Friday, August 25, 2006

The dual edges of immigration issues

In 1994, Californians passed Proposition 187 which attempted to restrict access to a range of benefits for immigrants who were in the state illegally. The issue created a lot of emotion in California. I was in Oaxaca soon after the vote and out fishing with a couple of friends and the kid who was driving the small boat I was on commented when he found that two of us were from California that "Californians hate Mexicans" - which I quickly responded "No yo!" (Not me) But that drove home to me both the importance and the complexity of the issue. Here in this small fishing village a young kid had already formed opinions about a California issues. Governor Wilson was in a tight re-election race and the state was spending billions of dollars paying the expenses of immigrants in schools and hospitals and prisons. I argued with one friend at the time that the short term benefit of supporting the proposition would be offset by the longer term alientation that would be created with Hispanic voters. But Wilson forged ahead. Clearly, the state was bearing an unreasonable burden based in part on the requirement to follow and pay for unfunded federal mandates.

But in this year, immigration has become a national issue. California's rate of immigrant influx has slowed considerably, just as it has risen in other states not so close to the border, like North Carolina. Politicians, recognizing the potentcy of the issue, are having a lot of pictures taken near cactus to demonstrate their expertise in the area. Jack Kingston R- GA commented in an article in today's Arizona Republic - "It's like any other issue: You spend a half a day in the hospital with a doctor and you know more about health care, but you're not an expert," he said. "There are all types in Congress, and there are those types who will go for a photo op, and I don't think either party has a monopoly on them." A truer statement has not been said.

Some observers start with an ideological bias. For example a UC San Diego official thinks the issue is a creation of the majority party for short term political advantage (quoted in today's Christian Science Monitor) "It's mainly because of a strategic choice made by the Republican Congressional leadership to make immigration their party's wedge issue du jour for this election year," writes Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego, in an e-mail interview. "Exploiting anti-immigration hostility is ... an effective and efficient way to mobilize their base."

Despite Mr. Cornelius' comments there is a much larger set of issues. And despite the pandering on the issue that comes from all sides of the political spectrum (driver's licenses or offering in state fees for public universities are not an example of the left trying to create a wedge issue?) the issue deserves some serious thought. In spite of the picture it presents for some on the right, the country is not going to ship back the 12 million plus illegals to their home countries. And despite the rhetoric on the left, borders are not going to come collapsing down.

So what are the issues that our political class should be reflecting on? I think there are several. First, what are the effects of this pretty large influx of new people to our shores? We know something about these trends from prior waves of immigration although the previous waves did not have the strong possibility of returning? But clearly the infusion of large number of people with different cultures will have an effect on our social and political systems. Before we can figure out how we should react we should have a pretty good idea of what we know about trends. Just as there was in earlier immigration waves, there is a lot of idle and sometimes malicious chatter about these issues.

Second, how do we preserve the essential elements of the American system with this infusion of new people? Those are philosophical questions that would be aided by a lot more data and some strategic analysis of how public policies affect both of the trends. The American system has some unique aspects, what are the elements we should try to preserve and where are we enriched by the additions? In California, the influx of all sorts of cultures has aided our cuisine. Governor Wilson once quipped the typical California lunch was a fish taco with a side of kimchi. Again, this would take us some time to think about how things should work.

Third, what are the economic effects of the wave? Some in the community have argued that this influx has created an "exploited" class of workers that degrades the wave structure in the economy while others have argued that the vast majority of these workers take jobs Americans will not do. The truth, as far as I have seen the data, lies somewhere in the middle.

Fourth, what should be our obligations to the illegals in terms of serving them with services? How much of the extension of services is done for humanitarian motives and how much for public health and safety? Would we be safer if Illegals were granted driver's licenses? How much eligibility for health care should be offered? What are the consequences of offering education to children who come here and at what level is it appropriate to curtail the offerings? This relates to two kinds of protections - the things like wage and hour guidelines but also the public health and safety issues.

Then, and only after there is a bit more thought on these broader issues should one begin to think about appropriate public policies. Does the President's proposal for a guest worker program help or hinder the useful flow of labor across borders? What role should employers have in border enforcement - should they be sanctioned heavily or left alone? Does our current systems of things like social security taxes help or hinder the free flow of workers? (One could make a strong case that changing the social security system from a government run program to one of private accounts would promote less exploitation (to the extent there is any) by employers.)

Unfortunately, for us, both the left and the right have chosen to treat this issue as political theater not an important issue. One area where the kind of debate and discussion that should be taking place on this issue is actually progressing is in the Cato Institute. Their monthly magazine, Cato Unbound, has an excellent set of articles on the issues. Included in the issue are a series of comments and reacions from people like Richard Rodriguez and Victor Davis Hanson as well as an early edition of something that grew into a very good book by Maryland economist Julian Simon. Also included is an interesting essay from the director of the Mexican Migration project at Princeton - which seems to be doing some very interesting work in the area. On this type of issue it is easy to be knee jerk either as the UCSD person commented or as people like Tom Tancredo has been. But that kind of behavior won't help us think out what the right set of responses to this issue should be.

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