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Henry Cisneros: Immigrants are key to nation's success

Former HUD secretary, speaking at ASU, said immigration reform must be bipartisan, well thought-out and fair

Henry Cisneros

November 15, 2016

Henry Cisneros, the former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said at an ASU lecture Tuesday night that the face of the nation has changed dramatically over the past century and that Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than ever.

Getting other Americans to buy in and realize immigrants are the key to the country’s future economic growth is one of Cisneros’ goals as a new president-elect takes office next year, promising major reform.

“The immigrant’s story is an often beautiful and brutal story because they vote by their feet to get to this country,” Cisneros told a crowd of more than 300 on Tuesday night at Arizona State University’s Galvin Playhouse in Tempe.

“They strive, they struggle, they overcome obstacles and they built this country. The world recognizes the United States’ mix of creativity because of its racial and ethnic diversity.”

His talk — the 2016 Centennial Lecture sponsored by Barrett, the Honors College at ASU — examined the changing demographics of our nation, the impacts of the ongoing reform debate, and the contributions immigrants make to the economic, social and cultural fabric of the United States.

Cisneros is chairman of the City View companies, which work with urban homebuilders to create homes priced for average families. He was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton and was elected the first Hispanic mayor of San Antonio in 1981.

“Our country just endured one of the most contentious presidential elections in its history. Post-election emotions about many issues, among them immigration, are high, whether from the right or left. Immigration is a timely topic,” said Mark Jacobs, dean of Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, who introduced Cisneros.

According to the Pew Research Center, the American family is changing due to the fact that more than 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years. The center predicts America will become so diverse in the next few decades that by 2055, the country will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.

Cisneros said Latinos and Hispanics constitute about 55 million people in the U.S. today. That number will grow to 100 million by 2020, he said, about a fourth of the United States’ predicted population of 400 million. He said Hispanics are major contributors to the federal economy. 

“It was Mexican labor that rebuilt the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina,” Cisneros said. “They contribute in many ways economically.”

He said Hispanics work jobs most Americans would not otherwise take, pay into our tax and Social Security system, and are strong patriots. In the next few decades, they’ll be responsible for a 4.7 percent rise in America’s GDP and will help reduce deficits by a trillion dollars, he said.

But in order for them to become successful, immigration reform must be bipartisan, well thought-out and fair. Though he never mentioned President-elect Donald Trump by name, Cisneros said immigration requires of a new administration a level of sophistication and common sense.

“Right now we have 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country,” he said. “How do you deport 12 million people back to their country without it costing us millions? Do we even have those resources? I don’t think so.” 

Cisneros said he does not believe in amnesty and supports border security, background checks, a work-permit program, and a clear and much shorter path to citizenship.

“These are the issues that the country needs to debate and come to terms with,” Cisneros said. “We should allow our immigrants to live like human beings again and teach them how to become citizens.”

Barrett freshman and civil engineering major Andrew Roberts said he is one of the 70 percent of Americans that Cisneros cited who are open to the process of legalization.

“I have an immigrant girlfriend who has an immigrant family,” Roberts said. “Immigrants have a chance to contribute and live in America, and we should allow them to have that opportunity.”

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