Click here to download the survey In Their Own Words: A Nationwide Survey of Undocumented Millennials by Tom K. Wong with Carolina Valdivia
Tom K. Wong, Assistant Professor of Political Science, UCSD
with Carolina Valdivia, PhD Student, Harvard
About The Survey
In Their Own Words: A National Survey of Undocumented Millennials is one of the largest surveys to date on any segment of the undocumented population in the U.S. The survey provides new insights related to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, life after DACA, and the experience of “coming out” as undocumented, as well as a first-of-its-kind look at the civic engagement and political incorporation of undocumented youth, among several other important topics. Please visit www.undocumentedmillennials.com for more information.
Only Minorities Need Apply
By JOHN D. SKRENTNY MAY 6, 2014
SAN DIEGO — THIS year is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which among other things prohibits the use of race in deciding whom to hire, fire, promote or place in the best and worst jobs.
But while the overt discrimination of 1964 is now rare, a more subtle form of bias is emerging: Both public and private employers increasingly treat race not as a hindrance, but as a qualification — a practice that, unchecked, could undermine the basic promise of the act.
For example, corporations often match African-American, Asian-American and Latino sales employees to corresponding markets because of their superior understanding of these markets, or because customers prefer to see employees of their own race, or both.
This is not affirmative action: Such “racial realism” is not intended to guarantee equal opportunity or compensate injustice, but rather to improve service and deliver profits for employers.
Racial realism is common in many sectors. Hospitals, supported by progressive foundations, racially match physicians and patients to improve health care. School districts place minority teachers in schools with large numbers of minority students because they supposedly understand their learning styles better, and serve as racial role models. Police departments try to reduce crime and police brutality by racially matching officers and neighborhoods.
Film producers manipulate audience reactions by displaying the right races in the right roles. This may be motivated by artistic goals — obviously, a film like “12 Years a Slave” required actors of particular races in particular roles. More often, these are business decisions. Whites in starring roles are thought to generate more box-office revenue, though adding nonwhites can broaden appeal.
Such practices are legally dubious. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, states that the Civil Rights Act “does not permit racially motivated decisions driven by business concerns.” Nor may race or color ever be a “bona fide occupational qualification.”
Courts have long supported this position. The Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education held that hiring and placing teachers to be racial role models was discrimination, even linking it “to the very system the Court rejected in Brown.”
In 1999, the 11th Circuit Court considered a telemarketing firm that matched employees’ race with those of the customers they called, and ruled that the company’s belief that this produced better responses was based on a stereotype and was “clearly” discrimination.
Meanwhile, the Seventh Circuit rejected Chicago’s contention that minority firefighters were needed for credibility and cooperation in minority neighborhoods; separately, it ruled that hiring black counselors to deal with black disadvantaged youths was illegal because it catered to discrimination by clients and their parents.There are only two areas where courts have authorized racial realism. Some courts have argued that law enforcement creates a compelling interest — “operational needs” — in communication and legitimacy with nonwhites, justifying racial realism in the hiring and placement of police officers. And there have been some exceptions made for artistic license: In 2012, a Tennessee district court, in a case regarding the reality show “The Bachelor,” stated that casting only whites in the lead roles was expression, akin to speech, and protected by the First Amendment.
Not only is racial realism legally unjustified, but it often hurts the people who, in the short term, would seem to benefit from it. Studies by the sociologists Elijah Anderson and Sharon Collins have found that nonwhite employees who are promoted to fill racially defined roles have trouble leaving them.
Moreover in jobs where part of an employee’s salary is based on sales volume, assigning nonwhites to nonwhite market sectors — which tend to be lower income — can mean significantly smaller paychecks. In 2008, Walgreens agreed to pay $24 million to black managers who objected to being placed in black neighborhoods, which typically had lower sales and thus lower compensation.
Nevertheless, racial realism is too slippery, and too widely used, to stamp out completely. And so rather than trying to end racial realism, we need to make sure that it doesn’t block opportunities for minorities. For one thing, we could require more transparency and verification. If employers think race is a legitimate qualification for a job, they must rely on evidence, not stereotypes.
And in cases where racial-realist hiring and placement is justified, like after a series of racially fraught police incidents, there should be opt-outs and time limits.
This was the position of a New York district court when black police officers sued to limit Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s ability to force them to work in a dangerous precinct after the 1997 beating of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, by white police officers. Mayor Giuliani argued that the presence of black officers was necessary to ease racial tensions, and the court agreed — but also held that the placements had to be temporary.
America has changed significantly since the Civil Rights Act. But we are still a long way from the day when race no longer plays a role in society. Racial realism may be unavoidable for the time being, but we must still be wary of its excesses, lest it lead us back down the road toward racial discrimination.
John D. Skrentny, a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, is the author of “After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace.”
CCIS Associate Director David FitzGerald comments on what migrants in Mexico know about enforcement and dangers at the border.
U.S. Border Patrol agents are taking a more proactive tactic to deter migrants: asking Mexican and Central American TV and radio stations and newspapers for the opportunity to tell of the dangers of crossing illegally.
BY PALOMA ESQUIVEL, Los Angeles Times APRIL 8, 2012
The federal government has tried just about everything to stop the flow of migrants crossing the border illegally. It boosted the number of Border Patrol agents, made punishment harsher, deployed drones and motion sensors, built and rebuilt fences. For years it has even quietly funded the dissemination in Mexico of songs and mini-documentaries about dangers at the border.
Now it is using a more proactive tactic: Since last year, agents in Arizona have called Mexican and Central American television and radio stations and newspapers, asking for the opportunity to tell of the dangers of crossing illegally, particularly through the Sonoran Desert.
The outreach, which was initially greeted with skepticism, is being embraced.
Newspapers in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Michoacan have run stories based on their accounts. Outlets in El Salvador and Guatemala have followed suit. Some ran photos provided by the Border Patrol of packed safe houses and emergency rescues.
“Immigrants are mistreated, assaulted, lied to, made fun of and women are often raped,” was the lead to one story in El Diario de Hoy, a daily newspaper in El Salvador.
The efforts are considered successful enough that this year the agents expanded them to U.S. cities with large immigrant communities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Seattle and Atlanta. The goal on this side of the border is to persuade residents to warn family members back home about treacherous conditions, particularly along the Arizona border, agents said.
“Our message is: If you do decide to come, don’t come through Arizona,” said Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame. “We’re seeing a big increase in smuggler abuse; robberies with AK-47s and pistols, knives; rapes of women, more physical abuses — not only in the desert but in safe houses where people are tied up with duct tape.”
What effect the public relations effort will have on migrants is unclear. The number of apprehensions at the border is already down dramatically. There were 340,000 last year, compared with 1.6 million in 2000, a drop many experts attribute to fewer migrants attempting to cross.
And many of the threats are already well known. For years, the Mexican government and media have warned migrants about the danger posed by extreme temperatures, crime and U.S. enforcement.
Since 2004 the Border Patrol has spent about $1.1 million annually to anonymously fund the dissemination of musical corridos, mini-documentaries and other public service announcements depicting tragedies at the border.
The campaign, called No Mas Cruces, is not openly sponsored by the U.S. government, in part to make “the message more palatable for the intended audience,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kerry Rogers.
Some critics have denounced the program for lack of transparency. But government officials consider it successful. One of the songs was nominated for a Latin Grammy. And this year, the program will include an art exhibit of tragedies and dangers that will travel to several small towns in Mexico, Rogers said.
David Fitzgerald and others at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego have spent the last several years researching what migrants in Mexico know about enforcement and dangers at the border and how that knowledge affects whether they decide to come to the U.S.
“People are aware that it’s extremely dangerous and that a lot of people are dying,” he said. “They have very high levels of knowledge in terms of what’s going on at the border.”
The researchers found evidence to suggest that people who think the U.S. economy is bad and that the border is very dangerous were less likely to migrate.
Still, the vast majority of people polled who tried to cross illegally into the country succeeded, he said. More than 95% eventually made it through, even after they were apprehended multiple times.
Adame, the Border Patrol agent, and Chris Leon, a Customs and Border Protection official involved in the efforts, said the outreach provides crucial information to migrants. Since October there have been 83 deaths at the Arizona border. Routes are more dangerous now, they said, in part because of increased enforcement.
In their experience, many migrants rely on information provided by people who crossed the border several years ago.
“A lot of times they’ll contact someone who is already here and they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, five years ago I came through. It was easy,’ ” Adame said. “A lot has changed in those last five years, including enforcement being tougher so smugglers are having to take the migrants out further.”
CCIS co-director John Skrentny’s book “After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace” is discussed in the Florida Courier.
BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE COURIER
Over two decades ago, Harvard Law Professor Martha Minow described “the dilemma of difference.” When does treating people differently “stigmatize or hinder them on that basis,” she asked. “And when does treating people the same become insensitive to their difference and likely to stigmatize or hinder them on that basis?”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided one answer to these questions. An affirmation of classical liberalism, Title VII declared any action based on an individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin that adversely affects the terms and conditions of employment to be unlawful. Nor does Title VII permit racially motivated decisions driven by business concerns, including the preferences of clients or customers.
Less prominent in law, affirmative action infused race with significance in employment. Politically charged and controversial, it is tolerated, if at all, as a temporary fix that does not replace color-blind policies – and is confined to situations where imbalances in the composition of the workforce can be authoritatively attributed to past discriminatory practices.
Both approaches, John Skrentny, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, points out, are out of sync with actual workplace practices. In “After Civil Rights,’’ Skrentny demonstrates that in many, many fields, ranging from media to marketing, meatpacking and medicine, employers use perceived or actual racial abilities in recruitment, hiring, and on the job assignments.
“Racial realism,” Skrentny argues, can open doors of opportunity; it can also “freeze in place” racial – and racist – assumptions. Too widespread to be rolled back, he emphasizes, race-conscious employment dynamics should not “run unchecked as it does today.”
“After Civil Rights’’ makes a compelling case for the pervasiveness of race-conscious employment practices. Presidents take race into account when making appointments. Patients express greater satisfaction with the quality of their health care when they are treated by physicians who share their racial or ethnic background.
News organizations hire African-American anchors to attract Black viewers – and assign Latino journalists to cover the Latino community (“the taco beat”). Retailers admit to race matching sales personnel to their client base. And many low-skilled jobs go to immigrants because employers deem them more likely to work hard, without complaints and for lower wages, than African-Americans or Whites.
It is by no means clear, however, that “racial realism” in employment produces positive results. While police officers of different races vary in their knowledge of neighborhoods, Skrentny notes, studies have found little evidence of different behavior. And a nationwide study showed that the race of teachers did not have an impact on how much students learned.
Mended, not ended
Nonetheless, the advantages of policies based on market realities and employer discretion are obvious.
After all, some would argue, the Harlem Globetrotters and the producers of “Othello’’ should confine their searches to Blacks. And yet, as Skrentny observes, legitimizing race-based BFOQ (“bona fide occupational qualifications”) exceptions to anti-discrimination laws would not only be difficult to draft and expensive, but could be used to defend the preferences of racist customers.
What, then, should be done? Skrentny suggests that “racial realism” be mended, not ended. To start the conversation, he advocates multi-cultural training programs in areas where employers believe race is a qualification; interpreting laws to give “breathing room” to initiatives designed to benefit members of minority groups; requiring validation of practices predicated on “racial abilities” and “racial signaling;” and more responsible corporate behavior in locating firms, setting wages, employing immigrants, guaranteeing workplace safety, and taking responsibility for displaced workers.
“After Civil Rights’’ leaves no doubt that current workplace realities – and practices – have diverged from statutes and constitutional interpretations of them. The “strategic management of racial differences” may or may not always be necessary “to achieve a wide variety of goals in a wide array of contexts.”
But, as Skrentny urges, for now, and for the foreseeable future, we must do a better job of aligning workplace practices “with our values and our laws.”
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.
BY JILL REPOGLE NOVEMBER 4, 2013
Southern California Congressman Darrell Issa is rumored to be cooking up his own immigration reform proposal. It’s reportedly designed to find some middle ground in the contentious debate over providing legal status to the more than 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Issa’s district stretches along the coast from UC San Diego in La Jolla to southern Orange County. The district leans heavily Republican: Issa won the 2012 election with a 16-point lead.
Issa’s constituents are mostly white and largely affluent. Still, Issa isn’t immune to the demographic changes taking place throughout California and the nation. About one-quarter of Issa’s district is Latino, and close to 50 percent of his hometown of Vista is now Latino.
Polls have shown that the majority of Latinos want immigration reform with a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
The details of Issa’s plan for immigration reform are still scarce, and his office didn’t respond to numerous requests for an interview. But the plan would reportedly include a six-year period of temporary relief from deportation for undocumented immigrants.
During that time, they would be expected to find a legal way to stay here or leave.
Issa told Politico it’s “halfway between full amnesty and simply rejecting people.”
But some of Issa’s staunchly conservative constituents say that approach is too soft.
“This whole subject to me right now is about the rule of law,” said Patricia Newman, who manages her husband’s medical practice in Vista.
Newman is Mexican-American, and she thinks the government should make it easier for immigrants to come here legally. But she’s suspicious that Issa’s proposal would reward those who haven’t followed the rules, and encourage others to keep coming here illegally.
She said the Republican Party was compromising its ideals in exchange for votes.
“I really think that’s what they’re doing,” Newman said, a stylized portrait of Ronald Reagan looking down at her from her office wall.
“They’re just considering all these things just so they can get new votes. I don’t think they’re thinking it through.”
But Republicans like Issa are facing pressure from business and faith leaders — and even some GOP donors — to take action on immigration reform.
The Vista Chamber of Commerce recently joined state and national business groups in endorsing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents. They also want a temporary worker program for high and low-skilled workers, and strong border security.
“We also have businesses that have had tangible difficulties bringing talent in from outside the country when they needed people,” said Bret Schanzenbach, CEO of the Vista Chamber.
Political scientists warn the Republican party risks becoming irrelevant if it can’t appeal to the country’s growing Latino population. That warning hasn’t seemed to hold much weight for Republican congress members in districts with few Latino voters.
But the political calculations are different for Republican leaders. That likely includes Issa, saidTom Wong, a political science professor at UC San Diego.
“He not only is concerned about his electoral survival, but with eyes towards higher office, he also has to be concerned with the Republican brand as a whole and how that’s perceived nationally,” Wong said.
Several other Republican congress members have recently signed on to the House Democrats’ immigration reform bill, which includes a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
Wong said Issa’s halfway plan could help propel a real discussion on the issue among the Republican caucus.
But time is quickly running out this year to get that discussion going.
SAN DIEGO — In 2012, statistician Nate Silver made headlines when he accurately predicted the outcomes for the presidential election in all 50 states.
While political scientists have been forecasting election results for decades, very few forecast legislation. But in San Diego, one assistant professor is doing just that. He’s forecasting the outcome for immigration reform.
Most days, you can find Tom Wong inside a boutique coffee shop in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, hunched over a Macbook Pro.
The assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego is crunching thousands of numbers.
“I’m predicting opposition and support for immigration reform among all 535 current members of congress,” Wong said.
How Does It Work?
His forecast is created in three steps. The first is a model that determines what factors create a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on immigration.
Many cite these demonstrations as the starting point for the modern immigration movement.
In step one, Wong counts every vote cast by every member of Congress on immigration since 2006. Then he pulls a ton of data — unemployment rates, education levels, ethnic makeup — from states and districts.
Wong explains his model is taking into account “the factors that previous research has identified as being important for immigration policy.”
He uses that information to create a model that predicts how a member of Congress will vote based on what their state or district looks like.
Step two is seeing if his model is accurate.
Wong looks at each member of Congress since 2006 to see whether his model accurately predicted how they actually voted on immigration bills.
“In the House we’re talking about a 94 percent match rate. And the Senate we get about 90 percent,” said Wong.
Step three is using the model as a predictor. For example, how will freshmen members of Congress vote, someone like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)?
“His state has certain demographic characteristics, certain economic characteristics and he’s a Republican,” explains Wong.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the model predicts Cruz will be voting against the bill. But what about the rest of the Senate and members of the House?
“Right now the data points to 67 to 71 ‘yes’ votes in the Senate. For the House we’re only seeing about 203 ‘yes’ votes,” Wong said.
So if voted on today, according to Wong’s model, the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill would fail by 15 votes in the House.
But, Wong wants immigration reform to pass.
“My own immigration experience gives me this window into the data where the results are more than just numbers, because I see the families and the people that can potentially benefit,” he said.
When Wong was 16 years old he learned that he and his family had overstayed their tourist visas from Hong Kong. They were living here illegally.
Although they have since become legal residents, that moment is always with him.
“It is very easy for me to simply close my eyes and feel exactly how I felt as my 16-year-old self,” Wong said.
It’s a feeling that he believes is shared among many of the young immigrants who are rapidly changing the demographics of districts across the United States.
Wong is using his model to help pro-immigration reform activists locate Congress members who are poised to vote ‘no.’ But are in positions where they should be voting ‘yes.’
He uses Rep Gary Miller (R-Calif.) as an example.
“Based on the data Gary Miller will vote ‘no’ on immigration reform,” Wong said.
Miller’s voting records show’s him as a staunch opponent of immigration reform. But Wong’s model points to Miller as a candidate whose stance can, and perhaps should, change.
In 2012, Miller ran and won election in a newly formed California district in San Bernardino County. It is made up of young minority voters, and his next election is rapidly approaching.
“The young Hispanic/Latino and the young Asian population — meaning those that will turn actually 18 and become voters — will exceed Gary Miller’s 2012 margin of victory,” Wong explains.
He believes there are enough representatives in the House like Miller, who if presented with these statistics, could change their vote and change the current fate of immigration reform.
You can follow Tom Wong as he updates his data and changes model as the immigration debate conitinues. Check out the CIR 2013 Blog
BY DENISE CHOW AUGUST 29, 2013
Fifty years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in front of more than 250,000 protesters in Washington, D.C., and called for the end of racial discrimination in the United States in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. The political rally, which became known as the March on Washington, and King’s speech became cornerstones of the American civil rights movement.
But the day after people celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the legacy of the civil rights movement, many minority groups, including African-Americans, are still fighting for equality, sociologists say.
“Many black people, and other people of color, are experiencing the kinds of racial inequalities that were very much present during the days of the civil rights movement,” said Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and co-author of “Oppositional Consciousness: The Subjective Roots of Social Protest” (University of Chicago Press, 2001).
While the civil rights movement propelled racial inequality into the national spotlight, and helped usher in landmark anti-discrimination legislation, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the idea that Americans live in a post-racial society is a myth, Morris told LiveScience.
“I think many people wish to believe that the civil rights movement largely accomplished its goals, and that the racial nightmare is over and the dream has been achieved,” Morris said. “Yes, there has been considerable change since the heyday of the civil rights movement, but the huge problem emerges when we look at the difference between what people say or believe and what they do.”
Fifty years later
The March on Washington was officially known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms, and hundreds of thousands of marchers flooded the nation’s capital to demonstrate in support of civic and economic rights for African-Americans. Yet decades later, African-American communities are still struggling with issues such as unemployment, education and home ownership, said John Skrentny, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
“There has certainly been enormous amounts of progress, but African-Americans, by a lot of indicators, are still as bad off as they were 50 years ago,” Skrentny told LiveScience. “Their unemployment rate is twice as high, their incarceration rates are very high, and measures of African-American wealth are quite low.”
This is partly because in the decades since the March on Washington, the civil rights story has receded in the public eye, and the government’s focus has shifted elsewhere, he said.
“Other political issues have risen to prominence, and I think a big part of the story is that the Republican Party does not make a play for African-American votes, whereas with other groups — and I’m thinking specifically of Latinos and gays and lesbians — the Republican Party is in the game for those votes. Not to the extent of the Democrats, but in their postmortem of the 2012 election, it was something that was talked about explicitly,” Skrentny said.
This shift has thrust other issues, such as immigration reform and same-sex marriage legislation, to the forefront. And while these issues also deserve time and attention, political leaders should understand the work that catapulted inequality into the political sphere during the civil rights movement is not yet complete, Skrentny added.
“It’s really difficult to identify a single policy designed to advance the interests of African-Americans in the last 20 years,” he said.
From the foreground to the background
The political change largely began in the 1980s and 1990s, with the rise of the New Democrats, an ideologically centrist arm of the Democratic Party that gained prominence following the 1988 presidential election won by George H.W. Bush. Some members of the New Democrats felt that their party had aligned themselves too closely to African-American interests, and they tried to distance themselves from advancing policies directly targeted at African-American communities, Skrentny said.
For instance, during the 1992 presidential campaign, then Governor Bill Clinton publicly criticized rapper and activist Sister Souljah (her real name is Lisa Williamson) for racially charged remarks about violence in that year’s Los Angeles riots. The episode became known as the “Sister Souljah moment,” and was widely seen as a strategic move to court centrist voters by demonstrating that Clinton was not bound by African-American interest groups, who were perceived to be closely associated with the Democratic Party.
Even Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, may feel even more hesitant than previous Democratic presidents to throw weight behind overtly African-American issues, for fear that his detractors might accuse him of favoring one community over others, Skrentny said.
“Political leaders discovered that if you try to do too much for African-Americans, working-class whites will say: Why are you helping these people? We have problems, too,” Skrentny said. “When it comes to big political issues, white voters who are economically insecure — and that’s not to say they’re racist, just economically insecure — typically react in a negative way.”
For things to change, Morris says people need to actively study how various forms of inequality are manifested in society. “Only when people allow themselves to be exposed to the truth about the nature of inequality in any society will they be able to engage in meaningful action to bring about change,” Morris said.
One thing the government can do is conduct detailed audits of companies to assess and manage the level of discrimination during their hiring process, Skrentny said.
“We need reliable, nonpartisan measures of how much discrimination is out there, and these types of audits are good ways to take the temperature of discrimination,” he said.
A more extensive initiative to address inequality could be to study unemployment based on the geographical distribution of different communities, Skrentny said. For instance, the government tends to use low tax rates to lure companies into more rural or suburban areas of the country. But African-Americans, in particular, tend to live in urban neighborhoods, and may be limited in their abilities to commute to jobs in other, more distant localities.
“We have to limit different geographic localities from competing with one another, because that isolates certain workers,” Skrentny said.
Fighting for rights
While anti-discrimination policies such as affirmative action have helped, more sweeping changes throughout society are needed, Morris and Skrentny said. Affirmative action aims to prevent the exclusion of individuals based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in areas of employment, education and business.
“We spend a lot of time debating affirmative action, but fixing employment problems and incarceration problems is very difficult,” Skrentny said. “It’s easier to just make the numbers right in colleges, but it still doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.”
And while the legacy of the March on Washington should be celebrated, Americans should understand that many communities are still struggling for deep-seated change, Morris said.
“To claim that we are now in a post-racial society — to claim that skin color and so forth no longer matters, is to really engage in a myth that is soothing, but at the same time, does not address reality,” he said.
BY CINDY CHANG JULY 30, 2013
Tom Wong sat in the parking lot of a San Diego McDonald’s, scarfing a double cheeseburger and listening to the Senate’s roll-call vote on immigration as it live-streamed over his iPhone.
Landrieu, aye. Leahy, aye. Lee, no.
Just as he had predicted.
Finally, the 100th name: Wyden, aye. Relieved and smiling broadly, he called his wife with the good news. Not only had the bill passed, but his statistical models had worked nearly perfectly. He was right about all but a few senators.
As the immigration battle shifts to the House, word has spread among activists that Wong might be the Nate Silver of immigration reform — the go-to data geek with the crystal ball.
But Wong doesn’t just want to predict the future. He also wants to change it, by giving immigrant-rights advocates the statistical ammunition they need to influence lawmakers.
The UC San Diego assistant professor recently led a conference call with about 30 advocacy groups, including Mark Zuckerberg’s Fwd.us. Still more pro-reform organizations joined a second phone call to talk about his projections.
This time, he would like to be proven wrong. His models show a range of measures, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, flaming out in the House.
“Ultimately, if these groups are effective, then hopefully some of these ‘nos’ become ‘yeses,’” said Wong, 31. “Then, my final tally might be off, but in a way that might make me happy.”
With his crew cut and compact, athletic build, Wong projects a cheerful efficiency, parrying criticisms with a dose of self-deprecation. Outwardly, nothing sets him apart from other ambitious young academics. But his past drives nearly everything he does.
Once, he was one of the 11 million.
A graph on Wong’s computer screen, with 100 dots representing all U.S. senators, helps him predict their votes on immigration reform. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
King Bun and Shiao Ping Wong came to Southern California with their two young sons on tourist visas in 1984, fearing for the future after British-ruled Hong Kong was reclaimed by China.
Their college degrees worthless because they couldn’t speak English, they worked at a Chinese restaurant, hoping to get legal status through their employer. The restaurant closed.
On weekends, they sold toys at swap meets. One employer after another promised a green card, then went out of business. They put off telling the boys — surely, a solution would come along eventually.
When Wong was 16 and wanted a driver’s license, his parents said no. They were just being strict, he thought. He asked to go to a basketball tournament in Canada. That’s when they told him the truth: He wasn’t an American citizen or even a legal resident. The tournament was out of the question. If he tried to cross the border without papers, he might be detained.
He was a toddler when he left Hong Kong, and had never given a thought to his immigration status. He assumed he was American, like everyone else he had known since kindergarten.
“Everything I thought I was, was completely shattered,” Wong recalled. “I felt broken.”
In his spartan third floor office in the weeks before the Senate vote, Wong tapped rapidly on his laptop keyboard. A sequence of dots and lines emerged — his prediction for a border enforcement measure. The solid “nos” clustered in the lower left, the solid “yeses” in the top right. Each line represented a lawmaker’s chance of switching sides.
For those hoping to influence the outcome, the sweet spot is the middle of the graph — the “lean yeses” and “lean nos.”
In the mold of Silver, who is famous for his election predictions, Wong bridges the gap between equations and shoe-leather politics, said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a senior analyst for Latino Decisions, a political opinion research group.
Activists already have an idea of which lawmakers to target, but Wong gives them an extra edge. He can generate a custom analysis for, say, who might be receptive to an argument based on religious faith. With the House likely to consider separate measures rather than a comprehensive bill, Wong covers every permutation.
“In the House, everybody’s in their own unique geopolitical context,” Damore said. “What he’s doing is very, very useful.”
The equations Wong uses are familiar to many political scientists. So are his raw materials: each lawmaker’s past votes and the ethnic composition of his or her district. But no one else appears to be applying those tools to immigration in quite the way Wong does.
Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is part of the CAMBIO coalition seeking immigration reform, said: “It helps to know where you’re starting from, that this is a member on the fence, or who has had the population in the district change dramatically and so might have a different approach to immigration than in the past.”
After his parents revealed their secret, Wong took it out on them, yelling at them in broken Cantonese, switching to English for the curse words.
“If you knew it was going to be like this, why’d you bring me here?” he remembers saying.
At his Riverside high school, he had been a popular jock with good grades. But what was the point when he couldn’t go to college, when he would end up working at the swap meet like his parents? He stopped studying and barely graduated.
Wong’s girlfriend, Rose Bloomberg-Rissman, wanted him to get back on track.
She had been dating him only for five months, but she was sure she wanted to spend her life with him.
When she proposed, Wong was so shocked that he mumbled something noncommittal. The relationship was going well, but so soon? He was only 19. He had long resisted the idea of marrying for a green card. But Rose was the one. They were only speeding up the timetable.
The next day he said yes. They were married in Las Vegas on March 24, 2001. They sailed through their immigration interview, and Wong began classes at UC Riverside.
More than a decade later, they’re still together, the parents of 2-year-old triplet boys Soul, Pace and Ever.
Wong is haunted by his experience and inspired by it. He mentors young immigrants without legal status — the so-called Dreamers, kids who remind him of himself. He funds scholarships so they can apply for a new federal program and receive temporary work permits.
“I saw school as one of the things that was taken away from me,” Wong said. “So I had a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to show everybody that I could actually do this and do it well. So that’s what gave me the drive to go through undergrad, graduate magna cum laude, get my PhD, get an academic position. After I get tenure, I’m going to law school.”
With House Republicans signaling their reluctance to support a path to citizenship, the pro-immigrant forces are looking for every vote they can get.
For a comprehensive bill, Wong predicts, at most, 203 likely yes votes, when 218 are needed. Many House members are from districts with few immigrants, insulating them against Latino and Asian voter backlash.
The House is unlikely to pass even a measure awarding citizenship to the Dreamers, according to Wong’s analysis.
Hurried fast-food lunches have become the norm for Wong as he fields requests from dozens of groups hoping to coax legislators into the “yes” column. He works mostly pro bono, with the occasional stipend. So far, no one from the anti-legalization side has approached him. His answer to them would be no, though they are free to use the data on his blog.
“If there’s actually legislation that goes through that takes the rough edges off some of our immigration policies, and I can say I played a role in that, that’s motivation enough for me,” Wong said.
The curses he once hurled at his parents make Wong cringe.
Now he knows how byzantine the American immigration system is, that sometimes no matter how hard people try, a green card remains out of reach. His brother also married a U.S. citizen. For his parents, the road was almost two decades long.
Tom was angry when he found out about his immigration status, but understandably so, his parents recall. Their pride in him is obvious. “He’ll be governor one day,” his father interjected at one point.
“We had bad luck, and it affected our kids. I feel very guilty,” his mother said in Mandarin, which she and her husband speak in addition to Cantonese. “Everyone hopes things will go smoothly for their children. We really tried.”
Wong desperately wants to apologize to them. But he can’t, not yet. It’s painful to dig up those dark days. And there is the language barrier — his Cantonese remains stalled at a kindergarten level, while his parents never learned English.
For now, he speaks through others.
“I will tell my story to any stranger, but I’m still not comfortable enough with my family and closest friends to get deeply into it,” Wong said. “There are still wounds those conversations might open up. This is so much easier — I know my parents can hear my story through what you write.”