Despite being known as a nation of immigrants, American politicians are locked in a longstanding stalemate over how to best solve the country's immigration problems – a debate also taken up by a panel on ABC News' "This Week with Christiane Amanpour" which included among others, a self-admitted illegal immigrant.
"In many ways, I represent … just how broken the immigration system is," former Washington Post reporter Jose Vargas said on "This Week" of his decision to publish an account of his illegal status. "In many ways the goal was to expose just how incredibly dysfunctional and irrational the whole system is and has been for quite some time."
Vargas was joined on the panel by former Florida Senator Mel Martinez, former chancellor for the District of Columbia Public School system Michelle Rhee, and ABC News' George Will – many of whom argued that the shortage of highly-skilled laborers demands a more inclusive immigration approach.
"There are some things that we need to do just for the good of the country, for the good of our economy," said Martinez. "We have a tremendous shortage of people in the high-tech fields, the STEMS as we call them – science, technology and mathematics – where we really need people from other countries who are learning these skills to be able to come here and create jobs."
Michelle Rhee, who has devoted much of her time to founding the group Students First since leaving her controversial tenure in the Washington school system, described a gap between the skills American schools are preparing students for and the skills needed to sustain a strong American economy. "In the next twenty years in this country," Rhee said, "we are going to have 125 million high-skilled, high-paid jobs. And at the rate that the current public education system is going, we're only going to be able to produce 50 million American kids who have the kills and the knowledge to take those jobs. That means we're talking about potentially outsourcing the rest of those jobs, the majority of those jobs, overseas."
"Let me give you another reason why we need immigrants," Will told Amanpour. "When we started Social Security there were about 42 workers for every retiree. Today we're down to three point some. … The Social Security Trustees Report assumes the continuing high level of immigration to replenish the workforce, to make the entitlement system work."
Politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have called the lack of comprehensive immigration reform national suicide, but few lawmakers have been willing to risk the political capital needed to stake a certain claim in this highly polarizing topic.
"I think perhaps a piecemeal approach could be obtained," said Martinez, who once served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. "We need to talk about the fact that this is a country that people still yearn to come to. People love this country and when they come here, they get invested in America, they want to become Americans."
"At the end of the day we're not facing the facts on this issue," said Vargas. "This is not an abstraction. These are people who have very much woven into the fabric of our lives in every possible class."
The roundtable discussion aired on ABC News' "This Week with Christiane Amanpour" on Sunday, July 3, 2011.