Stand Together Chairman and CEO Brian Hooks Discusses Immigration Reform

Learn more about Holly Kuzmich.
Holly Kuzmich
Holly Kuzmich
Senior Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

In a conversation on immigration insights, Bush Institute Executive Director Holly Kuzmich speaks with Brian Hooks, Stand Together Chairman and CEO, about what he’s hearing from community leaders and organizations about the border and the parallels between immigration reform and criminal justice reform.

In this episode, Stand Together Chairman and CEO Brian Hooks discusses how Americans can find common ground on the immigration debate. He is hopeful that we will make progress on immigration reform in the next several years. Watch to learn why.


Holly Kuzmich: Welcome to Immigration Insights, a series from the George W. Bush Institute, where we talk to experts in different fields on the essential role of immigrants to the fabric of American society. I am Holly Kuzmich, Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute and today, I am joined by Chairman and CEO of Stand Together, Brian Hooks. Brian is Chairman and CEO of Stand Together, which is an organization dedicated to tackling complex problems and giving communities the tools they need to remove barriers and effectively organize. Stand Together currently works with over 700 business and nonprofit leaders and almost 200 community-based organizations on a variety of issues, including common sense, immigration reform.

Hooks is also the President of the Charles Koch Foundation, which supports research, studying key policy areas, including immigration. He recently co-authored a book with Charles Koch, Believe in People, Bottom-up Solutions for a Top-down World, detailing those bottom-up solutions that empower and help individuals reach their full potential. Stand Together is also a partner with us here at the Bush Center, hosting a pop-up exhibit on American’s views on immigration, it runs until January of 2022. Brian, thank you for joining me today and being here.

Brian Hooks: Well, thanks for having me, Holly. We’ve so appreciated our partnership with you. I’m glad to talk with you today.

Holly Kuzmich: So, the past couple of months, news of the Southern border obviously, has been everywhere, in terms of the surge we’ve seen there. It’s gotten a lot of media attention, a lot of attention from policymakers in Washington, DC. What are you hearing from community leaders and organizations across the country about the border?

Brian Hooks: Well, it’s interesting, the discourse in our country, when it comes to immigration often feels so divided, but when it comes to what’s happening at the Southern border, right now, I’m hearing basically, the same thing from people who otherwise, have very different perspectives on what needs to be done with immigration. And that is, that nobody’s happy with what’s happening right now. Right? I mean, you can’t help, but look at what’s going on at the border and say, “Geez, this is a clear example of what it means to have a broken immigration policy in our country.”

It’s a tragedy, I think, what’s happening and what’s been happening now, for season after season. But it’s a totally predictable consequence of not having a sensible immigration policy in our country. And the way that I look at it is, that when you make it exceedingly difficult for people to come to our country, to contribute to our country through legal channels, and there are fewer and narrower legal channels for people to come, we shouldn’t be surprised when we see thousands of people trying to come here through those few legal channels that do exist. And in this case, through our asylum system, whether they’re appropriately asylum cases or not.

So, we want to encourage those who would come here to contribute to our country, to do so through legal channels, but for that to happen, they have to exist. I’m reminded of what the French economist Frederick Bastiat said. He said, “For a law to be respected, it needs to be respectable.” And our current immigration system is anything but. So for us, I think this goes back to just needing to really fundamentally, rethink the way that we approach the issue of immigration in our country. I think often, even those of us who are advocates for improving the immigration system, we get trapped in the wrong paradigm. We got to recognize first and foremost, immigration is good, it’s a source of strength in our country.

The choice between security and being a welcoming country is a false choice. The only way to have one is to have the other. And we have to recognize that the purpose of an immigration system is not actually to keep people out, we think about this backwards too often. The purpose of an immigration system in a free country like the United States, is to make sure that we are as welcoming as we possibly can be to those who would come to contribute to our country and make it stronger. And I think that if we started with that premise, we would find that there’s a whole lot more common ground to building up a better system. And as we do that, we’re going to address the consequences of our broken system right now, like what we see at the Southern border.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. So, I mentioned that you all have, as part of the exhibit, we have President Bushes paintings of immigrants that we have here at the Bush Center. You also have this pop-up exhibit as part of it, somewhat addressing some of the misconceptions and myths about immigration. You started to touch on this. What sort of misconceptions have you heard as you’ve thought about your work?

Brian Hooks: Well, first off, let me just say, that the opportunity to partner with you guys and with President Bush on his portraits, I think it’s a great opportunity, a great match. The portraits emphasizing the many, varied and diverse contributions that immigrants have made to the country over time. And then, our pop-up exhibit, this common ground immigration project that we launched in 2019, prior to the pandemic, and we’re relaunching now with you all, as part of this exhibit. The common ground doors that are there at your facility, are doors that you can walk up to, you open the door and you see a video screen. And the video plays a story of immigrants who have made a contribution either through the economy or through helping to secure our country through their contributions to the military, through their cultural contributions, you name it.

And then at the end of these stories, which more often than not, will resonate with the person who’s watching them, the message, the punchline to this is, if this resonates with you, if you feel like this is an example of why immigration is good, you’re not alone. Right? The punchline is that the vast majority of Americans, in over 75% of Americans, say that immigration is good. The majority of people in this country want more immigration, not less. And then when you get to issues like Dreamers, specific policy issues, the support is greater than 80%. So, the biggest misconception I think, in this country right now, is that immigration is an issue that divides us, but at its base, this notion that we’re a country of immigrants and as Americans, we value the contributions of immigrants. This is as close to a consensus issue, I think, as exists in the United States right now.

So, at its base, I think this notion that this is controversial, one of the things we’re trying to accomplish with this common ground, is to show people that they’re not alone, that they’re in the majority and that what we need to do now is help them to raise up their voice. Another misconception is this thing that I mentioned a second ago, this notion that we have to choose between being a welcoming country and being a secure country.

Holly Kuzmich: Right.

Brian Hooks: And we know that as we’re welcoming, we are more secure. And I think we want both, and I think you guys would agree, we need to have both.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah.

Brian Hooks: And we think there’s a pretty clear path to achieving both.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. And too often, they’re viewed as mutually exclusive and they’re not.

Brian Hooks: And they’re not. In our experience in history shows us, you don’t have to go back very far. Right? As I understand it, in the 1990s, when we expanded things like guest-worker visas, we saw more people who came through legal channels to contribute through employment. And we saw apprehensions at the border go down, I think, upwards of 90%. Right? Which means, that the border patrol can focus on those few individuals who would come here to do us harm, rather than having to dedicate their energy the way that they are right now.

Holly Kuzmich: So, you all talk a lot about this bottom-up approach, that you take to the work that you do. Talk a little bit about how you think this bottom-up approach applies, as we push for reform to our immigration system?

Brian Hooks: Well, I think immigration is the story of what it means to succeed from the bottom-up. It’s the American story. Right? Our story is a story of immigrants who have come to our country throughout the generations, often with almost nothing except the gifts that they possessed in order to contribute. And then in a very short amount of time, have built extraordinary lives for themselves by contributing in the lives of others. And that is the story of America, that’s how we’ve succeeded as a country. So my personal story, we all have an immigrant story, which is an incredible part of being an American. My grandfather’s father comes from Poland. My grandfather grows up in the dirt floor tenements of Hammond, Indiana. If you don’t know, Hammond, Hammond is a place where people look to Gary, Indiana with aspirations. Right? It’s a tough place to grow up.

Holly Kuzmich: Yep.

Brian Hooks: And a few generations later, I’m talking to the leader of a presidential center. Right? And his grandchildren are living a life of prosperity that was unimaginable to his father. And the cool thing about that is, there’s nothing unique about my story. Right? We all have a story like that and so that’s what we mean when we say, succeeding from the bottom-up. Now, if you extrapolate that to the rest of our country, the solutions to our biggest problems, the progress that we now take for granted, has often come from what would otherwise seem like unlikely places. And you take something as simple as the invention of the airplane, a couple of bike mechanics. Right? Imagine what the world would be like if they hadn’t figured that out?

One of my favorite examples is, an immigrant, Albert Einstein, who couldn’t even get a job as a university professor. Right? He’s a patent clerk and he invents modern physics. Right? And you look at the number of products and services in our economy right now, the number of Fortune 500 companies, for instance, that were started by immigrants, or that are currently run by immigrants. You think about the progress that has come, in this case, from some unlikely places, the millions of Americans that they employ, the wonderful improvements to our lives, all of that comes from the bottom-up.

And this is, as you say, the concept that Charles and I write about in our book, Believe in People. So, if you believe that progress can come from the bottom-up, you start with this deep belief in people. And that everyone has dignity, that everyone has a gift, and we as a society succeed, but we help people to discover their gifts, develop their gifts and apply them in a way that helps themselves by helping others. And if that’s not the story of immigration in our country, I don’t know what is.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. So you all, as an organization, were very active on criminal justice reform. And I’m curious to know what lessons from seeing some success there, in reforming the system, you think could translate into how we think about reform to our immigration system?

Brian Hooks: Yes. Yeah. Criminal justice is something that we’ve been working on at Stand Together for decades. And in the past few years, we’ve seen a ton of progress, in terms of bringing a diverse coalition of groups, that share common ground on an issue and breaking through what others have said were impossible barriers to get things done. So, a few of the lessons that I think about, that I think are really relevant from our experience in criminal justice, to the challenges today in immigration. First, we have to recognize that this is not a left versus right issue, this is a right versus wrong.

So, we can marshall a diverse coalition of people who come from very different perspectives to do the right thing. And I’m thrilled that that’s what we’re doing in partnership with you at the Bush Institute and with dozens of organizations across the ideological and political spectrum, who say, “Look, we got to fix the immigration system.” The other thing that we really learned in achieving what was called the First Step Act, federal legislation on criminal justice to improve the criminal justice system, the first real effort there in about a generation, 25 years or so. Is that, when we helped to achieve that, it was at a very divisive time. People said we couldn’t achieve anything in Washington, in December of 2018.

First Step Act passes 87 to 11 in the Senate, so it’s a wildly nonpartisan effort, but it was really important legislation on its face. It helped thousands of people as soon as it was passed. I think of something like Dreamer legislation, right now, and I think that’s the same thing. It would be meaningful legislation on its face. It would make a big difference in the lives of people who are living under unimaginable uncertainty right now. But after the First Step Act passed, in the year after it, we saw about 100 meaningful, state-based reforms to improve the criminal justice system. And so what I take from that is, you took an issue like criminal justice, that was the third rail of politics for 25 years. You’ve made progress on one thing and that then gave permission to politicians to make progress in a whole lot of other ways.

And I see a parallel there with Dreamers, as well. If we can get Dreamer legislation done, help Dreamers to have permanent legal status in our country, not only are we going to help to improve their lives, that help them to continue to improve our country, we’re going to show politicians, this isn’t as hard as you think it is. And I think it’s going to open the doors to do a whole lot more, in terms of meaningful reform, that again, can help America be more of a welcoming country, as well as, help us to be a more secure country.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. We’ve got a ways to go, but we can get there if we really work at it.

Brian Hooks: Yeah.

Holly Kuzmich: So, you all did something interesting recently, you partnered with a chef, Pati Jinich on her cookbook, The Stories of Our Table, highlighting recipes from immigrant families. How did you end up doing that and what does that say about the importance of cultural exchange to our country?

Brian Hooks: Yeah. This is a fun project because we all have our favorite food, and often, that food has a story that is tied back to immigration.

Holly Kuzmich: Right.

Brian Hooks: So Pati is a James Beard award-winning chef. She’s fantastic. And she allowed us to partner with her, to solicit recipes from American family tables, and to tell us the story of the food that they were hoping would make it into this cookbook and why it was meaningful for them. And so we surfaced all these wonderful American stories, which of course were stories of immigration. So, I think it’s a good reminder, that we focus on immigration policy a lot in the discussion of the issue. And it’s important, we’ve got to change policy to make improvements, but immigration isn’t about policy. Right? Immigration is about people. It’s about families. It’s about what it means to be an American.

It’s important to remember, we’re the only country that no matter where you come from, if you live here and you become part of our country, you’re no longer French, you’re no longer Italian, you’re no longer Mexican, you’re American. Ronald Reagan said that, Bill Clinton said that, George Bush said that, Barack Obama said that, this is an idea that unites people across divides. And sometimes when you sit down and you enjoy your favorite meal, reflecting on that, we think that that can help to focus people on really, the humanity of the issue. Help people see there’s a whole lot more common ground to start the conversation by focusing on that common ground, often over a good meal, rather than doing what, unfortunately, we tend to do so much in Washington, which is, start with our differences.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. Well, food is a great uniter.

Brian Hooks: It’s a great uniter, that’s right.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. So, Brian, given that we’ve had decades where we have obviously, not made progress on a broken immigration system, and you talked about the implications on the border. How so much of what we’re seeing at the border is due to the fact that we don’t have enough legal channels for people to come and the right channels for people to come. What makes you hopeful that we’re going to make progress on this over the next several years?

Brian Hooks: Well, I’m confident we’re going to make progress on this and I don’t think it needs to take several years. There’s an answer from the downside and answer from the upside and they happened to converge. So the first is, that we have to do something, we just absolutely have to do something. The current situation is not sustainable and what’s happening at the border right now is a good illustration of this. As I say, when I talk to people on both the left and the right, everybody says, “Look, the current situation is not working.” And so we don’t have a choice. We’ve got to take action. But on the upside, what I’m seeing is very similar to what we saw as the movement for criminal justice reform really gained traction. And that is, a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room together, are starting to talk in serious ways about getting things done.

When I talk to people on the right, I say, “Look, immigration reform resonates with your values. The current immigration system is a failed big-government system, plain and simple” and when I talk to people on the left, I say, “Look, your concerns about justice are absolutely correct and we need to make sure that we have a more just system, but if you want to accomplish either of those things, we got to work together.” I think people are starting to see that.

And while you don’t read about it in the headlines and believe me, I don’t think we approach this from a naive perspective, this is not an easy task. But the conditions are there to make real progress. And I’ll tell you, the coalition that got together, when we all passed the First Step Act, there were literally, people the morning before that vote, telling us it wasn’t going to happen, it was impossible. And then it passes 87 to 11. And so it’s real slow until it’s fast.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah.

Brian Hooks: And I think that we’re close to that inflection point and so we’re going to put everything that we’ve got behind making sure that that’s a reality. And I know you guys are helping to lead the charge, as well.

Holly Kuzmich: Yeah. Well, thank you for all you’re doing on this issue. It’s important and all the issues you work on at Stand Together and thanks for being here today.

Brian Hooks: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Holly, and thanks for the partnership and everything you guys are doing, as well.