On the Fence
Former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner on the contradictions of migration policy in a globalizing world
Migration is as old as history. But the flow of humans across borders today versus that of centuries ago is about as similar as, say, the Mayflower and a shipping container. Roughly 150 million people now live outside their countries of birth. Alien smuggling is a $7 billion a year business. More than 12 million refugees crowd camps and shelters around the world. Regulating this global movement of people was hard even before terrorist attacks turned every border check into a paranoid pat-down. Just ask Doris Meissner, ex-commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), who spent seven years dealing with refugee crises, a schizophrenic Congress, and interest groups from the fans of Elián to the friends of Sikhs. And as Meissner pointed out in her conversation with FP Editor Moisés Naím in Washington on January 10, the only thing harder than agreeing on a sensible domestic migration policy is agreeing on a regional or — God forbid — a global one.
FOREIGN POLICY: Some observers have blamed last year’s terrorist attacks against the United States on lax U.S. immigration policies that allowed terrorists to enter the country and move about freely. U.S. Congressman Thomas Tancredo went so far as to conclude that the ins is "incompetent and incapable of protecting the people of the United States." What do you think?
Doris Meissner: To blame either our immigration policies or a single agency is just irresponsible, in my opinion.
FP: But it is clear that terrorists, some of whom were well known and on lookout lists, were allowed into the country. Should there be, or is it possible to imagine, a system that avoids that?
DM: We should imagine and insist on a system that is better able to identify those people than was the case in the period preceding September 11, 2001. Since the attacks, we have been talking as a country about how to get to that point.
FP: Will we get better policies and institutional frameworks that govern migration to the United States as a result of September 11? Or will we get an overreaction that actually yields inferior policies?
DM: I think we’ll get some of both, because these are always messy processes. One of the most important areas for improvement is the sharing of information between the law enforcement and intelligence communities. Sharing information is particularly difficult in this arena for both legal and historical reasons, because you have a real pecking order of organizations. The U.S. intelligence agencies (the fbi and the cia) do not trust and do not form relationships with the frontline agencies, which are the ins, the Customs Service, the visa officers, the Coast Guard, and some of the military intelligence agencies. That’s a bureaucratic culture that’s developed over a long time. Some of it is institutionalized in statute, so it can’t be fixed. That’s got to be broken down.
FP: What are the most likely migration policy mistakes or misguided initiatives post–September 11?
DM: The first is the idea that we either should or could systematically track who is in the United States on a move-by-move basis. We should know who’s coming and whether they left when they were supposed to. But the idea that we should build vast information systems that would inform us at any point whether, for instance, there are 50 Zacarias Moussouais who tried to register for flight training school — that’s just not practical. Another bad idea is that to achieve homeland security you need to merge a whole set of now-separate bureaucratic entities into one organization. Putting the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, and the Customs Service together into one organization, which is what the Hart-Rudman Commission recommended last year, would be a waste of time and energy. There is no payoff in creating a huge new bureaucracy.
FP: Is there a silver lining to the tragedy of September 11 in terms of how the United States manages migration?
DM: Absolutely. Let me begin with something fairly abstract. For most of the last decade or two, our society’s prevailing lens for looking at migration has been economic. Looking through a security lens is absolutely critical in today’s interdependent global environment. To me, one of the positive consequences of September 11 is that it has brought greater balance to how we manage and implement our immigration laws.
FP: Anything else?
DM: Yes. I think the terrorist attacks have established much more broadly in the American mind (and in the minds of the political elite) why shared interests with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, need more attention. For example, our discussion with Mexico on migration was turned on its head and pushed off the agenda by September 11. But at the same time, that issue will come back in a way that I hope will lead more effectively to a discussion of integration and to a broader popular understanding of why we’ve got to work in different ways with our neighbors.
FP: The events of September 11 have also stimulated other countries to look at their migration policies. For instance, even Chile is considering new antiterrorist safeguards, including more control over the comings and goings of immigrants of Arab descent. How widely do you think such policies will spread around the world?
DM: I think there will be a fair amount of rethinking around the world on basic entry procedures. But as to immigration policies more broadly, I wouldn’t hazard a guess at this point.
FP: U.S. immigration authorities are reportedly going after so-called absconders — people who are still in the United States after they were supposed to be deported. Although a majority of the 300,000 people in this category are of Latin American descent, the Justice Department will first go after the 6,000 or so from the Middle East. Do you think this sort of racial profiling is warranted? Is some degree of racial profiling inevitable and, from a cost-effectiveness and safety standpoint, even desirable?
DM: Even once the judicial system has determined that somebody doesn’t have a right to stay, the act of sending someone home is an Achilles’ heel for every democracy. Putting people from Arab countries at the front of the deportation line is certainly legal. It’s within the prosecutorial discretion of the executive branch, and from a law enforcement standpoint, it’s defensible. But I doubt whether it’s wise or whether it actually solves any problems.
FP: But if I tell you that these deportees are sleeper cells of al Qaeda —
DM: Then I would say our first responsibility is to know who those people are and get them out of here — work harder on those antiterrorism task forces in the big cities, bring me the names, and those will be the people, wherever they are from. As we know, some of those involved with the attacks may have been from France, and some of them may have been from any number of less obvious countries. We need a more sophisticated, targeted way of determining who should be at the top of the list than just picking people from Arab countries.
FP: As you know, President Bush ordered the secretaries of State and Treasury and the attorney general to "increase the sharing of customs and immigration information with Canada and Mexico, and work with our neighbors to develop a shared immigration and customs control database." Does this directive represent a move toward opening borders between the nafta countries and creating a safety perimeter around them?
DM: It does, and I think that’s a very good thing. This issue of our neighbors and integration is critical. From my experience, one of the best ways of moving ahead with cooperation is in the law enforcement arena. It’s also one of the hardest ways of moving ahead, because it goes to the core of our ideas on and concerns about sovereignty. Even in the European context, where an advanced model of integration is already under way, law enforcement is one of the areas that is the most underdeveloped. Legal systems are unique to countries. Consider the United States and Canada. We have similar legal systems and similar outlooks on how law enforcement ought to work. We have a great deal of respect and trust in the professionalism of our respective law enforcement personnel. Yet it is extraordinarily difficult to actually integrate these activities.
SMALLER WORLD, BIGGER PROBLEMS
FP: Approximately 150 million people, or about 2.5 percent of the world’s population, live outside their countries of origin. The number has doubled since 1965. Do you see this tide of international migration ebbing any time soon? What in your mind is the primary factor driving this trend?
DM: Migration has always been part of the human experience, and it has been enormously positive and, at times, terribly tragic and harmful. What’s new is that it is clearly occurring at a faster rate. The world is a much less fluid place in terms of nation-states and corridors and the consequences of moving.
FP: What do you mean by less fluid?
DM: At the turn of the 20th century, there were 60 countries in the world. Today there are more than three times that many. As much as we’re integrating and globalizing, there are more political units, and more borders that people have to cross when they move.
FP: Do you anticipate that the number of individuals living outside their countries of origin in the next 10 years will increase?
DM: The number will continue to grow not simply because of information and transportation but also because of connections. There have to be connections between countries and between migrants and where they’re trying to go in order for migration to actually happen. Globalization and economic interdependence increase the connections among peoples and enterprises around the world.
FP: You have long taken the view that modern migrations are fundamentally economic phenomena. You have said that narrowing the gap in wages and standards of living between the United States and Mexico is "the critical ingredient for reducing migration pressures." Yet many economists would argue that the best way of increasing incomes everywhere is to open borders and allow labor to move where it’s most productive.
DM: Economists would write that because they deal with the classic factors of production: materials, capital, and labor. In the ideal model, if they all can move freely and find each other, you get the most efficiency. What you see in the real world is that while money, raw materials, and people all move, people bring other characteristics with them. They are not fungible like money and raw materials. In order for people to move freely in a way that maximizes economies, there has to be a more level playing field. Getting to that playing field is, I would argue, one of the major challenges of our century.
FP: Isn’t everybody better off if there is free mobility of labor between Mexico and Canada and the United States, in the same way that there is free mobility of labor between Iowa and Missouri?
DM: At some point that would be a very good thing, which is why it’s extremely important to move more aggressively toward integration. But there is a more fundamental difference between Mexico and the United States than between Iowa and Missouri. When you have wage differentials of anywhere from ten or fifteen to one, you have a major imbalance. Look at the revolutionary experiment that’s taking place in the European Union, where the differences in living standards and wages have narrowed to the point where people move freely without creating enormous negative impacts. The fascinating thing, it seems to me, about what’s happened in Europe is that you don’t have to reach parity. What we’ve learned from the European experience with Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland — the countries that were really the out-migration countries — is that wage differentials can narrow to five or six to one and movement can occur without terribly negative impacts, because people then make decisions based on a set of circumstances, not just on what they’re going to earn.
FP: What sort of circumstances?
DM: They decide based on family, climate, job satisfaction — a range of things. And sometimes they’re willing to accept lower wages.
FP: According to the latest U.N. Population Fund reports, if present trends continue, Europe’s population will drop from 726 million to 603 million by 2050. And Japan’s will drop from 127 million to 109 million. In fact, fertility rates seem to be dropping throughout the developed world, even as population in many developing countries continues to spike upward. Are developed countries, especially those that don’t have a tradition of accepting immigrants, truly prepared to embrace a radical shift in their immigration policies to contend with these demographic trends?
DM: My short answer is no. But it is critically important that developed countries embrace such a shift. Of course, here’s where the United States and Canada have an enormous advantage, because our demographic picture would look similar but for immigration.
FP: So do you think that Japan, a historically xenophobic country, is trapped by its demographic destiny?
DM: It certainly looks that way now. But straight demographic projections almost never take into account external factors, the most typical one being technology. So Japan is not necessarily doomed to decline. But from a demographic standpoint, it’s on a very troubled course. And Japan is the extreme example. The Europeans are much more in the middle of the spectrum.
FP: And you would argue that developed countries with declining population rates — the population have-nots — that refuse to allow waves of immigrants to boost their population, and therefore refuse to become multiethnic, will have to accept decline?
DM: I don’t know any other way of reading it.
FP: In November 2001, a coalition in the German parliament agreed to liberalize the country’s immigration policies. The new policies would, for example, grant refugee status to foreigners fleeing nonstate and sexual forms of persecution, lower the age limit for children wanting to join their parents living in Germany from 16 to 14, and streamline deportation procedures. Do you think Germany is merely an outlier, or is it starting a new trend in European immigration policy?
DM: I think it’s a new trend. European states recognize that they must embrace some form of affirmative approach to migration. They have a history of defining their national identity by a shared ethnicity, as compared to the way we define ourselves as a country that is built on diversity and a tradition of immigration. Since the Iron Curtain was torn down in the 1990s, they — and especially Germany — have lost a sense of control over who comes to their countries. So they have had these enormous numbers of asylum seekers, because asylum has been the only avenue for people to come and stay in their countries. Their governments have had to cope with enormous political disenchantment, because the newcomers have arrived in the absence of any real immigration policy. But European nations are recognizing that although historically they haven’t been immigration countries, they must become pluralistic societies in order to maintain their competitiveness and standards of living. That will be far more difficult for them than for us.
FP: Many countries are getting tougher on foreigners seeking asylum. For instance, in 2001, Australia turned away a shipload of Afghan refugees on the grounds that they were simply economic migrants, and not legitimate asylum seekers. Australian Prime Minister John Howard received a good deal of public support for this tough stance. And also last year, then British Home Secretary Jack Straw, now the foreign secretary, decried the weaknesses of the refugee system established under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. He said, "The current system is failing many refugees, while at the same time putting huge pressure on receiving nations." Would you agree that the current asylum system is fundamentally bankrupt?
DM: There have been some very ugly chapters. This Australian episode was not pretty and was really used for political gain. But I would not say that the asylum regime is bankrupt. I would say, however, that far too many migration circumstances are handled as asylum problems when they should not be. That is partly because most areas of the world don’t have comprehensive migration policies. So they fall back on the asylum system, as do many of the people who are trying to get somewhere. That’s a serious problem because it undercuts the real responsibility that all countries around the world have for protecting refugees. It also makes the public cynical about taking in refugees and responding to human rights crises and to persecution. Asylum and the refugee regime are definitely in trouble. But I think it would be a serious mistake to reopen a debate on the refugee convention, because my fear is that countries would back away entirely from responsibilities to provide protection.
FP: The problem of human smuggling is pervasive. Some analysts estimate that the industry is worth at least $7 billion annually. Do you see this trend leveling off or worsening in the years ahead?
DM: The trend will worsen because countries are becoming more enforcement-minded. Therefore, people who are trying to move will increasingly turn to the professionals who have made the illegal movement of people a thriving business.
FP: Last December, Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the United States, was indicted on charges of conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States to work in its poultry plants. The company said that the Tyson employees involved were rogue individuals and that their actions violated company policy. Is the involvement of established, legitimate companies in alien smuggling a trend or an aberration?
DM: The kind of smuggling and the kind of illegality and money that are involved in smuggling people today could not thrive without the involvement of legitimate employers and industries. This investigation, which began when I was commissioner, represented a positive change in enforcement policy to focus on large warehouses and complex cases where there was real complicity and conspiracy. But law enforcement responses alone are not the answer to migration pressures. Law enforcement and control are legitimate steps that nations need to take to manage migration flows. But if that’s all they do, then we are going to have an increasingly difficult time because we must address the underlying inequities and unmet needs that force people to take such desperate steps.
FP: In the next three years, 100,000 skilled technology workers are expected to leave India. It costs India about $20,000 per student to educate these individuals. That means that India will subsidize the rest of the world to the tune of $2 billion. Should the state of Karnataka, where Bangalore is located, be subsidizing Silicon Valley and other technology centers in the developed world?
DM: This issue of "the brain drain" is coming back with a vengeance. Everybody wants skilled immigrants. When advanced democracies like the United States, Canada, and the European nations talk about changing immigration policies, it’s to get more skilled immigrants. But there are only so many of those people. The Germans, for example, made the political decision to go out and get skilled immigrants, but they are not finding anywhere near the number of people they wanted, for a variety of reasons — language and overall acceptability, etc. So we end up right back at the issue of development. We must find a more comprehensive approach and understanding of what managing migration around the world requires.
FP: So, does the world need a multilateral framework, a multicountry approach to dealing with migration? The world has multilateral regimes, agreements, and institutions that try to provide frameworks for trading goods and services. Why not a multilateral regime for the movement of people?
DM: I think we have to get there, but I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime. Where migration is concerned, we have very primitive structures in place. We do have an international convention on refugees, which requires states to behave in certain ways where refugees are concerned. But people in the refugee field will argue (and I agree) that even that convention and set of standards have been crumbling, crumbling, crumbling.
FP: Then give me three steps that are technically and politically viable that will move us in the right direction.
DM: Start with more active law enforcement cooperation, which will help reduce some of the incredible abuse and exploitation and money that is involved in trafficking people around the world. The next thing is to focus on greater regional integration initiatives that really are comprehensive, because that’s where actual problem solving can take place. The third, relatively painless step would be to promote a much deeper understanding of the links between migration and development through research and experimentation in countries and in international arenas.
FP: Let me follow up on the second of your steps, which is the model of using regional approaches as building blocks. What has the eight-year experience with nafta taught us about migration models and the interaction of migration with economic integration? What do you make of Vicente Fox’s proposal for North America to move to a European Union–style system by gradually eliminating barriers to movement of peoples? How realistic is this?
DM: nafta should have helped the issue of migration by raising standards of living in Mexico and reducing wage differentials between the United States and Mexico. It has done that to some extent, but it’s a long road. Most analyses suggest that it will take another 15 years of economic growth at rates of 5 to 6 percent a year for Mexico to produce enough jobs to employ its population. That doesn’t even speak to the question of equity.
FP: Did the September 11 attacks end Vicente Fox’s hopes for liberalizing and legalizing the status of Mexicans in the United States?
DM: Fox basically proposed that the two countries fashion an entirely new immigration relationship that included a freer flow of labor into the United States, a guest worker program, and the legalization of Mexicans who were already here. The terrorist attacks temporarily quashed all that for two reasons: first, they put another issue at the top of the agenda and, second, because of what’s happened to the U.S. economy. The politics necessary to embrace a flow of workers and the whole argument about needing workers are absent for the moment. But what Fox really put on the table and what his vision has been from the outset is integration — a North American common, a North American union. And that, it seems to me, is more salient post–September 11 than it was when he posed it at the beginning of this administration.
GIVE ME YOUR SKILLED, YOUR RICH
FP: Let me ask about the case of Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose mother died bringing him to the United States. After much controversy, the United States decided to return Elián to his father in Cuba. Some people have made the hypothetical comparison with a woman in East Berlin handing her baby over the wall to relatives in West Berlin. Do you imagine that West Germany would have returned that baby to East Germany, in the same way that the United States returned Elián to Cuba?
DM: No, West Germany would not have, and the United States would not have but for the real difference that Elián’s father asked for the child to come back. We determined that there was a true relationship between father and child and that the father was the proper caretaker for his son. In the German case, that mother is not asking for her child back. That mother is saying, "This child will have a better life," and the West offered it.
FP: What did you learn from the Elián case?
DM: Well, while I knew about the intensity of anti-Castro feelings among Cuban-Americans, I was astonished by their political strength. I was also struck by the idea that if we could spend the time and effort on every single case that was expended on Elián, the agency would run wonderfully and, regardless of whether people agreed with a given outcome, fewer cases would slip through the cracks. The sheer volume of what takes place in the immigration field and for agencies like the ins makes it very hard to deal with everybody as well as you would like.
FP: Have you heard from Elián since?
DM: Not directly. But indirectly, I’ve heard on two different occasions how he’s doing by people who have seen him. And it’s a very positive picture. For me, returning Elián to his father was one of the most satisfying things I did in the job, because to me there was no gray area. It was a clear-cut case. He belonged with his father, and we accomplished that.
FP: Were you personally threatened?
DM: I didn’t feel terribly threatened, but I’m a very trusting person. However, I did have security during that time, because there were some very vicious threats.
FP: Critics of open migration policies argue that although past waves of migration to the United States were a net contribution to the nation, the new waves are a net dead weight, bringing illnesses, fiscal pressures, congested public services, and lower wages for everybody. What do you think?
DM: That same argument was made at the turn of the 20th century and in the middle of the 1800s. It has been proved wrong in the past. But that is not to say that immigration just turns out right or is a benign phenomenon, because the immigration taking place today differs from immigration in the past. First, it’s a much more varied immigration — ethnically and linguistically — so the basic issues of educating kids, language-training, etc., are very challenging. Moreover, even though we are an immigrant country, our periods of high immigration have been followed by periods of very little immigration. These cycles have allowed us to go through an integration process. There is no reason to believe that immigration today will abate, because of what we’ve been talking about — because of globalization.
FP: Put that in historical context.
DM: In overall numbers, more immigrants arrived in the United States between 1990 and 2000 than at any time in our history. In proportional terms, that decade also marks the second largest influx in our history. In the past, immigrants with a high-school education in an industrial economy could work their way into the middle class within a generation, or two at the most. The information age requires more education in order to survive. The responsibility for preparing our society for the future falls heavily on the immigrants in our country and the ability of our institutions to bring those people along.
FP: Do you believe there should be restrictions on the social services illegal immigrants can access?
DM: You cannot allow illegal immigrants access to all services. It creates too much incentive for people to come here. But you can’t deprive them of all social services either, particularly healthcare and education. The debate on disincentives to counteract illegal immigration took place in the mid-1990s with then Governor Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 in California. My view is, and the view of the Clinton administration had been, that we restrict access to work. People come here to get jobs, and we have to focus on that. Governor Wilson and the Republican Party believed at the time that we needed to severely restrict social services. That approach was held unconstitutional in the courts. But it led to legislation in 1996 that restricted access to social services, not just to illegal immigrants but to legal immigrants, which was a departure for us historically. Since then, there’s been a lot of backtracking. I think we have decided as a society that even if people are illegal, healthcare and education have to be made available to them — because ignorant people are going to create problems for you, and their illnesses can put the rest of the population at risk. Can the ins be saved?
FP: So essentially, your argument is that immigration is unavoidable, that the tide is growing and will continue to grow, and that all the United States can do is manage it better?
DM: Managing it well is absolutely crucial, not only so that the negatives don’t outweigh the positives but also so that public support for immigration continues. The public has to feel that there are rules and that there is some discipline in the process.
FP: During your tenure at the INS, its budget grew enormously, and the number of employees jumped from roughly 18,000 to 32,000. Yet congressional critics used words like "meltdown" to describe the state of the ins when you left. That doesn’t sound like good management.
DM: The committees and members that were the most inflammatory in their language were the same ones that shoveled money at us faster than at any other agency in the entire federal government during that era. We experienced year upon year of phenomenal budget growth — with rates of increase as high as 30 percent. The people who write the checks don’t continue to write them if they are truly disillusioned with the progress that’s being made. That incredible growth was taking place at the same time I was running an extremely ambitious reform effort — not to mention implementing probably the most rapid set of new legislative mandates of any period in immigration history. I came to the conclusion that much of the criticism we heard at congressional hearings was aimed at using the agency as a scapegoat or whipping boy for keeping the anti-immigration debate alive. We are a country of immigration that has never decided, and probably never will, whether we really like immigration or not. We do not have a consensus on how we view immigration. During the 1990s, the debate shifted every year and a half to two years, and sometimes even more quickly.
FP: For example?
DM: From 1992 to 1993, numerous states sued the federal government for not doing anything to control the borders. Six years later, we faced a huge cry to increase the number of technical workers and bring in guest workers, because so many jobs were available, etc. No bureaucracy can function to the people’s satisfaction without a broader, more settled philosophical acceptance of a particular issue.
FP: When you presided over the INS, the annual budget went from $1.5 billion to almost $5 billion, yet the INS computer systems are legendary for their obsolescence. To give you just one example, when I arrived one time in Miami without my green card, they were unable to match my name with my alien number — a fairly basic operation. Why can’t the INS officials in the United States create an information system that is as sophisticated as those of Visa and MasterCard?
DM: During the 1990s, there was an enormous investment in data system improvements and an enormous improvement in the quality of the immigration information. Of course, the information systems are not what they should be. They are not what MasterCard and Visa have. First, the starting point for these investments was comparatively very late. Second, the lead time of the budget process in the government is completely outpaced by technology advances. Moreover, it’s often hard to accurately estimate the cost to run and maintain a new system, especially if your organization is growing. Third, dealing with congressional oversight in the modernization of a government agency is not like dealing with a board of directors in a corporation. You spend months convincing staff members — including those who want to see a procurement go to a vendor in their districts — on the oversight committee that you need a particular system or piece of equipment. Next, you never have the kind of training you need for the personnel using the new technology. Finally, there’s the issue of culture — the INS has a real lack of discipline about the importance of accuracy and handling data with integrity.
FP: Should some functions within the INS be outsourced to the private sector?
DM: The difficulty with data systems in the federal government, at least from my experience, is that so much is outsourced that you don’t have the in-house expertise you need for planning, contract oversight, and troubleshooting.
FP: Your successor, James Ziglar, has little direct experience in the immigration field by his own admission. His supporters cite his business and management background to suggest that he can make the INS work better — make it leaner, smarter, run more like a corporation. What do you think?
DM: I hope that he can. I don’t think that you have to be steeped in immigration in order to be able to run the agency well. I think it helps. But I also have to say that what happened at the INS in the 1990s has made it easier for a commissioner today to manage the agency effectively and to deal with what’s coming at him or her, particularly in the post–September 11 period.
FP: But the Bush administration has just announced a comprehensive restructuring effort designed to separate the INS enforcement and immigration services activities under different commissioners. The idea is that the INS will have good-cop functions, such as processing citizenship papers, and bad-cop functions, such as border inspections, deportations, and so on. Critics charge that the INS has paid too much attention to the good-cop part and not enough to enforcement. Do you agree?
DM: No. The restructuring that the Bush administration is talking about is what we proposed in 1997 and 1998. If Congress had concurred, the restructuring would be done by now, and the current administration wouldn’t have to deal with it. The major growth that took place in the agency cries for a reformed management structure. I hope they can get it done, because we were prevented from doing so by the split between a Republican Congress and Democratic administration.
FP: What advice would you give to the Bush administration if there is a major migration crisis, such as what might happen if a major political upheaval in Cuba prompts a massive outpouring of Cubans who want to come to the United States?
DM: You’ve identified one of the biggest blind spots that we have in our foreign policy — our policy toward Cuba. My first piece of advice would be to change our policy. Do I think that’s possible? No, I don’t, particularly in this administration. If a Cuban exodus happens, we have no choice but to do what we’ve done before, which is to interdict, rescue people, and take them some place where we can interview them to determine (in accordance with international obligations) whether some of them are refugees and have a right to come to the United States. Most likely, that will be a very small proportion. As far as the rest are concerned, we have to do everything diplomatically possible to restore circumstances that allow them to return to their country.
FP: Are there any particular countries whose migration policies or strategies you admire?
DM: Canada is a country that all countries in the world admire and would want to emulate in terms of the professionalism of the people who deal with immigration. Because a separate ministry handles migration, it gets the political attention within the cabinet that it deserves. Canadians also invest an impressive amount in research, statistics, data, and those sorts of things. Because they have a parliamentary system, they can execute their policies without the kind of contentious relationship with the Congress that we have.
FP: Your career in the last 20 years has oscillated between researching migration issues and policymaking in the field. How closely linked is the process of policy formation and execution with the world of knowledge creation?
DM: I actually found the two worlds more closely linked than I thought possible. When I first joined the Clinton administration, my biggest nightmare was facing an immigration emergency. Even worse than facing one crisis would be to have two at one time. And we got that with Haiti and Cuba in 1994. As difficult as it was, we had to confront the reality that we simply could not allow these people to continue to get to the United States. I can remember a big debate within the administration about what to do. I argued that we adopt, for the first time, a policy of safe haven — providing protection to these people some place other than on U.S. land. Safe haven would enable us to observe our international responsibilities without serving as a magnet for the continuing disorderly and unsafe movement of people. And so, in 1995, I was able to get a policy of safe haven adopted.
FP: How is that related to the world of ideas?
DM: In the preceding years, I had been doing a great deal of research with others on appropriate responses to refugee emergencies. Safe haven was one of the ideas that had been used in other parts of the world but never in this hemisphere. So we applied it in this case with some success. When the announcement of our safe-haven policy was actually being made, I can remember looking at my colleagues and saying, "Ideas matter." But I found that when you’re in jobs like that of the ins commissioner, you basically run out of steam, which is to say you use up your intellectual capital. After seven years at the ins, I didn’t have that many new ideas, and I was a little bit tired of managing new problems.
FP: What led you to become interested in migration originally?
DM: It was a complete accident. I was working at the Justice Department as a White House fellow. Through a series of personal circumstances that had to do with my husband’s work on Capitol Hill, we sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family. People at the Justice Department knew about it, and when the department had to do an interagency study on the sources of illegal immigration and make policy recommendations for the attorney general, somebody said, "Oh, Doris knows about immigration. She’s sponsoring a refugee family. Let’s give her the assignment."
FP: What year was that?
DM: It was in roughly 1974–75. And the issue never left. Soon after that, Saigon fell. Then we went into the huge resettlement of the late 1970s, and I became the point person on that. That led to issues with legislation and new laws in 1980. It just built on itself.
FP: What is the worst migration crisis you have witnessed?
DM: I was in Thailand on the border with Cambodia in 1979, within two or three weeks of when people first left after Pol Pot. People were dying at our feet. They were just stumbling out of the country and dying. I’ve been in a lot of refugee camps. I was down on the docks in Miami or in Key West in 1971, when the Cubans were arriving, and in 1980, I saw some of the really deranged, mentally ill people, the Marielitos from the boatlift that originated in Mariel, Cuba. None of that was very pretty. But the sight of Cambodians coming out after the killing fields was really the worst.