Students take on comprehensive immigration reform for annual Integrated Policy Exercise

January 21, 2010

The winter semester kicked off early for Ford School MPP students, who arrived back on campus before classes started for the annual Integrated Policy Exercise (IPE). The topic for this year's IPE was comprehensive immigration legislation, a package of reforms that President Bush tried but failed to pass four years ago and that President Obama has now vowed to sponsor.

The IPE is designed as an opportunity for MPP students to engage with a real-world policy issue. During the three-day exercise students adopt decision-maker or stakeholder roles and develop, negotiate, and debate various proposals. The IPE alternates focus between issues of domestic and international significance. Past topics have included healthcare reform in Michigan, an AIDS global forum, urban revitalization, and reform of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

This year's IPE was led by Professor Ann Lin, an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science who has published and taught widely on issues related to immigration. Ann compiled a list of the most important and/or controversial immigration proposals from 2006, and then gave students the chance to see if they could weld those proposals into a bill that the current U.S. Senate might accept. Students were assigned to represent key senators on immigration reform. To increase the realism of the exercise, senators were also given control of differently-sized voting blocs, which encouraged students to choose coalition partners strategically.

MPP student Atur Desai at the 2010 Integrated Policy Exercise

Lin developed an innovative new format for this year's exercise. She and her GSIs, Alison Walsh and Alexander Nosnik, divided the students into three groups. The groups independently ran the same simulation, reconvening on the third day to debrief, compare their experiences, and get feedback on their results from policy professionals.

The concurrent simulations allowed all students to play an active role in the IPE, ameliorating a challenge posed by recent growth in MPP class sizes. The innovation also provided the opportunity for integrative post-simulation discussion of how the process and the results varied among the three groups.

The exercise began with orientation to the issues, including a primer on Senate rules (David King, UM Ph.D. '92) along with substantive briefings by experts that included three Ford School alumni: Will Nash (MPP '09), Carol Kim (MPP '99) and Shannon Wheeler (MPP '05). Students then launched into the simulation itself, including committee hearings, committee mark-ups, and then a floor vote – all run mostly in accordance with actual Senate rules.

The morning of the final day was devoted to debriefing and discussion. The three simulations passed bills that, while broadly similar, included many different provisions. After presenting their final bills, students dissected why things turned out the way they did in each simulation, including what key compromises might have been made and what coalitions ended up taking shape. The experience of simulating and then analyzing the policy process was especially successful: on a scale of 1 to 4, students reported that the IPE helped them work with and understand diverse groups and perspectives (3.67); gain new insight into the policy process (3.98); and understand their actor's challenges, constraints and opportunities (3.87).

The last event of the IPE brought three longtime observers of immigration reform to the Ford School via videoconference to evaluate the students' work. Cecilia Munoz, Director, Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, The White House, was the former vice-president of the National Council of La Raza and is now the Obama Administration's point person on immigration reform. Daniel Tichenor, Phillip H. Knight Professor of Social Science, University of Oregon, is a historian of immigration reform efforts from the 19th century to the present day. Tamar Jacoby, CEO, ImmigrationWorksUSA, is a former New York Times and Newsweek reporter and now a leading conservative organizer of small business support for immigration reform.

Each offered his or her own insights into the potential for comprehensive immigration reform legislation. They also provided "realpolitik" feedback on the three bills passed by the students, noting a few provisions that seemed less than likely to see the light of day in the actual U.S. Senate. (One simulated bill resulted in the legalization of marijuana. In another, the citizens of Washington, DC were finally granted voting rights thanks to the machinations of "Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT).")

"I learned a lot about the legislative process – how a bill makes its way through Senate committees and how and why various stakeholders get their say," said Mynti Hossain (MPP '11), who played the part of Senator Al Franken in the simulation. As a relatively new member of the Senate, her "Senator Franken" leaned on existing alliances with other Democrats throughout the process. Mynti noted that the floor debate was especially intriguing: "There was so much enthusiasm and even suspense. For a while, it seemed that we would never reach cloture as the Republicans, Democrats, and Independents refused to budge. The negotiations that took place between parties to reach an agreement were interesting, to say the least."