Faculty Q&A: Rodolfo de la Garza

Interview by Bridget O'Brian

As a boy growing up in Tucson, Ariz., Rodolfo de la Garza frequently accompanied his father, a cook, to his job at the University of Arizona. “He would take me with him when he would set up the kitchen,” he said. “It was so beautiful there that I wanted to be at a university.”

Professor Rodolfo de la Garza (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Professor Rodolfo de la Garza
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

That wasn’t an obvious jump for someone from his Barrio Hollywood neighborhood, which got its name, de la Garza recalls, as an ironic term for a not-so-great part of town. While he was a good student, “many of my friends were gang members and stuff, and so I walked the line between them and the Anglos I befriended in high school,” he said. “I was on both sides of the fence all the time.”

Now a professor of political science here, de la Garza was the first member of his family born in the United States and to go to college. His first political experience was going door-to-door in his Mexican American neighborhood trying to drum up votes for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. He’s been involved in politics ever since, and while his research specialty is the political behavior of Latinos, he also is a noted expert on immigration.

He examines the topic not just for its impact on the United States, but also from an angle often overlooked: how it affects the countries from which many immigrants come to the U.S. “The damage that migration causes to families left behind is really very large, and there’s very little attention given to that,” he said. With his birthplace now the nexus of national hand-wringing over immigration, de la Garza talked with The Record about what will almost surely be a turning point in this conversation, given its political, cultural and legal ramifications. “You’ve got a divide, a cultural and an economic divide, and the nation doesn’t know what to do,” he said.

Q. Is it surprising that Arizona is the flash point for immigration?

No, it’s not. In recent years, Texas has been all but closed off, and so is California. It’s created a funnel, so you’ve got an increased flow of illegal immigrants into Arizona. Phoenix, and Tucson to a lesser degree, have become the unwanted recipients of a lot of narco traffic and a tremendous increase in the amount of violence. Arizona also has a changing demography, so that you have a lot of Midwesterners flooding in—retirees, snowbirds, displaced unemployed people who have no history with the region. And you’ve got a division in the state between southern Arizona, a heavily Hispanic area, and the rest of the state, including Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix and Flagstaff, which historically had few Mexicans. And there’s an ethnic dimension to the crisis that’s powerful, real and historic. Combine those several factors and you create the conditions for conflict. You understand why Anglo Arizonans resent current conditions without in any way supporting their actions.

Q. What other factors are at play?

You have the right-wing politics of Arizona, which has always been there, but you’ve had a mixed Democratic influence, Democratic governors, effective Democratic congressmen like the Udalls. Congressman Grijalva is a Mexican American from Tucson, an old-time activist. So you’ve got a divide along several dimensions. Of course, with the current politics you have people pushing to not be outflanked on the right. McCain is now competing with an even more extreme guy for the U.S. Senate. So there’s no way out.

Q. How much of this might be rooted in racism?

It’s really hard to know how much of it is racism, but there’s some of it in there, there can be no doubt. And there always has been in Arizona. Years ago there was a governor, Jack Williams—and I was involved in protests against him in graduate school—who shepherded through and then signed a bill against farm workers that said they couldn’t strike until the harvest was over. That’s marvelous, I mean that’s really creative, right?

Q. What kind of support is there among various groups for the Arizona law?

The polls are all out there. Latinos oppose it strongly, the nation supports it by some margin, depending on how you ask the question. Even Latinos don’t like the illegality of undocumented migration. What they don’t like about this law is it targets them as a group. So I could be targeted. There’s a self-interest in opposing it above and beyond the philosophical level. Could you prove you’re a citizen right now?

Q. What will be the political fallout for Latinos, Republicans, Democrats?

Republicans have already lost the Latino vote. They’re not going to get it again for at least 25 years, and I think 50. Not just because of this, but for a variety of things. They don’t have any policies for Latinos.

Immigrants come in and they live among other Latinos. So the immigrants learn that Republicans are bad guys. It reproduces itself. Republicans get 25 percent of the Latino vote now, and that’s unlikely to change, because there are 25 percent who are pro-business.

Q. Does that help Democrats?

Yes, but only if Latinos get out and vote. The problem with Latinos is that they don’t vote much. We don’t know why; it’s a puzzle. Partly it’s because parties don’t pursue them; parties have a strategy of pursuing voters, so if you haven’t voted they don’t come after you. Latinos vote in lower rates than blacks and whites. If they vote, they vote 70 to 80 percent Democratic, no matter what they call themselves. They call themselves conservative, they call themselves independents, but they vote Democratic. In the last election, the Latino vote was about 8 percent of registered voters.

Q. Where do Latinos fall on the political spectrum?

Latinos are on the center-left of the Democratic Party; they fit right within it. They are more supportive of immigrants than the general population. They are more supportive of relations with Latin America, and that may be because they think they can benefit from that if they’re businesspeople or they have relatives there. They’re not pro-Latin America, necessarily; they’re just more supportive. They mostly vote in majority/minority districts. So if there’s a Latino running who has credentials as a Latino they vote for him, but they don’t vote for Latinos per se.

Q. You recently gave a speech at Notre Dame University about your ideal immigration policy. What is that?

There are a number of issues involved. Most of the immigration reform proposals say nothing about the responsibility of the home countries to enact and develop policies that reduce the incentive for their citizens to leave. They need to provide better education and better hospitalization, and reduce crime. If you reduce all the bad stuff, you redistribute income—Mexico has one of the worst distributions of income around—then people might be willing to stay at home.

Now here’s my plan. You sell tickets to come to the United States. Right now, it costs a Mexican about $3,000 to come here illegally. So let’s sell a ticket for $1,000. That $1,000 would go to fund an I.D. card available only to people over the age of 18, and it’s good for five years. Currently, the undocumented can’t go home because they can’t afford to come back. With this plan, they could go back and forth all they want, and they could maintain ties with family who can’t come. The family stays home because children can’t get a card. That takes care of the problem with schools. Now, people are going to get mad and say you’re breaking up families. The answer is no; immigrants can go home and maintain connections with their families. Europeans did this for decades. To go along with this, you require enforcement at the business level with big-time fines.

Q. How will the home nations react?

You have to negotiate with the Mexican government. It has a responsibility here. Don’t just protest how we abuse your people and keep sending them to us. Without a card, they can’t get a job. And if they can’t get a job, they’re not going to come. Those with the ticket can get whatever services a legal resident alien is entitled to. At the end of five years, they can either renew or they can go home or they can apply for permanent residence. You’re not going to stop the flow of people, you’re going to reduce it. The point of this is to get the home country more engaged with working on the problem. Right now, these countries have carte blanche to send anybody and do nothing.

Q. How does immigration affect the countries people come from?

I did a big paper for UNICEF that’s about to come out on the impact of immigration on home countries. The conventional wisdom is that the money going back home, the remittances, are great. I don’t find that to be true. Kids are left without parents, and they come to define their parents in terms of the money sent home. This generates envy because some poor kids get money in the same neighborhood that they used to live in; other kids don’t. And the evidence on education isn’t clear. Also, families break up, get lost. Kids are left with elderly grandparents who can’t take care of them.

Q. What do you see as the biggest problem with the U.S. approach to immigration right now?

Nationally, there has been a change in how we view the border. It’s now looked at through the prism of 9/11, so we’re afraid of terrorists. Add the really ugly narco trafficking going on in Mexico, and you also want to control immigration. That’s really difficult. And if you look at who is trying to illegally immigrate into the U.S., it’s mostly young males between the ages of 17 and 30. Young males are among the most dangerous people on earth. It doesn’t matter who they are or what their background is. You have all these workers with nothing to do with their off time, no families. They are bound to get into trouble.

You put all that together in Arizona and it gets very messy. The assumption is that these immigrants are taking jobs that Americans could have, except Americans don’t want them. Now it is important to recognize that if you flood an area with different people, there’s going to be a reaction. Countries don’t normally experience the amount of immigration that the U.S. is experiencing. So there’s a human element that makes us understand a reaction. But you can overreact, and that’s what’s going on.

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