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Getting immigration right
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Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi, former head of the Republican National Committee, says he first became seriously interested in immigration policy after Hurricane Katrina.
Thousands of homes in Mississippi were destroyed, "down to the slab," Barbour said at a recent conference on immigration held by National Journal in Washington. Construction workers were overwhelmed; many were homeless themselves. And then, almost out of nowhere, came help.
"We were blessed with a huge influx of Spanish speakers, and I'm sure a lot of them weren't in this country legally," Barbour said. "I don't know where we would be in Mississippi if they had not come."
The "Spanish speakers" were willing to live in terrible conditions while at work building new homes. The experience led Barbour -- who favors raising the number of high-skilled immigrants admitted to the United States -- to realize that "there is also essential lesser-skilled labor that we need."
The National Journal panel reflected much of the discussion about immigration reform. Of eight speakers, Republicans and Democrats, seven favored comprehensive reform.
That view, it turned out, was too much even for a former member of the Obama administration's economic team who supports reform. "There are a lot of people who believe ... that immigrant competition has hurt them in the economy," said Jared Bernstein, once an economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
Much of the discussion focused on skilled workers -- immigrants in the so-called H-1B and STEM categories, whose numbers Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other tech titans would like to increase. It's a given among reformers the U.S. needs to admit more of them, but Bernstein reminded the panelists that there remains a lot of slack in the American labor market.
But the real candor came from Barbour, who was quite open in his belief the country needs more low-skilled workers to do awful jobs for low wages.
"If you go in a chicken processing plant in Mississippi, there's nobody in there who speaks English," Barbour said. "There is a very loud radio hanging from somewhere playing Spanish-language music. And this is hard, dirty ... work."
In fact, Barbour said, even prisoners in Mississippi's work-release program stay away from the chicken plants. "I am not very sympathetic to the idea that we're taking these jobs away from Americans," Barbour concluded.
The discussion reflected a core reality of the immigration debate. The elites of both political parties support reform. But even so, there are a few voices to remind them of the costs.
"Those of us who support comprehensive reform," Bernstein cautioned, "if we don't listen more carefully to those on the other side, who believe that immigrant competition hurts them, regardless of what the studies say, we're going to miss the boat and we're not going to get this right."
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.