The N.J. Democrat on health care and immigration reform
Harvard Political Review: What inspired you to enter public service?
Robert Andrews: My father—who had worked for 40 years in a shipyard—lost his job. So we had a family crisis. He was too old to start over again, too young to retire. We had no health insurance. It was a tough time.
And for me there was a disconnect: Government had the ability to solve problems, but it wasn’t doing anything to solve my father’s problems. And it made me seriously think about whether I could contribute to doing something about that.
HPR: Why do you think voters have grown restless with the Democrats and are generally more energized by the Republican Party?
RA: Because essentially a fifth of the country is out of work. The official statistics understate the number of people who are unemployed or underemployed. There is economic devastation. People are naturally going to hold the party in power accountable for their troubles.
HPR: Do you feel that the Democrats have promoted a strong message, rooted in what President Obama has actually accomplished in the last two years?
RA: I don’t think our message has been particularly good, but I don’t think that would matter very much. If someone has been out of work for two years and can’t find a job—if you say, well, we passed this Wall Street reform bill, and three years from now everybody who needs health care is going to have it, that doesn’t impress him.
HPR: From the outset you were one of the most enthusiastic supporters of health care reform. What more do you think needs to be done to convince voters about the value of this legislation?
RA: We just have to let the law take effect, and then people are going to see the difference in their own lives. The most obvious benefit to college students is that if you leave school and are not immediately employed, you can stay on your parents’ health insurance policy, if they have one. I think that as time goes on, our best political resource will be the law itself.
And our second best political resource is the wild and false claims of the bill’s opponents. If your grandmother’s been told that some federal committee is going to take a vote on whether or not she gets a kidney transplant, it isn’t true. That the wild falsehoods alleged against this bill will prove to be untrue will undercut the credibility of the bill’s critics.
HPR: Any advice for students considering a career in politics?
RA: More than anything else, find something you’d be willing to lose an election over. We have plenty of people in politics whose core value is winning elections. I think that’s why sometimes the government in our country is dysfunctional. Hard decisions that have to get made sometimes don’t get made because politicians fear they might lose votes. So, I would urge people, even those with core values totally opposed to my own, to remember that the key thing is to find something that really matters to you in your heart.
HPR: One of the most pressing issues right now is immigration. In 2006, you supported the Secure Fence Act, which called for a 700-mile fence to be built along the border with Mexico. But for the immigrants that are currently in the United States, what would you like to see in any immigration reform legislation?
RA: First of all, I think that the Secure Fence Act was a mistake. It’s a vote that I would take back if I could. The GAO has studied the actual implementation of the fence and it’s proven to be ineffective and too expensive. I think it has proven that in some areas the fence works but in most areas it’s ineffective. So I would change my position on that.
I think immigration reform has to have three essential components. The first is effective cessation of the flow of undocumented people into the country. Most undocumented people into the United States do not come across the border between Mexico and the United States. They come into the country legally on a tourist visa, or student visa, or work visa, and stay here. And one of the ways that we can combat that is to require biometric identification on those visas.
The second component needs to be an incentive for people who are here illegally to attain legal status. Essentially we would say that if you are employed, if you pay back whatever taxes you would have paid were you working legally, if you develop the ability to read and write English, and you haven’t violated any laws other than the immigration law, you can earn legal alien status, and eventually citizenship. I’m for that. I think that makes sense.
And then the third aspect is employers. I don’t think that we should target the owner of a diner or a car wash who negligently or inadvertently hires an undocumented worker. But I do think that we should target construction companies who knowingly round up busloads of people and bring them north for construction projects. I think that we have to change the economics of that transaction so that it is more attractive not to do it than it is to do it.
Simon Thompson ’14 is a Staff Writer. This interview has been edited and condensed.