels polarize the discussion, a point Vargas made during an extended back-and-forth about whether or not "illegal" is a term applicable to anyone. Malkin objected to Vargas referring to himself as "undocumented.
Aside from the semantics, the debate showed agreement on what they said was the federal government's "complete failure" to implement policies, especially the lack of an effective entry/exit database program to hold temporary visa holders accountable.
Malkin said that due to the more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, government agencies are overwhelmed because there is no effective enforcement mechanisms or ejection systems for visa violators.
Vargas said he found out at age 16 that his green card was a fake, and wondered for years, especially after 9/11, how long he could continue to live in the country illegally. Encouraged by lawyers, employers and others to continue the lie, he said he told his story publicly to reveal the broken immigration system.
He shared Malkin's criticisms about the government, social media's tendency to speak in shallow sound bites, vitriolic comments posted on Twitter and Facebook, and employers that Vargas said want cheap labor and "haven't been held accountable."
Vargas admitted that traveling to 400 events in 45 states to speak on immigration had taught him "we're not all on the same page."
The idea of granting undocumented immigrants amnesty signaled a point of departure between the two. Vargas supported the idea and highlighted the financial and work force contributions immigrants have made to the U.S. economy. Malkin called amnesty mass "forgetting" and insisted that a sovereign country had a right to be "discriminatory" in order to protect its citizens. Her advice to people wanting to enter the country? "Wait your turn."
There was no clear winner -- unless it was the audience, who heard an immigration debate delivered in respectful, bold language.