Charles Kamasaki

Senior Cabinet Advisor, UnidosUS | Fellow at Migration Policy Institute

The last time the federal government passed major immigration legislation was 1986, with a follow-up bill in 1990, and Charles Kamasaki was at the center of the action.

Now a senior cabinet advisor with UnidosUS, the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights advocacy organization (in the 1980s it was known as the National Council of La Raza), Kamasaki was an essential player in shaping the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). His 2019 book, Immigration Reform: The Corpse That Will Not Die, details the history of the bill as well as the conditions that made its passage possible.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, IRCA had three major features: It made it illegal for an employer to knowingly hire an undocumented worker, it gave legal status to the nearly three million immigrants who were in the country without documentation, and it strengthened border security. 

Perhaps Kamasaki’s biggest contribution to today’s immigration debate is his ability to apply lessons from legislative efforts over nearly 40 years, particularly the passage of IRCA. 

Notably, he sees a parallel between the years of failed immigration legislation leading up to the passage of IRCA in 1986 and the years of failed immigration legislation that have led to our current political landscape. In a 2019 speech talking about the failed immigration legislation of 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2013, he said, “It looks a lot like the dozen years or so that preceded IRCA’s passage.” 

Kamasaki argues that in order for the country to pass more meaningful immigration legislation it will require concessions from key lawmakers and advocates on both sides.

He notes Republican Senator Alan Simpson’s willingness in 1986 to legalize over a million agricultural workers who were already in the country. Because of his stature with his colleagues, Simpson’s concession convinced others — including Reagan — to follow. 

Kamasaki also recalls how, in the House, Rep. Esteban Torres led a faction of moderate Democrats to negotiate more progressive positions with his centrist colleague Rep. Romano Mazzoli. 

Another lesson Kamasaki emphasizes is finding consensus that already exists. To that end, Kamasaki often points out that, across the political spectrum, there is widespread agreement that illegal border crossings are not good for the country. Among pro-immigration forces like Kamasaki, as well as pro-business conservatives, the prevailing view is that the economy functions better when everyone is brought out of the shadows. “Controlling the flow of migrants,” says Kamasaki, is the “reasonable, rational standard” that he incorporates into all of his policy and advocacy work.


Kamasaki’S IDEAS

  • Border Security

    “Regardless of where one is on the spectrum of more or less immigration,” Kamasaki said in an interview with Ideaspace, “it seems to me that you have to start with the basic principle that every sovereign nation gets to enforce its borders however it chooses.” Additionally, Kamasaki says it is not politically possible to create a pathway to legal status for the undocumented population that is already in the country without stronger border enforcement mechanisms. He points out that those who enter without inspection are subject to deportation much more often than people who overstay a visa, and that there is no good practical or moral reason for this. Enforcement of both categories needs to be commensurate. This would likely involve creating more limitations on how people who overstay their visa can fix their status.

  • Border Wall

    Kamasaki believes that barriers are a necessary part of border security. “People often conveniently forget,” he says, “that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders all voted for the fence during the George W. Bush administration. That isn’t a ‘gotcha thing.’ A rational border enforcement policy will include some physical barriers.”

  • Detention

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  • Immigration Courts

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  • Undocumented Population

    Kamasaki has advocated for legalizing as much of the undocumented population as possible. But in interviews he often stresses that advocating for “amnesty” is often an obstacle to immigration reform and, that being the case, should be avoided. “There are lots of different ways to protect unauthorized people from deportation,” he says. He envisions various legislative possibilities, including: renewable temporary worker programs and the lowering of legal barriers that currently prohibit individuals who have previously been in the country illegally from returning to the U.S. for a period of time that can be as long as ten years.

  • ICE

    Because immigration enforcement can threaten civil rights and be highly disruptive of daily life for everyone (including U.S. citizens), Kamasaki argues that interior immigration enforcement should be focused solely on “true security risks.” According to Kamasaki, this means enforcement should look more like investigative detective work than EROs, or raids.

    Kamasaki also advocates for more race-neutral immigration enforcement, as opposed to the racial profiling we have now, with 90 percent of people deported being of Latin American origin while the majority of undocumented immigrants are from Asia and other parts of the world.

    Working from the research of Professor Emily Ryo at the University of Southern California, Kamasaki emphasizes the importance of Deterrence Theory. “Why do people abide by traffic or tax laws?” he asks. “Compliance tends to be high when there is a high degree of confidence that the enforcement regime is fair.” In order to establish this sense of fairness, Kamasaki suggests that certain immigration enforcement agencies be required to conduct race-neutral practices, similar to consent decrees imposed on police departments with a history of racial profiling.

  • DACA

    Kamasaki is an advocate for the passage of the Dream Act and has actively supported various attempts at its passage.

  • Asylum

    Kamasaki would like to see more work done with a 2014 pilot program implemented by the Obama administration, which allowed for more in-country and in-region processing of asylum claims so that individuals and families do not have to take perilous journeys over hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Kamasaki cites data showing that when large populations are displaced by some form of violence they often stay in the region where they already live. Kamasaki advocates for the creation of in-region “safe zones,” where vulnerable populations who may not qualify for asylum can still be assured safe haven. He suggests that such safe zones would best be established and maintained by a multilateral body such as the United Nations or the Inter-American Development Bank.

  • Central America Policy

    Kamasaki says that “the Northern Triangle countries are close to being failed states,” and that this calls for something along the lines of a Marshall Plan for the region. Given the U.S.’s troubled record of political interference in the region, Kamasaki argues that such an idea would best be carried out by a multilateral body like the UN or the ISO.

  • Visas

    Kamasaki has proposed establishing a neutral “expert body” to determine overall levels of immigration. He describes this as a “Federal Reserve-style” panel of experts outside of the political sphere that would have knowledge and expertise to set immigration levels. This could be applied to everything from work visas to asylum to family visas. “The amount of immigrants who are let into the country,” Kamasaki suggests, “should equal the economic demand for them. We know from history that when immigration levels are set lower than the economic demand, those workers come anyway. So why not just meet the demand?”

    Kamasaki also argues for vigorous enforcement of labor laws guaranteeing worker protections rather than focusing on a mandatory E-Verify system or targeting the hiring of undocumented workers. “And the powerful thing is that arguing for vigorous enforcement of our labor laws is potentially unifying,” he says. “Currently they are not strongly enforced and, if they were, it would help all workers — immigrants and citizens alike. If the labor laws are enforced, then the incentive to hire undocumented migrants will be reduced — and wages will rise for everyone.”

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