MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later in the program, we will talk more about the story that's riveted the country, about those three women who were missing for a decade who were recently found alive. In a few minutes, we'll speak with a local columnist who stayed in touch with the mother of one of the missing women, who never gave up hope, but, sadly, did not live to see her daughter free. We'll hear more from columnist Regina Brett.
But first, we want to talk about another issue that's gripped this country for years now, and that is immigration. The Senate has now started its intense work on a sweeping immigration reform bill that was put forward by a bipartisan group. For a nearly 850 pages, the bill lays out sweeping changes to exactly how and when immigrants would be allowed to enter the U.S.
But while a lot of attention has focused on conservative objections to what some are calling amnesty for the millions of undocumented people who are already here, there's also a vigorous debate among progressives, including among African-American leaders. So we decided to invite two of those leaders to share their thoughts.
With us now are writer, economist and former college president Julianne Malveaux. Also with us, Hilary Shelton. He's the Washington bureau director for the NAACP. That's the well-known national civil rights group. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
HILARY SHELTON: It's great to be with you.
JULIANNE MALVEAUX: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Julianne, I'm going to start with you. You wrote a column calling this bill, a quote, "844-page monstrosity." What are your major objections?
MALVEAUX: Every senator in the Gang of Eight has put in special provisions for themselves. Meanwhile, this bill essentially eliminates the diversity visa program, which is how most African or Caribbean immigrants came in. The new program, a point system, makes it much more difficult for Africans and Caribbeans to come here. So it's implicit discrimination.
Also, Senator Schumer got an exception so that 10,000 Irish people can come, and no one has explained why, except for special interests. But no one's got such a provision for either Africans or Caribbeans. So Lindsey Graham gets extra folks in for a meat-packing industry. There's a provision for ski employees, for cruise ships, and nothing for people of African descent.
MARTIN: Well, just to clarify, Senator Lindsey Graham's from South Carolina. Senator Chuck Schumer is from New York. And the specific position you're talking about, it seems to advantage Irish people with a high school diploma. And you ask, you know, why that is. Let me ask you, Professor Malveaux, do you think this is intentionally race-based? Or do you think that this is just a byproduct of people seeking advantages for particular constituents of their own?
MALVEAUX: I do think - I don't think it's intentional race-based. I think that they tried to put together the best bill they could - although 844 pages, I haven't been able to read it without getting a headache. But I think that these special exceptions really weaken the bill.
MARTIN: Hilary Shelton, the NAACP is supporting the bill, on the whole. You also flag, or the leaders of your organization have also flagged this program, this diversity visa program which allows a visa lottery for countries that have low levels of immigration. And as Professor Malveaux pointed out that, you know, a lot of immigrants from the African and the Caribbean have taken advantage of this. Overall, why does the NAACP support this bill?
SHELTON: We think it's a good core bill that's going to have to be addressed as we move forward. As you know, as we talk about any piece of legislation passing through the U.S. Congress and making its way to the president's desk, we often time refer to it almost jokingly as a 12-step process. So we're at the beginning of a process. We have a good, core built that does some very helpful things coming out of the Senate.
It does need to be fixed, and we have raised issues about the diversity visas, immigrants that have had major problems, and actually de facto quotas coming out of Africa and the Caribbean, and the need to address these issues and all these concerns to move forward.
We were able to put into the Senate bill thus far not only provisions that looks at and begins to raise the issue of increasing those numbers of racial and ethnic minorities from the various places that have been left out and underserved over so many years, but also even a racial profiling provision. You have to look at the challenges with the federal government, as well as local state governments that have now taken it in their own hands to actually put in place their own anti-immigrant policies, like Alabama and Arizona.
We know that those protections are very well important, as well. So we're supporting the bill overall. We're working with those in the House and the Senate side, very closely with our friends in the congressional black caucus to craft the approaches and amendments to help make this bill what it needs to be to address our folks, as well.
MARTIN: You know, the Professor Malveaux, the bill does make values choices. I mean, it kind of moves the country away from a system of immigration that really favored people with family ties here to a system that really favors people who have higher education, future employment opportunities, may have the ability to create employment opportunities for others. Do you think that that's inherently wrong?
MALVEAUX: I do. I think that, again, the family-based program allowed families to reunify. This employment-based program - which continues the H1B visa, which I don't think we really need. They're saying essentially they can't find skilled workers in Silicon Valley. That's just not the truth. We have high unemployment rate among African-Americans and among whites, and what some of the work has been done shows that African-American students are more likely than white students to major in computer science.
So you've got this whole cadre of untouched people who basically are being passed over in favor of folks who are coming through the H1B program, which, until these provisions have been made - which are good provisions - you were basically held like a slave. You could not leave your job. If you were under the H1B program, you couldn't leave your job, because then you would be deported.
So this does give people 60 days to find another job. So that's - you know, the bill has lots of good stuff in it, Michel, but it's just also got lots of bad stuff in it. You get extra points if you have degrees in engineering. Of course, African and Caribbean people aren't likely to do that. You get extra points for any number of other things. The only thing that I think Africans are able to benefit from is they usually come here with higher education.
But the employability gives you 40 points. The higher education gives you five points. So - and since employers in Silicon Valley have not gone after African and Caribbean people as employees - they've gone after Indian and Chinese people - all they have to do is require that they also go after African and Caribbean people, and I'd be a little more satisfied.
What bothers me the most about this bill is that President Obama says he needs it to be passed as is, because more debate basically will cause more provisions. And I'm sure on the House side, just as on the Senate side, people will have their special provisions. But passing the bill as is is just unacceptable.
MARTIN: Mr. Shelton, what about Julianne Malveaux's point, particularly as a group that is historically dedicated to advancing the interests of African-Americans? I mean, I know that the leader of the group, Ben Jealous, makes a comment in his writings about this, that this organization is about equal treatment and social justice. And there's just significant social justice concerns that the NAACP feels morally called upon to advance.
But what about the argument that Professor Malveaux is making, that this really kind of suppresses the employment opportunities of native-born African-Americans, even those who are doing everything they can to make themselves competitive in the labor market in favor of, you know, foreign-born workers? What about her point?
SHELTON: I think she raises a very important point, as a matter of fact. This would look at any tech visa programs - or STEM is the term they're using these days, as we talk about the high tech field - that we have to make sure that as we're securing these visas, that one of the things that's very clearly in place is actually an increase in the cost of these visas for these corporations.
They want to argue - and certainly for the Silicon Valley crowd and others - argue all the time that we very well need to make sure we can fill these positions now. And they argue that we don't have people that are prepared for them. Well, if that's the case, then certainly, they need to reach out to bring in someone right now.
We have to make sure the cost is that actually moves those resources to preparing those in our communities - our HBCUs and other places - to make sure they receive those resources, so we can prepare...
MARTIN: But she's saying that the bill makes is less...
SHELTON: ...that next generation.
MARTIN: Forgive me. The bill - she's saying that the bill makes it less likely that that's going to happen, and I wonder if you think that her point is credible or not.
SHELTON: I think as the bill is written now, she's right. There's less incentive. As a matter of fact, the cost of an H-1B visa in this bill is actually lower than it was before - than it is right now, so that has to be addressed. So in other words, the incentive for corporations to actually look for people right here at home isn't in place and it's actually devalued with lowering the cost of those H-1Bs. Well, they're not calling them H-1Bs now, but the high tech stem visas.
MARTIN: Professor Malveaux, we only have a couple of minutes left and I have a difficult question to ask you, which is that there are those who would argue that your thinking here is itself morally flawed because you are specifically kind of advocating for African-Americans, people of African descent, Caribbean people, people of Caribbean descent, who are more likely to be black, and that there are some who argue that that's just a kind of a flawed metric, if I can use that term, that that's exactly the kind of thinking we need to get away from when we're thinking about what's best for the country on the whole. Do you mind addressing that?
MALVEAUX: Sure. I basically support immigration. I support what they call it here, immigration modernization, but let it be modernization for everyone, not just for Latino immigrants who are coming primarily (technical difficulties) not just for the goodies that South Carolina Senator Graham and Schumer and Rubio and Bennet have thrown into the bill.
Let's look at other populations. The fact is that the way we allow people to immigrate has been patently unfair just across the board. Michel, Canadian people immigrate by walking across the border, and because they're white people, people don't - they don't - are not subject to the kind of racial profiling that let's say a Latino is. The fact is that if we're going to deal with immigration, people want to come to this country. Let's make the opportunity equal.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the immigration bill that's currently being debated and marked up, as the term that they use in the Senate. I'm joined by writer and economist Julianne Malveaux and Hilary Shelton of the NAACP. Hilary Shelton, a final thought from you?
SHELTON: Well, she's absolutely right on so many areas. As we enter this debate over immigration reform, we've had major problems in the African-American community over the slow process of reuniting families, the de facto quotas preventing those of African descent from coming in from Africa and the Caribbean and other places in that basin.
In essence, we do have to address all of those problems if it's going to be comprehensive. It has to be fair, it has to be just and, quite frankly, it has to be compassionate as we talk about the diversity that is America and the world, for that matter.
MARTIN: How confident are you that your concerns are being heard by the people who are debating the bill?
SHELTON: Well, we know that we're talking to a number of our friends on the Senate side on a regular basis, the Congressional Black Caucus and many other friends on the House side, and we're hoping to make sure that our issues and concerns carry the day. We're convinced that leadership members like Chuck Schumer, like Harry Reid and others are hearing us, and we're seeing, actually, the result of those conversations in amendments that are being crafted even as we speak.
MARTIN: Hilary Shelton is the Washington bureau director for the NAACP. He was with us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Julianne Malveaux is a writer and economist. She was with us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
MALVEAUX: Thank you.
SHELTON: It's great being with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.