Last week I attended “Stanford Connects” in Pasadena — kind of a reunion and pep rally wrapped around incisive talks and workshops by some of the university’s leading professors. I skipped Coach Shaw’s wrap-up of the Rose Bowl game. Instead, I listened to professors tackle intractable issues by nimbly interweaving facts with historical and political circumstances.

Immigration was one I wanted to understand better, so I headed to Dr. Mariano-Florentino Cuellar’s lecture titled, “What is the role of migration in a world connected by trade, information and capital flows?” Cuellar is a Stanford Law School professor who works at the intersection of law, public policy and political science.

I was surprised by many of the nuggets he presented for our consideration:

» 1) The United States is one of the few advanced countries with a growing population, due largely to immigration, at 1.1 million people per year. This makes an aging population less of an issue here than in Europe or especially Japan.

» 2) The percentage of foreign-born residing in the United States in 2010 was 12.9 percent. This is up from 11.1 percent in 2000, 7.9 percent in 1990 and 6.2 percent in 1980.

» 3) The undocumented population has been declining since 2008; a decline that now may be plateauing. The estimated cost to “remove” them (by repatriation or other means) is $250 billion.

» 4) Legal immigration into the U.S. is governed by three categories:

Family-based: Joining family members who sponsor you. This category is currently managed at 65 percent of legal immigration, which is large compared with other countries.

Humanitarian: Persecution in your home country. This category is 20 percent, which is also large compared with other countries.

Employment: You have been offered a job in the U.S. At 14 percent, this figure is quite small comparatively.

» 5) Immigration is now an intense public concern, but that’s not always the case. Some periods of intense immigration have not been controversial.

» 6) The 1986 immigration law was huge. It legalized 1.5 billion people and required that all employers be responsible for not employing illegals. Employers must ask potential employees for one of 24 acceptable documents, but there are few incentives for accuracy. Since employers are generally not held accountable, Cuellar says it was “built to fail,” which is why we’ve transitioned to a border focus.

» 7) Circular migration (workers traveling to work, then home to family) has been disrupted by the massive increase in border guards and fencing on our southern border. This not only keeps jobless migrants at home but also displaces undocumented workers here. They are stuck in the U.S. because they can’t leave for fear of not being able to return.

» 8) Immigration results in slightly higher income for all Americans except for the 10 percent who don’t have high school diplomas.

» 9) Immigration visas that you’d assume would be routine and rapid, like a foreign-born engineer graduating from Stanford(!), are subject to arcane rules requiring a specific match of career, home country and family situation.

What do these facts suggest, besides a conundrum? Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

In my next column I’ll present some of Dr. Cuellar’s observations on immigration, as well as different perspectives.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Karen Telleen-Lawton

Karen Telleen-Lawton, Noozhawk Columnist

Karen Telleen-Lawton is an eco-writer, sharing information and insights about economics and ecology, finances and the environment. Having recently retired from financial planning and advising, she spends more time exploring the outdoors — and reading and writing about it. The opinions expressed are her own.