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Think Policy Not Politics for Smart Immigration Reform, Says Professor

University of Houston political science professor Jeronimo Cortina is very optimistic about the future of race relations in this country — an outlook he says was inspired by his students. “Everyone sees themselves as equals,” says Cortina, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 2001. “They are used to going out with Jose or Juan or Joe.”

Of the country’s 100 largest universities, the University of Houston is the second most ethnically diverse, and its foreign-born students represent a critical economic force. Over the next 20 years, the number of working-aged Americans relative to retirees will decline significantly; already, less than half the U.S.-born population is of working age. This same trend is not true for immigrants: 72.4 percent of foreign-born residents are between the ages of 25 and 64 compared with just 49.5 percent of U.S.-born Americans who are. In Texas’ 18th Congressional District, which serves the city of Houston, the gap is even wider, with 78.2 percent of the foreign-born population falling into the working-age bracket compared with only 46.7 percent of the U.S.-born population. In 2014, immigrants in the district paid $888 million in taxes and held an annual spending power of $2.8 billion.

Regarding the nation’s current strife surrounding race and immigration, Cortina takes the long view. He notes that in the past other ethnic groups have been marginalized, subjected to quotas and mass deportations, but ultimately American compassion and common sense prevailed.

We need to sit down and discuss this like adults, from a policy perspective rather than a political perspective.

“We have been here before. Historically speaking, this is a blip,” he says. “The ideas by which this country is founded on will make it past these bitter moments, so I’m optimistic.”

Cortina believes that as immigrant groups integrate, the dominant culture will become less threatened by displays of ethnic pride. Right now, we’re in a moment where, he says, “if you are a proud Mexican-American, people say ‘Hey, why are you so proud? You must not be with us, not part of society.’ But we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We enjoy visiting Little Italy, Chinatown.” It’s only a matter of time, Cortina believes, before people look at Mexican-Americans the same way: as equally Mexican and American. “I’m both, and I’m allowed to be both,” he says.

The United States would also benefit from more common-sense policies on immigration, Cortina says. For example, he does not think it makes sense to prevent workers from traveling back and forth across the border to work the agricultural and construction jobs that Americans don’t want. “Once you shut the door at the border, people are trapped in the country, too. If you have circular migration, people can come and go, and stay in their home counties,” he says.

He would like to see Americans take a hard look at what will be most beneficial for the country as a whole, rather than fall prey to political rhetoric. “We need to sit down and discuss this like adults, from a policy perspective rather than a political perspective,” he says. “If we insert politics, we are not going to go anywhere.”

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