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Bob Moon: There was a clarification today of some rather candid comments from former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He does not, he says, hire illegal immigrants. But what he meant yesterday — on NBC’s “Meet the Press” — is that many contractors in his neighborhood may well be using undocumented workers.
Colin Powell: They’re all over my house, doing things whenever I call for repairs, and I’m sure you’ve seen them at your house. We’ve got to find a way to bring these people out of the darkness and give them some kind of status.
Powell wants Republicans to support a bill called “The DREAM Act.” It would open citizenship to young immigrants who attend two years of college or join the military.
Joining us now to explore Mr. Powell’s moment of candor is Dowell Myers. He’s a professor of demography at the University of Southern California. Welcome, sir.
Dowell Myers:I’m pleased to be here.
MOON: Today, in clarifying his statement, Mr. Powell said there are 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, and most are working somewhere in our economy. What’s your take on that, is he in the ballpark on this underground economy of immigrants?
MYERS: The 11 million figure is one, everybody seems to subscribe to it. Although you have to know, these people are undocumented, so we don’t really have hard numbers on them.
MOON: Where is the intersection of this underground economy and the mainstream economy in America?
MYERS: They are disproportionately very low-skilled workers, with very low education. And they’re coming in to work jobs that we don’t really provide visas for. We don’t really like to admit that we have these low-skilled service workers that we need. The problem in America is we’ve educated so much here that all of our native born are above that skill level. And yet we have more and more demands for basic service workers.
MOON: And former Secretary Powell put a personal spin on this, that it seems many in this debate don’t talk about — that they benefit quite directly and personally from the work that these people do. What about that on a individual basis? How are Americans interacting with immigrants?
MYERS: He’s speaking like an urbanite, and somebody who lives in an area that has lots of immigrants. For people in the middle of the U.S., they don’t have as much exposure and the undocumented workers or unauthorized workers are more often working in poultry processing plants or in some industrial capacity; they’re not working in people’s homes. But along the coasts — in California and all along Eastern Seaboard — it’s very common to have the yard maintenance workers, the nannies, all kinds of domestic help — people who may or may not have legal papers.
MOON: So many Americans we know are interacting with these people who Mr. Powell complained are otherwise kept in the darkness and he said need to be given some type of status. Why do you think there’s such a disconnect between the political debate that casts this in an abstract way and the very real status that they play in our daily lives?
MYERS: Some of the Gallup poll data shows that people who respond to questions about immigrants who live in the middle of the country where there aren’t many immigrants, have much different answers than those who respond from areas where they do have immigrants living near them. For example, there’s a question that they ask, I think it goes roughly, “Do immigrants come here to gain welfare, or do they come here to work?” The people who think they come here to gain welfare live in places where there aren’t very many immigrants. So they don’t know how hard-working these people are.
MOON: Yet beyond this personal experience that Mr. Powell talked about, he seems to be dialing back his statement today. Why do you think that that political disconnect still exists even here?
MYERS: Well, I think he was speaking from personal experience. But there’s an organized political response that is different from personal, it’s more strategic and he may have heard from other people who suggested that his personal remarks were out of line with the party line.
MOON: Dowell Myers is a professor of urban planning and demography at USC. Thanks for letting us tap some of your scholarship on this subject.
MYERS: It’s my pleasure.
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