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Monday, September 13, 2010
Immigration Reform, Part IV: Loose Ends

Today I'll take a few minutes to tie up some loose ends in our calm, rational discussion of immigration policy, and I'll answer an important question some of you are asking. NEW: Listen to an audio podcast of this post.

This is the fourth and, at least for now, the last installment of my attempt to have a reasonable discussion of immigration policy. (Here are the first, second, and third parts.) Today we tie up some loose ends.

Not Amnesty?

First of all, I suggested that we have a very welcoming, efficiently administered guest worker program, and that we invite those who are currently in the United States illegally to participate, as an alternative to deporting them, which we will still do if we catch them after a certain deadline. I can practically hear some of you asking, "How is that not amnesty?" You see, I suggested that the Left compromise away its desire for amnesty, in return for the Right agreeing to embrace the current illegals rather than deporting them all.

My suggestion is that, because we're not just embracing the illegals and putting them on a track to citizenship -- to voting, which is what the Left cares about -- we're not offering full-blown amnesty. Look up amnesty in your dictionary of choice, and you'll see that it involves forgiving, forgetting, or overlooking illegal acts, usually those of a class of people. Even without putting them on a citizenship track, it might be amnesty if we just said to them, "Look, we don't care how you got here. You're fine just the way you are. Feel free to stay as long as you want." But that's not what I propose.

Instead, I'm suggesting that we tell them, "You're here illegally, so you have two choices: You can get legal by joining our guest worker program and complying with its terms, thus saving us the trouble and expense of catching and deporting you, and sparing you and us the economic upheaval that would result. Or you can go home, which is where we'll send you if we catch you after such-and-such a date, if you haven't enrolled in the guest worker program. We'll also send you there, if at any point you neglect to comply with its terms." So we're not telling them they're fine the way they are; we're just applying a method of legalizing their status which doesn't involve an unmanageable burden on law enforcement.

National ID?

I've said for a long time that, without a national ID card, there's no reliable way to tell quickly if a person is in the country legally. If he or she is a legal immigrant and has the appropriate documents, fine. But how do you tell a citizen from an illegal immigrant, when neither carries proof of being in the country legally? A Social Security card, the closest thing we have to a national ID card, is wholly inadequate. It has just a name and a number; there's no photo or any other way to determine whether the cardholder is really the person identified on the card. A driver license has a photo, at least, but some states issue licenses to illegals.

Some people vehemently oppose the idea of a national ID card. Some of those do so because they fear it would be part of a grand conspiracy to track, and ultimately to control, the entire population -- as if the government's data on all of us hasn't already far exceeded what the ID card would offer. Others simply think a card isn't necessary, or would be too easy to forge.

If you can show me a way other than a national ID to make it easy and relatively unintrusive to distinguish citizens from illegals at a traffic stop or in some other situation, where there may not be, say, a good Internet connection, fine. Let's do that. If you want to do it at the state level, that's okay, as long as it's hard to forge and easy to verify from outside the state. Checking citizenship status when issuing a driver license, then displaying that status on the license, might work.

Flat Tax?

At the end of the previous installment, I suggested that the idea of a flat tax might arise in our tying up of loose ends. Here's how. I can foresee some administrative difficulties in trying to incorporate guest workers into our standard income tax practices. What if they're only here for part of the year, then go back to Guatemala? How do we catch up to them there, to make sure they file the correct tax return after the tax year is ended? How do we reasonably verify claims of exemptions for family members who are back in the home country and don't have Social Security numbers?

We simply avoid the problem altogether. Let's just have all the employers withhold and submit a flat percentage of guest workers' wages, with no exemptions, no deductions, and no other complications. The guest worker wouldn't have to file a return at all.

Besides avoiding foreseeable complications, I have an ulterior motive here. Maybe we'd eventually see how much cheaper a flat tax is, and decide that what's good for our guest workers is good for the rest of us, as well. We could render a massive federal bureaucracy obsolete and stop paying for it, and we could radically reduce compliance costs for individuals and businesses, as well as opportunities for federal lawmakers to create loopholes.

Exploitation and a Minimum Wage

Ideally, I'd prefer that there be no legally-imposed minimum wage for anyone. A minimum wage tends to increase the cost of labor and make entry into the work force more difficult, especially for those for whom it is already challenging enough, the young and the unskilled. The next best thing is to have a minimum wage set below the cost of unskilled labor, where it has little if any effect on anything.

I've toyed with the idea of a lower minimum wage for guest workers than for citizens and permanent residents, but I think I'm ready to reject it. On one hand, it would present an advantage to the guest worker, making him or her a more attractive employee than the citizen or permanent resident; that hardly seems fair, and in the long run it might inflame the voting population enough to lead to punitive or exploitative treatment of guest workers. On the other hand, one might construe paying a guest worker less than a citizen, for the same work, as exploitation -- which we want to avoid.

So if we're going to have a minimum wage, I suppose it must apply equally to all workers, regardless of citizenship status.

At the same time, we have to find ways to protect guest workers from manipulative employers, angry former spouses, and creepy, bitter neighbors who may try to exploit a guest worker's status. Suppose I threaten to report you for violations which would lead to your disqualification from the guest worker program and your expulsion from the United States, if you do not agree to work for an illegally low wage -- or give me custody of the children, for example. I'm not quite sure how to design the necessary safeguards, but we will need to make it difficult to exploit guest workers -- and make it easy for them to report and escape such extortion.

We also need to make sure we prevent citizens, who can vote, from exploiting other legal residents, who cannot vote. Democracies tend to do that, you know; look how eager we are to enjoy benefits now at the expense of future generations, who can't yet vote against them. Maybe the 14th Amendment would be enough to protect non-voting residents; I'll have to think about that sometime.

Meanwhile, we've come to the end of our four-part discussion of immigration policy. Tell me what you think. And, if you have any ideas about how to get from there to here in the real world, please advise.

Michael Carey comments (9/13/2010):

I have a question regarding why you think we should not allow illegal immigrants true amnesty. Why not give them a path to citizenship if that is what they want?

As I see it, there are three basic classes of reasoning:

  1. We are afraid that the new immigrants wouldn't adopt existing American social norms or language (assimilate), or they will adopt social norms from the wrong end of the existing political spectrum.
  2. They don't deserve citizenship because they have violated the law.
  3. Too many new citizens will have a negative economic impact via welfare programs, or by taking our jobs.

The third problem would seem to exist if the immigrants are legal residents, regardless of whether they vote, so that doesn't seem consistent with the plan you are proposing.

I believe the second issue is blown out of proportion. Currently some citizens lose the right to vote because they have committed a felony, but violating immigration law is not a felony and I don't think it necessarily represents any anti-social tendency on the part of the immigrant. It simply means they are willing to risk a lot in order to take advantage of the economic opportunities available here. Taking away the opportunity to become a voting citizen seems to imply that these people are not capable of being good citizens. I personally have violated the law in a number of instances that don't necessarily make me incapable of being a good citizen (traffic laws, etc). Why should we impute such a severe character shortcoming to illegal immigrants?

As for the first issue, I think it is the true basis for much of the fear we have of immigrants. I also do not think it is justified. American culture is robust enough to withstand another wave of immigration. Furthermore, an important part of that culture that we are trying to preserve is respect for differences among sub-cultures. Is there any evidence that Hispanic immigrants are more intolerant than the rest of us? I am not opposed to requiring that immigrants learn some level of English before becoming citizens, but I feel strongly that limits on who should be able to obtain the right to vote should be based on neutral standards, rather than on ethnic or geographical origin.

David Rodeback comments (9/16/2010):

Michael, thanks for your questions and comments.

I see two reasons for not allowing illegal immigrants true amnesty, besides my inclination towards law and order (which may or may not really apply in our actual situation). First, it doesn't solve the problem; it just encourages more illegal immigration. We've done it before; we know this happens. Second -- and politically, this is a deal-breaker -- I don't think immigration reform is politically viable if it includes amnesty, because so many people oppose it so vehemently.

As to why those others oppose it, I'm sure the reasons vary widely, but I've heard all three of the ones you suggest rather frequently. I don't worry much about the first one myself. As to the second, I've written before that I don't think we're on solid legal ground trying to punish them for breaking a law we've systematically chosen not to enforce, for an extended period of time. And if we do it right, we can avoid the problems behind the third reason.

Please note that this post is not the entire discussion. It started here.

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