Educate the Vote: Perspectives on Incarceration & Immigration Policy

Educate the Vote 2016
October 15, 2016
Gabriella Lifsec

On Monday, September 26, Cornell University, in conjunction with event sponsors* and a gift from Jennifer Koen-Horowitz ’93 and Mark Horowitz, hosted the event, Educate the Vote 2016.  The ‘live academic debate’ immediately preceded the first presidential debate and focused on two key domestic policy issues, Incarceration & Immigration policy.  Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, moderated the expert panel.  Beneath the full video is a summary of the discussion between immigration scholars, Karthick Ramakrishnan and Reihan Salam.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the University of California, Riverside, where he also serves as Associate Dean of the School of Public Policy. He directs the National Asian American Survey and is founder of, which seeks to make policy-relevant data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders more accessible.

Reihan Salam is executive editor and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor of National Affairs, a member of the board of New America, and an advisor to the Energy Innovation Reform Project and the Niskanen Institute.  

In their opening statements, panelists began by outlining their key concerns regarding immigration.

Salam focused on the economic impacts of low skilled migration as a key policy matter that needs to be “different from the immigration policy of the past.” Ramakrishnan countered that current policies are less driven by data and more driven by politics like when “Congress debates it”. In response to proposals to build a wall, Ramakrishnan pointed to “net negative migration from Mexico”, and the lack of data to support higher rates of immigrant criminality.  

Dean Ritter asked panelists to explain why immigration is such a ‘hot button’ issue this election season.

Salam cautioned conclusions based on broad trends, pointing out the key difference between the “average cost of providing public goods” and the “marginal cost” of providing these goods. Salam encouraged an approach that more critically examined the disproportionate impacts across the population, so that you are not simply “aggregating a lot of big, different groups of people.” He pointed particularly to a 9% wage decrease in “previous immigrants” residing in the U.S. due to the more recent immigrant influx.

Ramakrishnan in turn argued in favor of a broader admissions policy, and for greater investment in “not just high-skilled labor,” but the integration of both low and high skilled immigrants. He also emphasized the need for immigration policy to be more “insulated from the political process” like it is in Canada. Regarding the costs of immigrant integration, he compared the debate to questions of investing in children and that “somehow [we think] children will be essential to the long-term economic sustenance of our country, but think differently about immigrants.”

Dean Ritter next asked panelists to speak specifically on Mexican immigration. Despite the decrease in Mexican immigration, she asked why the political discourse has focused on strengthening borders instead of going after the corporations that hire “illegal” employees. Ramakrishnan and Salam both believe that all workers in our society should be “free citizen workers” who have “equal dignity, who have the right to labor market protections and much else.” They both support enforcement targeted at employers to prevent undercutting wages and other efforts to organize and demand better working conditions.  In response to why the discourse is extensively about immigration at the border, Ramakrishnan specified that the cause was because “Donald Trump needed to win some primaries” and win against the “religious right.”

The panel concluded with an exchange regarding proposed limitations on immigration from the Middle East. Ramakrishnan urged the audience to consider immigrants and their families and advocated a rationale for migration policy that transcends solely economic concerns. He argued for the “special obligations we might have as a global superpower in causing disruption in so many parts of the world.”

Salam ended the discussion by urging the country to deploy monetary and physical resources in an intelligent and thoughtful way. Pointing to the example of Sweden, he claimed that Sweden is “spending 35% as much as the entire Afghan government spends on the very small number of unaccompanied minors who have come through Sweden.” He highlighted how the “net cost of refugee migration in Sweden amounts to about 1.5% of GDP.” He argues that this money could go so much further and help so many more people if given to and implemented in countries like Afghanistan or Uganda. Salam finds that we need to ultimately think less about immigration and more about “deploying resources in an intelligent and thoughtful way.”

* Event sponsors include the American Studies Program, the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, the Center for the Study of Inequality, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Human Ecology, the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, the Cornell Population Center, the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, the ILR School, the Institute for the Social Sciences, the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, the Office of the Vice Provost, the Program on Ethics and Public Life, the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, and Student and Campus Life.