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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Framing the Immigration Debate

Americans have had a week to consider President Bush's proposals for immigration reform and corresponding ideas coming out of the House and Senate. Like virtually every other issue facing the country, it seems both the Presidential and Congressional proposals are aiming more at wrapping the right poll-tested buzzwords around their proposals to placate their core supporters rather than itemizing key decision points to help clarify the debate and develop useful policies.

Here are a few areas that are crucial to creating a coherent policy on immigration that are either being cloaked in unproductive "hot-button" language or are being ignored entirely.

Security versus Economics

Some of the solutions proposed for the immigration problem have implied or stated that proper control of the border is essential to protect America from future terrorist attacks. A simple review of the facts surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks can easily refute this argument. Every one of the 19 hijackers involved entered America in plain sight through normal transportation channels. The problem was that existing INS practices failed to reject their entry, despite the fact that many carried outright fraudulent visas or the wrong type of visa. After arriving here, some of the hijackers overstayed their visas well before 9/11/2001 yet were never contacted or forcibly removed from the country. (#1)

Building a fence from San Diego, CA to Brownsville, TX won't prevent terrorists from entering the United States and conducting attacks. The people bent on attacking America aren't short of money and don't need to sneak into the country. They can simply fly first class directly to Dulles and waltz right in or fly to Canada and come across that border. There are simply too many people with clean records and perfectly legal credentials who would be willing to come to the United States, hibernate for a few years to disappear from view, then attack us to make "border security" a successful strategy for thwarting terrorism within America.

The lack of a viable "security" rational for immigration policy means the best solutions to the problem must involve law enforcement and economic policy changes, not further militarization of our tactics. Use of National Guard forces simply buries more spending for what are essentially civilian functions within a bloated, poorly managed military budget.

Income Taxes versus Sales Taxes

Bruce Bartlett had a short but interesting comment in the May 19, 2006 edition of the WSJ about a potentially overlooked impact on state budgets resulting from policies for income taxes versus sales taxes. Texas and California are the two most populous border states with Mexico and absorb most of the costs of the extra education, healthcare, welfare and law enforcement problems resulting from illegal immigration. For 2006, California is expected to run a deficit of about $6 billion while Texas balanced its budget. (#2)

According to Bartlett, California and Texas have the same state sales tax rate yet California's dependency on state income taxes makes it less likely that illegal aliens working in an underground economy can be reached to pay taxes to cover the costs of services they use and impose on the state. Bartlett's point (which is a valid one) is that while sales taxes are viewed as highly regressive because low-income workers pay a far higher percentage of their income in taxes than high income workers, use of sales taxes ensures illegal immigrants do contribute SOMETHING to pay for the costs they impose on our host states.

Conservatives and liberals need to understand clearly the long term tradeoffs between tax policies and social spending policies. If you're a liberal who hates unfair, regressive sales taxes and fees, you cannot refuse to address the other half of the budget equation and allow a growing portion of the population to generate costs to government while escaping taxation to pay for it. If you're a conservative in favor of reduced income taxes to encourage economic creativity and entrepreneurialism, you cannot focus on sales taxes with classic "regressive" impacts to low-income workers while exploiting immigrant workers' shadow economy status for profit and gutting crucial spending on education that ensures American workers can keep pace with the productivity and expertise of workers in other countries.

Privacy versus Entitlements

Creation of a more secure national identity card has been frequently proposed as part of the solution to illegal immigration and undocumented workers. Use of some sort of RFID or biometric technology within the card has been suggested to make the card itself more fraud-proof and prevent the creation of a more cumbersome paperwork trail for businesses to research when hiring workers.

More Americans are learning the hard way about the flaws in current identity practices based around on Social Security numbers (which, by the way, are not supposed to be used as identification numbers according to Federal law, despite the fact that the government itself obviously uses them for many purposes besides tracking your Social Security payments and eligibility) or driver's license numbers. A thief with your SSN / driver's license # and your name or address can unearth your entire identity and ruin your credit overnight. However, there are also legitimate concerns about adopting a true national identity card with stronger protections that would be associated with even more personally identifiable information if it was ever compromised.

Any proposal for a secure national identity card will require Americans to make a serious choice between retaining more privacy and continued growth in spending on social programs and "entitlement programs" such as Social Security, Medicare, Welfare, etc. As it stands now, many of our most expensive state and federal programs amount to the operation of an exclusive, expensive country club that does absolutely nothing to check guests at the door. Not a very exclusive club. No real country club would stay in business with that business model. America won't either. We cannot continue operating expensive public programs without ensuring beneficiaries have contributed to those programs. Either the programs must be curtailed or you have to start checking people at the door. A stronger, more secure national identity card will help "check people at the door" before delivering any state or federal program benefits.

NOTE -- This is not a statement that immigrants in America (legal or illegal) are not entitled to basic legal and civil rights given to Americans. It merely reflects a crucial distinction between basic human / civil / legal rights that conceptually ensure things are not TAKEN from you as a human being and economic "rights" GIVEN to you as a citizen normally in exchange for having paid taxes into programs that provide those things.

A National Language versus Education

The past week's commotion in the Senate over recognition of English as the official language of the United States is another classic political substitution of motion for progress. You'd never know there was an election coming in November, would you?

"National Language" proponents couch their support in humanistic terms, stating that failure to learn English dooms immigrant works (legal or otherwise) to a career "ghetto" within the larger economy consisting of nothing but low-paying service jobs or grueling / unsafe construction and agricultural jobs. Proponents believe that requiring immigrants to learn English will open more opportunities within the larger economy thus making them more able to avoid exploitation in entry-tier jobs.

The entire "national language" fixation is misguided for the simple reason that it focuses on those already within America rather than other people considering entering the country illegally in search of work. The primary goal of any immigration reform is to stop the flow of new illegals. Future illegal workers won't be daunted by a requirement to learn English as long as jobs exist that don't require English, jobs exist that can be filled with fraudulent identification or with no identification, and as long as there are ways of entering the country. The "national language" debate focuses on an after-affect of the core problem after the core problem has already occurred.

The national language debate should really be reframed as a debate about education policies and education funding policies. "National Language" proponents argue that growing quantities of non-English speaking children are straining school budgets and classroom hours as schools attempt to provide some schooling in native languages to help "bootstrap" immigrant children into regular English curriculums. This is a valid, material concern. However, it isn't clear how much of these schools' core problem is the demand to teach classes in a foreign language versus the demand to teach the students in any language without an underlying tax base that adequately covers those obtaining the benefit from the public education.



#1) 9/11 Hijacker Visa Problems:

#2) California / Texas Budgets: