Adding an influential conservative voice to a growing national debate, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has joined a bipartisan commission to investigate America's immigration system and present reform ideas to Congress.
"The immigration issue gets right to the heart of our ability to attract human potential and it gets right to the heart of who we are," Rice said from her Stanford University office in a conference call Monday.
The political science professor and former Bush administration cabinet official will be co-chairwoman of the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center's Immigration Task Force, a newly formed group that says it will "consider all pillars of immigration reform, including enforcement, legalization and worker visas," and present its conclusions in several months.
Rice said she was joining the group with an open mind and a desire to educate the public, citing the need of Silicon Valley to retain its highly skilled immigrants and what she called the vexing problem of illegal immigration.
The task force is not a governmental body, but carries the weight of its high-profile leaders, including Rice and Henry Cisneros, of Texas, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration; Haley Barbour, the former Republican governor of Mississippi; and Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania.
Organizing the group is Rebecca Tallent, a former immigration policy aide and chief of staff to U.S. Sen John McCain, R-Ariz. In a dismissal of the "border-first" approach of some Republicans that has stalled previous attempts at reform, including during the Bush administration, Rice argued Monday that comprehensive immigration policies will also improve border security.
She declined to weigh in yet on what she called "the hardest and most vexing" question about whether to offer the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Barbour said he favored a strenuous citizenship path, while Cisneros said he wants to avoid a "permanent underclass" of partially legalized immigrants.
Rice said she saw the need to retain highly skilled immigrants from both poor and advanced countries.
She mentioned Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose family fled the Soviet Union, and talked about Stanford students who arrive on student visas but find it difficult to stay here permanently.
"Many of them would love to stay here and yet we send them back, many of them, to enrich other countries," she said.
Stanford's former provost, Rice returned to the campus in 2009 as a political science professor and fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.
She will continue to teach classes this spring as the task force meets privately and holds public meetings around the country.