International House of Dan: Wretched Refuse

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wretched Refuse

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
-Emma Lazarus, from "The New Colossus", as read on the platform of the 150 foot tall lawn jockey the French gave us on July 4, 1884.

"America is simply no longer able to admit over a million immigrants a year. In addition, the best way to ensure that the immigrants we admit are able to live the American dream is to admit only as many as our economy, infrastructure and school systems can handle."-Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO) on his campaign website.

The debate over immigration reform has swept the nation (at least until the next round of voting on American Idol) and I feel I simply must try to educate the ignorant masses about the issues in question. Of course I know that those of you who read this are not ignorant, but when you encounter ignorant people I hope that the following will help you:

We have always known that "America is a nation of immigrants" and that "immigrants built America", but there is a tendency out there to somehow distinguish those immigrants from the people who now mow our grass, cook our food, and care for our children. The main distinction drawn is that "my grampa came here legally", which in turn leads to the inevitable "I have nothing against people who come here legally, it's illegals that need to go". Clearly, legality is an issue for many, so let us begin by examining the law.

"Grampa came here legally." For the first 160 years, immigrants to America were subject to residency and ethnicity controls in order to become citizens, there were few restrictions on reaching America. We began requiring visas for access in the 20's and implemented our modern national quotas during the Cold War (that wonderful era in which we changed the Pledge of Allegiance and supported right-wing terrorists and dictators all over the world).

The first Federal immigration law was enacted in 1790, it set residency at two years. In 1798 the President was allowed to arrest and deport aliens he deemed dangerous. In 1864 we appointed a Commissioner of Immigration and allowed immigrants to use their wages in America to pay for their trip over. The ten other immigration laws between 1790 and 1864 dealt with technicalities. In 1870 we extended immigration laws to people of African descent, and in 1877 we prohibited the entry of criminals, prostitutes, and the Chinese. In 1882 we added some people to the prohibited list and started charging 50 cents. In 1887 we restricted real estate ownership to citizens and persons who declared their intention to become citizens.

In 1891 we started getting more restrictive, allowing deportation of people who came unlawfully, and started inspecting land borders. In 1893 we set up boards to determine admissibility. 1903: we start banning anarchists and the like, still no Chinese allowed. In 1907 the law starts getting lengthier, we distinguish between immigrant and nonimmigrant aliens, and let the President restrict entry detrimental to labor conditions in order to keep the Japanese out. The national origin quotas were tweaked until 1924, when for the first time, we required a consular visa for entry. That same year, we started the Border Patrol.

In 1928 we figure out just how complicated our quotas are and decide we can't use them until 1929. In 1932 we start setting expiration dates on nonimmigrant visas. In 1940 INS is moved from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice. Consular officers were directed not to give a visa to "any alien seeking to enter the United States for the purpose of engaging in activities which would endanger the safety of the United States" in 1941. Finally, in 1952, Congress enacts the McCarran-Walter Act, President Truman vetoes, calling the bill un-patriotic and discriminatory, but the veto is overridden. The first Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 abolished racial exclusions but maintained them through a national quota scheme that gave 70% of available slots to the UK, Germany and Ireland. Though it was gutted in 1965, the McCarren-Walter INA is considered the first instance of modern American immigration law.

"I don't mind legal immigrants, but..." Whenever a pro athlete, doctor, scientist, or businessman is needed here, the immigration process goes fairly swiftly because companies with a lot of money hire lawyers who do this for a living (si papit, lo incluyo a usted!). Poor people who enter legally or who were here eligible for Reagan's amnesty (no, the world did not stop spinning in 1986) have to go to clinics where sleepy volunteers with no training in immigration law try to walk them through the paperwork (lawyers, law students, etc. join me April 22!).

There is an unexplainable position held by many Americans that it is easy to immigrate to the U.S. if you want to become a U.S. citizen. Suppose you are from a Diversity Visa country (less than 50,000 people came from there in the last 5 years), then you are eligible for a lottery for one of 50,000 visas made available each year. To participate in the 2007 lottery, your application has to be in between October 5 and December 4... of 2005. Drat, missed it. Ok, let's assume you did that, you have to have a high school education or two years at a job that requires two years of training or education. The application must be submitted electronically and there is just over a page of instructions about the size and format of the digital photo you have to include. (I guess if you have a job that requires two years of education you might have access to the Internet and a digital camera, but then you're probably not too poor or huddled). Not surprisingly, last year nearly 7,000 of these things went unissued (and they do not roll over).

So assuming you don't meet these criteria, how do you become a legal U.S. citizen? As far as I can tell, there is no provision under the law by which a regular person without ties to the U.S. can ever possibly qualify for an immigrant visa. Of course, this is not legal advise, I am not an immigration attorney, but I am an attorney. If I were trying to move to America, I'd have to hire a lawyer. I don't know how many foreign lawyers understand American immigration law, but I assume it's not many, and they charge a lot. I also assume that assistance from embassy staff available to help with this sort of thing is a lot like at the DMV. I also can find no path to permanent legal residency, let alone citizenship, for any person entering the country with a nonimmigrant visa. If you do not have somebody here waiting for you, be it business or family, I cannot find a way to immigrate the U.S.

Beyond legality. The rest of the arguments against illegal immigrants tend to focus on socio economic factors. Numbers are tossed around on both sides of this debate, but a few things are clear from government figures, such as the fact that they contribute to Social Security. The SSA's "Earnings Suspense File" holds funds that employers pay for employees whose SSN is invalid (doesn't match the person, is false, etc.). From 1937 to 2000, the ESF contained $374 billion. It is notable from that report that (page 5) suspended income began climbing around 1965 (McCarran-Waters Act), dipped after Reagan's amnesty in 1986 (chart starts at 1937, so the years are to the right of the numbers), and that 98% of it (page 6) comes from service, agriculture, restaurant, and unknown industries (which I don't need to spell out for you).

Estimated sales and other tax revenues vary wildly, but if the argument is that health care, school and welfare costs are driven up by disbursements for illegal aliens, then we need to realize that in the face of the sheer size of the problem the solution is inclusion, not exclusion. The increased cost of surveillance, detention and prosecution to get people out would be better spent on registration efforts and education programs. If we revert to a citizenship-focused immigration policy instead of an entry-control policy, we could register and increase tax revenue from people who (like it or not) are an essential part of our economy. We should have learned from Prohibition that some things are beyond our control, and better regulated in the open than criminalized at great expense.

Over time, as labor standards improve, demand for illegal workers should decline. It seems likely to me that removing the financial incentive to remain here would eventually stem the tide of incoming aliens. If I learned anything helping with citizenship applications last weekend, it is that Reagan's amnesty put a lot of decent and hard working people on the path to citizenship. People cannot be illegal, and children should not be separated from their parents. Denying schooling and health care to undocumented individuals is not only cruel, it is counter-productive.

Our options are two: we can continue excluding at the cost of income and a growing uneducated population, exposing our communities to infectious diseases, or we can accept what we (obviously) cannot stop, protect and educate our residents, and focus on improving the conditions that lead people to abandon their lives in search of hope.

The largest waves of European immigrants to America were fleeing abject poverty and religious persecution. We romanticize our ancestors' journey, scraping their life savings to brave a dangerous journey with the clothes on their back to a land of opportunity. They were met with resentment, they had to work many jobs for little pay, but in time their children could have a better life. Their sacrifice was great, but their drive was far greater. It is difficult for me to believe that if the Irish Potato famine happened today, your grampa would hesitate to sell everything and buy a plane ticket, and he would not think twice about overstaying his visa in order to do whatever he needs to do to survive. The human spirit cannot be contained by laws, and this is why people can never be illegal.



Blogger sanskritg said...

I like. I'm forwarding this on...

26 April, 2006 16:03  

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