Presidential Election 2008: OUR BROKEN IMMIGRATION SYSTEM


To the Teacher

Lawmakers seem unable to produce a comprehensive immigration reform policy or to discuss one rationally and compassionately. Though the issue is of major concern to many voters, it's not easy to discuss. This became evident in the recent uproar over whether illegal immigrants should be able to obtain driver's licenses.

An introductory class exercise on the driver's license issue precedes three student readings. The first reading details the driver's license issue and the kinds of "debate" it evoked from the presidential candidates. The second reading reports on recent factual findings about immigration, legal and illegal. The third reading offers an historical commentary. Discussion questions and a suggested inquiry study on a new immigration policy follow.

Three other sets of materials about immigration are available on this website:

A question and an introductory discussion

Should an illegal immigrant be issued a driver's license?

The 2008 Democratic presidential candidates were asked this question during a debate in Nevada. An estimated 200,000 illegal, or undocumented, immigrants live that state.

YOU ARE A PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE. At a debate the moderator asks you: Should an illegal immigrant be issued a driver's license?

Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Each student has 90 seconds to give a yes/no response and brief explanation to the group. The group is to discuss the answers given and select the one it regards as best.
The originator of the best answer from each group should then to present his or her view to the class. Then conduct a discussion about the responses from the groups. The class might return to this subject and their views about it at the conclusion of their work on immigration.


Student Reading 1:

Illegal Immigrants, driver's licenses & the presidential candidates

Yes, said New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, illegal immigrants should have driver's licenses. Why? Since the U.S. Congress has been unable to produce a new immigration policy, he said, it makes sense to be certain that behind every wheel in New York is an insured driver who has passed a state test. The Spitzer proposal provided that the license could not be used as an ID for boarding planes or crossing borders. Similar plans exist in Maryland, Oregon, and six other states.

The reaction was swift and loaded with accusations. Lou Dobbs on CNN described the Democratic governor's proposal as wonderful for 9/11 terrorists. Republican New York State Assembly minority leader James Tedesco declared that "somewhere in a cave with his den of thieves and terrorists," Osama bin Laden was celebrating with champagne. Monroe County, NY, Republicans distributed a flier of a turbaned man with an assault rifle under the headline "Democrat County legislators want to make it easier for illegals and terrorists to get driver's licenses!" ( The Nation, 12/10/07)

Governor Spitzer responded. "It's better to know who they [the undocumented immigrants] are than pretend they don't exist. I knew there would be opposition. I don't think anyone predicted quite this level of venom." (, 11/12/07)

The uproar over the governor's proposals led debate moderator Tim Russert to ask the Democratic presidential candidates if it made "a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver's license." The question made it almost inevitable that combat over driver's licenses would make it impossible to discuss the complexities of immigration reform.

Hillary Clinton answered: "We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or other is just a matter of the odds. It's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum. There needs to be federal action on immigration reform."

Senator Christopher Dodd disagreed. "Look, I'm as forthright and progressive on immigration policy as anyone here," he said, "but we're dealing with a serious problem here, we need to have people come forward. The idea that we're going to extend this privilege here of a driver's license, I think, is troublesome."

Clinton responded, "I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it."

John Edwards attacked. "Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago, and I think this is a real issue for the country."

Barack Obama added: "I was confused on Senator Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it or against it, and I do think that is important."

The Republican National Committee issued a statement fifteen minutes after the debate: "Immigration is yet another issue where Hillary Clinton does not have a clear stance. When asked whether illegal immigrants should not receive a driver's license, Hillary did not raise her hand. Then when presented with a question concerning Spitzer's plan, she would not take a stand."

The next day Republican presidential campaigns of candidates Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani commented. A Romney spokesman said Clinton was "dismissive of efforts to enforce our nation's immigration laws and entirely unwilling to offer a straight answer to a very direct question." A Giuliani spokeswoman agreed: "The American people can't afford half-baked ideas that undermine their safety and security."

The controversy was heated but didn't last long. Governor Spitzer gave up. "I have concluded that New York State cannot address this problem on its own," he said. "The federal government has lost control of its borders. It has allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to enter our country and now has no solution to deal with it. When the federal abdicates its responsibilities, states, cities, towns and villages have to deal with the practical reality of that failure. And we face that reality everyday in our schools, in our hospitals and on our roads."

Representative Jose Serrano, a Bronx Democrat, said "The governor was not defeated by anything other than hate in this country toward immigrants right now." (, 11/14/07)

In a November 28 debate, the Republican candidates also sparred on immigration. Romney accused Giuliani, while mayor of New York City, of ignoring the law and welcoming illegal immigrants to his "sanctuary city." Giuliani attacked Romney for hiring illegal immigrants to work on the lawn at his "sanctuary mansion." Fred Thompson declared that while governor of Massachusetts, Romney did nothing about several cities in that state with immigration policies similar to those in New York and accused Romney of flip-flopping on immigration.

Romney argued that Mike Huckabee as governor of Arkansas was wrong to provide a tuition break for the children of illegal immigrants going to college. Huckabee responded, "In all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did."

Senator John McCain struck another humane note. "We need to sit down as Americans and recognize these are God's children as well, and they need some protections under the law, and they need some of our love and compassion."

In neither debate did the moderator direct the presidential candidates to discuss why immigration reform seems so difficult to accomplish and how this difficulty might be overcome.

For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. How do you evaluate Governor Spitzer's proposal? The reactions to it?

3. If you were a governor, would you want to adopt his plan? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think the immigration issue arouses such emotional responses?

5. How would you explain why most of the presidential candidates seem more interested in making other candidates look bad than in dealing with the substance of an issue? What role does the moderator seem to play in this behavior? How do you explain his behavior?

6. Do you think that Representative Serrano's opinion is accurate? Why or why not?


Student Reading 2:

Facts about immigrants and immigration

Whether the issue is driver's licenses, schooling or aid of any kind to undocumented immigrants, the presidential candidates as well as congressional candidates are easily caught up in a game the media call "Gotcha!" One object is to make a candidate look bad by being caught in conflicting positions or shown as a flip-flopper. Another is to provide entertainment for the public.

A serious, factual consideration of serious immigration questions and issues complicate the subject. The Center for Immigration Studies (, an advocate of reduced immigration, analyzing U.S. Census data as of March 2007, concluded the following:

1. More immigrants—10.3 million—entered the U.S. in the past seven years than in any other seven-year period in American history.

2. More than half of these people are illegal immigrants who come from Mexico and Central America.

3. An estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants are in the U.S.

4. Most recent immigrants, both legal and illegal, are low-skilled, low-paid workers.

5. About one-third of all immigrants and their children lack health insurance, compared with 13 percent of native-born Americans.

6. About one-third of immigrants have not finished high school compared with 8.4 percent of American citizens.

7. About one-third of immigrant families receive some public assistance, mainly food stamps and Medicaid associated with care for their children.

8. A majority of the children of immigrants were born in the United States and are therefore American citizens even if their parents are undocumented.

But other analysts say that these Center for Immigration Studies findings distort the reality. "This is a one-eyed portrait," said Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California. "It is a profile of immigrants' dependency without any profile of their contributions." His research shows that California immigrants "moved up quickly to steadier jobs with more benefits, and the rates of uninsured immigrants dropped sharply."

The implication that illegal immigrants use a disproportionate share of public services is "misleading," said Wayne Cornelius, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Illegal immigrants "are less likely to have health insurance, but they are also less likely to seek medical attention." He says the CIS study also "obscures the very significant progress that immigrants' children and their grandchildren typically make." ( New York Times, 11/29/07)

The private Fiscal Policy Institute ( studied immigrants, both legal and illegal, in New York State, as well as foreign-born New Yorkers who have been in the country for many years. It found the following:

1. In the New York State there are 4.1 million immigrants, about 3 million of whom live in New York City. Most speak English.

2. About one of every six of these immigrants is here illegally.

3. Immigrants produce nearly one-fourth of the economic output of the state.

4. In the New York City suburbs, about 4 of every 10 doctors and more that one-fourth of college professors were foreign-born.

5. In upstate New York, 5 percent of residents are foreign-born but make up one-fifth of the professors and more than one-third of the doctors.

6. Statewide, immigrants make up 21 percent of all residents and contribute 22.4 percent of the gross domestic product of the state.

7. In New York City, immigrants make up 37 percent of the population and earn 37 percent of all wages and salaries. Many are taxi drivers, housekeepers and home health aides but one-fourth of the city's chief executives are immigrants too.

8. "Without them, the report suggested, the city's revival over the last 25 years might never have taken place." ( New York Times, 11/26/07)

A new report released by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, a nonpartisan research organization, said that "Most children of Hispanic immigrants in the United States learn to speak English well by the time they are adults, even though three-quarters of their parents speak mainly Spanish and do not have a command of English." The report also found that "Hispanics are generally eager to master English, believing it is 'necessary for success in the United States.'" ( New York Times , 11/30/07)

Facts are often boring, but responsible decision-making on immigration means knowledge and accurate use of them.

For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Were there any surprises for you in this reading? Why?

3. How do you explain the significant increase in immigration over the past seven years? If you can't, how might you find out?

4. Why do you suppose that lawmakers have been unable to decide what to do about the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the country?

5. What does the information from the Fiscal Policy Institute suggest to you about why immigrants have made such a significant contribution to New York City's revival over the past quarter century?

Student Reading 3:

A commentary on immigration

In 1882, embracing racist and white supremacist ideas about a "Yellow Peril," the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Just four years later an inscription on the Statue of Liberty declared, "give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

It seems that Americans' mixed feelings about immigrants must date to at least May 14, 1607. On that day 103 Englishmen landed in Virginia. Native Americans soon learned that these illegal immigrants had arrived and were constructing a fort on land that did not belong to them. During the following years, contacts between native Americans were at times pleasant, but more often produced savage warfare.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1795, President George Washington urged Americans to pray for the U.S. to become "a safe…asylum for the unfortunate of other countries." But by the 1830s and 1840s nativist American rioters were burning Catholic churches in Massachusetts and Philadelphia and forming organizations to oppose the growing number of German and Irish immigrants arriving in the U.S. ("Nativists" are those who regard themselves as native, or original, Americans, and who give preference to "natives" over newer immigrants.) Groups like the Know-Nothings of the mid-19th century organized around negative stereotypes of immigrants and promoted anti-immigrant policies.

More than 98 percent of Americans are immigrants or are descended from them, and most Americans are quite aware of this. But while Americans frequently celebrate their diversity, they have also reacted negatively when people who look a little different from themselves arrive in their neighborhood, speak English poorly or not at all, eat foods that look peculiar to them, and have customs that seem strange (because the foods and customs are different from theirs).

There are several common reasons for this negativity or even active animosity:

Economic: Newcomers in the 19th century took away from citizens jobs on roads and canals and other hard labor work because, out of necessity, they were willing to work for less pay. Today, undocumented immigrants continue to do very hard jobs for very low pay (such as farm work and meatpacking). But business groups and employers then and now have welcomed this cheap labor. Studies have found that immigrants' low wages don't affect other workers' wages as much as some people believe. (See, for instance, the following article in the New York Times , 4/16/06:

Religious: Most of the earliest settlers were Protestants. The later arrival, for example, of Catholics led nativist Protestants to believe that the pope intended to flood the country with his co-religionists and destroy American freedoms. This ignorant belief only helped breed more bigotry.

Political: When large numbers of immigrants have entered the U.S., they have gradually become a threat to politicians who have position, power, and influence and fear they will lose it to the newcomers.

Skin color: In America, whites ruled, blacks were enslaved, dark or yellow-skinned people of any background likely to be exploited, viewed as inferior and subject to stereotyping.

This summer, Congress failed to pass an immigration reform bill proposed by President Bush. (The bill got more support from Democrats than from Republicans, but did not get enough support from either party to pass.) The measure would have:

  • given most illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens over a period of years.
  • created a system for family members and others to get visas
  • created a temporary worker program
  • required that employers determine the legal status of all job applicants

However, Congress was able to muster the votes to pass measures aimed at keeping Mexican and Central Americans out of the U.S.

Today most Americans can probably agree that the U.S. system of immigration law has not been enforced and is broken. They would also probably agree that despite various proposals to fix the system, elected officials have been unable to agree upon anything other than to create a 700-mile barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border that includes aerial surveillance, sensors, and a beefed up patrol force. (Despite all this, illegal immigrants keep getting in anyway, even if in smaller numbers.) Some proponents of these measures say that they are necessary to prevent terrorists from entering the country. But nobody has suggested a similar barrier on the 4,000-mile U.S.-Canada land border.

For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered? Consider, in particular, the reasons given for negative feelings toward immigrants in American history. Can you offer any other reasons for this anti-immigrant feeling?

2. You are probably an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. What do you know about your family's immigration history?


For small group discussion

1. Debates

During the primary presidential campaign debates, a candidate has 90 seconds to answer a question and 30 seconds for response to another candidate's remarks. Contrast that with the rules for a series of Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates in 1858 as described by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln:

"Each debate followed the same rules. The first contestant spoke for an hour, followed by a one-and-a-half-hour response, after which the man who had gone first would deliver a half-hour rebuttal. The huge crowds were riveted for the full three hours, often interjecting comments, cheering for their champion, bemoaning the jabs of his opponent. Newspaper stenographers worked diligently to take down every word, and their transcripts were swiftly dispatched throughout the country."

Of course these were debates between two candidates, not seven or eight. However, when the two parties select their nominees and there are only two candidates debating, they are still allotted only short periods of time in which to present and rebut.

How would you explain the differences in debates then and now? Which seems superior? Why?

2. Drivers Licenses

Revisit the driver's license issue with students. Organize them into the same discussion groups that began an examination of legal and illegal immigration. Have any students changed their minds? If so, how and why? If not, why not? A recorder in each group should present a summary report of the discussion to the class. Class discussion might follow.

For inquiry

A. Encourage students to answer the questions below with fact-based, thoughtful, compassionate, and politically smart answers that will help them consider comprehensive immigration reform.

1. What are some reasons why so many people, especially from Mexico and Central America, risk illegal entrance into the U.S.? What changes in U.S. immigration policy might take such reasons into consideration?

2. What should the U.S. government do about the 11.3 million people who are in the country illegally? Why? How?

3. Who hires illegal immigrants? Where? Why?

4. What should the U.S. government do about employers who hire illegal immigrants? Why? How?

5. Should the U.S. government do anything about those who provide aid of any kind to an illegal immigrant? Why? If so, what?

6. Should illegal immigrants be issued drivers' licenses? What consequences are likely to follow from a yes answer? A no?

7. What effects do immigrants have on the U.S. economy and on other workers?

8. Why didn't the most recent attempt at immigration reform become law? How do you explain the passionate opposition of many Americans to it? What do your answers suggest about the politics of making another attempt?

Organize students for independent and small group inquiries into the immigration situation. What questions are on their minds? See "Thinking Is Questioning" on this website for detailed suggestions for helping students ask worthwhile questions and conduct productive inquiries.

B. After students have completed their inquiries, organize them in small groups to fashion a class immigration policy.


For citizenship

See "Teaching Social Responsibility" for a number of suggestions about class projects that might address the immigration issue. Consider one that involves a school-wide approach to the controversial and vital issue of immigration reform.


Th is lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: