Irresponsible behavior on immigration reform

President Trump was hoping to mark his first anniversary in office at his Mar-a-Largo estate in Florida, but then the federal government shut down for 69 hours. The high-stakes game of chicken that began Jan. 20 ended when Democrats and Republicans in the Senate reluctantly came to an agreement that will keep the federal government paying its bills until Feb. 8.

Unable to pass a federal budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Congress has repeatedly resorted to these “continuing resolutions.”

The latest stalemate ended when Senate Democrats woke up, smelled the coffee, and relented on their demand for immigration reform in return for assurances from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the Senate will consider immigration proposals in the coming weeks and take up the plight of Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals recipients, often referred to as “Dreamers.”

Poll after poll has shown that most Americans want the Dreamers, who were brought to the United States illegally as children, protected. But a recent CNN poll also showed that when given a choice between keeping the federal government open and passing DACA legislation, most said they don’t want the government to shut down.

Americans understand that attracting hard-working legal immigrants has been an important reason for the nation’s prosperity. They also understand that promised entitlements like Social Security won’t be around in a few decades unless we have more workers paying into them.

President Obama introduced DACA in 2012 as a stopgap measure to avoid deportations. President Trump rescinded Obama’s executive order creating the program last September, but delayed implementation until March 2018 to give Congress the opportunity to develop a replacement. As a practical matter, Dreamers are not in immediate danger of being deported because any action would trigger legal challenges.

While the media was salivating over the prospect of an extended federal shutdown, this three-day version was uneventful. Unlike the 21-day instance in 1995-1996 and the 16-day shutdown in 2013, the fight was not over raising the federal debt ceiling or health care policy. Instead, it was about Senate Democrats trying to pressure their Republican counterparts to ensure that about 800,000 immigrants, mostly from Mexico, who came to the United States as children could remain.

Before you know it, Feb. 8 will be upon us. There is no end to the suspense.

All this political posturing and blame-gaming is about one part of a much larger immigration issue and the President’s insistence on building a wall on our southern border.

Moreover, both parties dance around an unspoken yet reasonable question: Once DACA recipients are addressed, how long before pressure mounts to accommodate the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which was designed to defer deportation for about five million parents of children born in the United States and also of children brought to the country legally?

“Deferred action” is Washington speak which in plain English means ignoring the law.

The evidence with entitlements suggests that each extension of benefits establishes a new base for future expansion. As time passes, more groups of undocumented immigrants come forth claiming they are no less deserving and political pressure is brought on their behalf to again expand protection. The process repeats itself until a program’s original intention is virtually unrecognizable.

Immigration issues have defied compromise for decades. Americans have a wide range of opinions on the subject, many of which don’t add up to a coherent point of view. These conflicted emotions have blocked comprehensive immigration legislation and skirted the issue of enforcing existing laws.

Not to be overlooked is the political imperative to be reelected, which incentivizes politicians to follow Scarlett O’Hara’s approach from “Gone with the Wind”: “After all, tomorrow is another day.” Given that we elect politicians, the lack of a well-conceived immigration policy is the price the electorate must pay for their irresponsible behavior.

Originally Published: Feb 3, 2018


Time to limit immigration of low-wage workers

Politicians often remind us that we are a nation of immigrants. For much of America’s history,
immigration strengthened the nation’s economy. But that’s far less clear today.

In an era of global competition, the intake of low-wage immigrant workers who benefit big businesses at the expense of workers by depressing wages and increasing income inequality should be limited. The  war on terror also raises concerns about just who is coming to our country.

The French philosopher Auguste Conte is reputed to have said “demography is destiny.” American demographics have certainly changed dramatically over the last several decades.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 there were 41.3 million immigrants (legal and illegal) living in the United States, an all-time high and double the number in 1990, nearly triple the 1980 number, and quadruple the 1970 count of 9.6 million. Immigrants make up nearly 13 percent of the population, the highest share in 93 years. In 1970, fewer than one in 21 residents were born abroad. Today it is about  one out of eight.

When you add in their U.S.-born children, this group numbers about 80 million, or one-quarter of the overall U.S. population. The U.S. represents the destination of choice for the world’s migrant population. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we attract nearly 20 percent of its migrants .

In 2013, close to 47 percent of immigrants (19.3 million) were naturalized U.S. citizens. The remaining 53 percent (22.1 million) included lawful permanent residents, legal residents on temporary visas such as students and temporary workers, and illegal immigrants. The latter category is estimated at 11-12 million and represents about 3.5 percent of the American population.

Mexican-born immigrants accounted for approximately 28 percent of all immigrants to the U.S., making them by far the largest immigrant group in the country. India was the second largest, closely trailed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and El Salvador. All told, the top 10 countries of origin accounted for about 60 percent of the immigrant population in 2013.

The demographic diversity of today’s United States is in many ways a direct result of the Immigration and Nationality Act amendments of 1965, which shifted U.S. immigration policy from a historic ethnic European population bias to one that favored a new stream of immigrants from developing countries in Asia and Latin America. Under the old system, admission to the U.S. largely depended upon an immigrant’s country of birth. The new system eliminated the nationality criteria and family reunification became the cornerstone of immigration policy.

The act was shepherded through the Senate by Ted Kennedy and signed by President Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3, 1965. At the signing Johnson said, “This bill we sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not restructure the shape of our daily lives.”

But the law did change the immigration flow. For example, the European and Canadian share of legal immigration fell from 60 percent in the 1950s to 22 percent in the 1970s. By contrast, the Asian share of legal immigration rose from 6 percent in the 1950s to 35 percent by the 1980s and 40 percent in 2013.

Years later, Theodore White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian called the legislation “noble, revolutionary and one of the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society.”

The evidence now suggests that immigrants are entering the U.S. faster than the economy can absorb them. An oversupply of low-wage immigrant workers has saturated the job market and depressed wages, thereby exacerbating income equality and the wage stagnation that has been a fact of life in the United States for over 40 years.

The time has come to tailor American immigration policy to the 21st century and put the economic interests of American workers at the center of immigration policy. For starters, this means limiting the entry of low-wage workers before the second coming.

originally published: May 23, 2015

An inconvenient fix to America’s immigration problem

Most of the discussion about our broken immigration system centers on those who enter the country illegally over the porous 2,000-mile southwest land border that stretches over four states. But that is only a partial picture of illegal immigration in the United States.

Overlooked in the discussion are the security risks presented by the estimated 40 percent of the 11 to 12 million unauthorized residents who came here legally, then stayed after their student, business or tourist visas expired. In other words, these immigrants did not jump a fence, cross a river, or pay to be smuggled into the country. To borrow Vice President Biden’s words, “This is really a big deal.”

The number of visitors who come to the United States legally each year but pose a potential national security or public safety threat is unknown. Under current law, those who overstay their visas are committing only a civil violation of federal law, while those who sneak across the border are committing a federal crime.

Addressing the large number of foreign visitors who have entered the United States legally but then overstayed has been a long-standing challenge. Tracking the arrival and departure of foreign visitors is an essential part of protecting Americans from those who would do us harm.

While the Department of Homeland Security takes fingerprints and photos of foreigners who enter the United States, their ability to track immigrants who stay past their visa expiration in real time is severely limited, especially when you consider that any state with an international airport is a border state.

Perhaps it is time to simply issue people American Express cards because they seem to have no problem tracking their customers. The persistent problems of visa overstays are not given the same priority in allocating resources as efforts to blockade the border states. It may be because overstays don’t make for good 10-second sound bites like those who cross the Rio Grande river in search of a better life do. These Mexican immigrants are building houses, not bombs.

The government has known for some time that the visa process is vulnerable to terrorist exploitation. The General Accounting Office has reported that 36 of the roughly 400 people convicted of terrorism­ related charges since 2001 overstayed their visas.

In 2007, Hosam Smadi arrived from Jordan on a 90-day tourist visa but never left. Two years later he plotted to blow up a Dallas high-rise with a car bomb.

Another tourist, 29-year old Moroccan Amine El Khalifi, overstayed his visa and conspired to detonate a bomb at the U.S. capitol in 2012.

Lest Americans forget, on 9/11, 19 foreign terrorists came right through America’s front door on legitimate visas, hijacked four planes and murdered almost 3,000 innocent people. On the day of the attack, four of them were living in the shadows even though their visas had expired.

Fifteen of the 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, but that did not dissuade the federal government in January 2013 from adding the country to the U.S. Global Entry trusted traveler program, which streamlines the airport screening process.

With the United States at war against terrorism, it may be time to consider Michael Corleone’s  11th commandment: Protect your family at any cost. Even if it means antagonizing those such as the airlines and tourism industry concerned about reduced travel to the United States or those who worry about the privacy issues involved in cracking down on visa overstays with increased monitoring of visitors.

If the United States is ever going to get serious about fixing our broken immigration system, we need to be willing to take on some of the interests who might be inconvenienced by the fix.

originally published: April 1, 2015

Extreme wealth inequality threatens the nation

One of the salient characteristics of the last 20 years has been the unprecedented growth in income and wealth inequality, and the extent to which both have flowed to the proverbial1-percenters.

Market capitalism has generated enormous wealth, but the distribution of the spoils of capitalism has gone awry. While there are many ways to measure inequality, consider that in today’ s Gilded Age, the wealthiest 1 percent of American households enjoy a higher total net worth than the bottom 90 percent and the top 1 percent of income earners receive more pretax income than the entire bottom half.

Since 1979, 36 percent of all after-tax gains went to the 1-percenters; over 20 percent of those gains went to the top one-tenth of 1 percent of the income distribution.

The increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth threatens not only the social fabric of American society but the economy as well. The mega-rich cannot spend enough to offset the lost demand that results from a shrinking middle class, which slows economic growth.

Growing inequality is making a lie of the American promise that this is a country where if you work hard, you can make it into the middle class. We are witnessing the hollowing out of the middle class; it is being mothballed like an old Navy ship. The last time that income inequality in the land of plenty was as profound as it is now was immediately before the 1929 stock market crash.

Right now, more than 8.4 million Americans are collecting either state or federal unemployment benefits and one out of every seven depend on food stamps, the highest share of the population ever to do so. A shrinking few claim a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth at the expense of everyone else.

If we could identify a single culprit to blame for this mess, it would make for a good television drama. But the story of rising income inequality is more complex. None of the major explanations are exhaustive or definitive, and making sense of them is no easy task.

Some blame globalization, a process of closer integration between different countries and peoples made possible by falling trade and investment barriers, tremendous advances in telecommunications and  drastic reductions in transportation costs that have forced American workers to compete against the huge supply of low-cost labor in the developing world and contributed to the declining influence of labor unwns.

Others point to new labor-replacing technologies that threaten both unskilled and skilled workers, while they increase demand for a select few with highly specialized skills. They argue that American public education does not provide children with the advanced skills they need to compete in this new world.

Stated differently, the pace of technological advance has outstripped the educational system’s ability to supply students with the skills they need to utilize this technology, leading to outsized earnings gains for those who have such skill. This is the so-called college wage premium.

Over the past few decades, people in developed economies who were educated enough to take advantage of the technological advances won higher wages. Others got left behind.

Finally, there are those who contend that immigration policy worsens inequality. The mass influx of low-wage workers probably reduces global inequality at the same time it increases inequality within America by reducing the wages of hard-working, semi-skilled Americans.

Many pundits contend that we can reverse the deterioration of the middle class with a series of policies such as revising the tax code, making free trade fair, investing in America’s infrastructure, rethinking training and education and strengthening labor unions.

Perhaps America can deal finally with the divisive issue of inequality after having spent decades ignoring it, but hope is not a strategy. The only thing we can be certain of is that there are no quick fixes or easy solutions, and the longer it takes to address the problem, the more painful the cure will be.

originally published: November 30, 2013