Monday, May 21, 2007

Immigration reform

A comprehensive immigration bill has come together with bipartisan support in the Senate. Marc Cooper says there is plenty to dislike about the piece of legislation but it is probably the best that can be done at this time. It is at least a first step in the right direction by recognizing two realities:

What's good about this bill is that, for the first time and 20 years too late, it recognizes two key pieces of reality that are currently objects of collective denial. First, that our economic growth and prosperity absolutely requires an in-migration of both skilled and unskilled workers and, second, there are already 12 million undocumented human beings in this country who deserve at least some sort of legal recognition. It's imperative that that these two principles be established. And then we can spend another 20-30 years, unfortunately, improving their implementation.

The fate of the bill is unknown. A lot will depend on President Bush’s ability to deliver Republican votes, which will be no easy task. Fellow Republicans in South Carolina booed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham this weekend for his work on the legislation.

So where is the party of Ronald Reagan going with this issue. Fareed Zakaria has these thoughts in Newsweek
In 1989, Ronald Reagan made his farewell address to the American people and summed up his view of the United States. "I've spoken of the shining city all my political life," he said, "but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. [I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here." Today, all the Republican Party can talk about are walls, fences, border guards and attack dogs.

"But that was about legal immigration," Republicans today will claim. "Our complaints are about illegal aliens." Actually Reagan addressed the issue of illegals directly and with surprising candor. In a radio address in 1977, he observed that apples were rotting on trees in New England because no Americans were willing to pick them. "It makes one wonder about the illegal-alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal-alien invasion or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won't do?" Reagan asked. "One thing is certain in this hungry world: no regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters."

The facts incidentally confirm Reagan's view. The six states that get the largest inflow of illegal immigrants—New York, California, Illinois, Texas, Florida and Arizona—have unusually low unemployment rates. With the exception of California and Illinois, they are all lower than the already-low national average of 4.5 percent (last month). As for the argument that immigrants depress the wages of native-born Americans, the best new research on this topic—by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber—demonstrates that unskilled immigrants complement rather than replace native Americans in the labor force, doing jobs that native Americans will not.

The compromise immigration bill worked out in the Senate by Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kyl is imperfect. But in broad terms it solves many of the problems with the current immigration system and, in Kennedy's words, "brings millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America." It does what legislation in a large and diverse country should do—makes trade-offs, compromises and accommodations to actually get something done. The requirements for illegal immigrants are so arduous that many might stay hidden and the guest-worker program is so complicated that it might be unworkable. But these features could be fixed and the proposal does move this important issue forward.

And yet, it faces a barrage of criticism on the right from those who seem to reject any solution to immigration that does not deport 12 million people. Anything else they call amnesty. The term amnesty comes from the 1986 immigration bill, supported and signed by Ronald Reagan, which gave many illegal immigrants in the United States immediate permanent residency—green cards—with few requirements, a tiny fee and a fast-tracked application process. The current proposal would allow illegal immigrants to apply for a green card after a minimum of eight years, the payment of large fines and fees and proof of clean records and good employment history. To call this amnesty is to reveal that no compromise will ever be acceptable.

More startling than the transformation of the Republican Party has been the cowardice of its presidential candidates. Four of the men running for the Republican nomination—John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Sam Brownback—had sensible views on immigration. All supported the original Kennedy-McCain bill, which was a much more intelligent and also more liberal piece of legislation than the current proposal. Apart from McCain, all have now backtracked in various ways. It isn't just the politicians who are AWOL. The Weekly Standard had been a lone voice for immigration reform on the right. But it has been strangely silent of late, not having run an editorial on the topic for one year, a year during which immigration has been a burning issue. The Republican Party today is filled with what Winston Churchill called "boneless wonders."
Attempting to deport an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants – roughly the population of Ohio –is simply crazy. This sort of spitefulness does not speak well of the American people. This is simply turning immigration into a pest control problem.

Then there is a common refrain heard by those upset by the presence in this country of undocumented workers from Mexico that don’t play by the rules. That’s a fair argument but overlooks the fact that the rules, as they pertain to immigration, have always been very arbitrary. As just one example, look at the treatment of immigrants stepping on our shores from Hati versus immigrants who arrive on these shores from Cuba. They are treated very differently. The rules already vary (and always have) so the special relationship between Mexico and the United States should be taken into consideration when reviewing and rewriting laws.

Part of the problem with attempts at closing the border is that it makes the problem worse. It forces immigrants from the south to attempt ever more dangerous entry into the United States over unfriendly terrain and it forces those who are here to never leave out of fear they will never be able to return. A common sense immigration policy requires regulation but needs to easy enough for people to come here to work and return home without fear not being able to return. If you make it hard to comply with the law you are only going to recreate the situation we have now.

Of course every nation requires secure border for purposes of national security but why then the concern about only the border with Mexico when the Canadian border is much longer and just as porous. Is it because most Canadians are white and speak English? Let’s be honest with ourselves about that.

The worse thing Americans can do is panic. There are issues to be resolved but we need to keep in mind that while there are cultural and language differences with our brothers and sisters from Mexico we also have cultural similarities and a great many Americans speak Spanish as a second language. Issues of integration in the United States pale in comparison to the issues of integration of Arab and Turkish immigrants in Europe.

Finally, the current debate is taking a unilateral approach to immigration from Mexico. There may be many who are convinced there is only one side to this issue but no one can deny there are two sides to the border. How many National Guard troops are we willing to place on the border and how high are we willing to build fences with razor wire and walls of steel and concrete before there is a dialogue with Mexico. Because we share a border with Mexico we have a special relationship that country. It is in the interests of both Mexico and the United States that Mexico prospers. This should involve not only the American government but also American businesses and American labor unions.

Given the tenor of the debate, doing the right thing will take some political courage. However, doing the right thing will pay off in the long run for both our countries.

No comments: