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The Gross National Debt

Monday, April 10, 2006

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos, ePluribus Media, and My Left Wing)

As I begin this diary today I have to admit up-front that I'm not sure where it's going to go or whether it's going to make sense.

You see, this diary will likely follow the concerns I have on all sides of the immigration issue and I haven't found any comfortable answers to date. One side of the argument sparks contradictions for me and the same is true for the other side of the argument.

Perhaps I can learn by being open about my opinions on the immigration issue and all of you can help me wade through the truth and the rhetoric. Follow me over the hump.

First, some disclosure. I am the granddaughter of legal Mexican immigrants. I don't know the exact year that my grandparents came to the United States, but it was likely in the 1930s. This makes sense - from an article I found on Mexican immigration in the 1930's, Mexican-born immigration went from about 103,000 in 1930 to 1,400,000 in 1932. There are many reasons for that, but follow the link to read them - an historical focus is not my aim in this diary.

Suffice it to say that my grandparents came here legally and had their first son in 1939 followed by a second son (my natural father) in 1941. Neither of the boys spoke or speak Spanish to this day. My grandparents were all about becoming Americans. They wanted to fully participate in the American dream - they learned English, they spoke it exclusively, they worked hard and they raised two successful children - American children. I find myself often wondering how they would feel about the immigration debate as it exists today. I can only speculate as they have both long since passed on.

Also in the interest of disclosure - I am married to a legal immigrant from Canada. At the time that my husband was trying to obtain his green card and move to the United States, entry was far from easy. My husband had a variety of work visas prior obtaining his permanent resident alien status. As a working musician, he would receive visas for tours of a certain longish duration. Prior to an especially long tour, my husband had determined that he wanted to move permanently to the US as he moved towards marrying a US citizen (not me - I'm his second wife). During a long tour for which he had a valid work visa, he took advantage of a break lasting several days to return home to Toronto and visit his mother for her birthday. He had his briefcase on him when he went home, but had mistakenly left his work visa on the tour bus in the US. The briefcase contained a variety of applications and affadavits relating to his permanent resident application. The US Customs agent discovered this at the border and made the assumption that my husband was a risky individual - in other words, that given his intent to immigrate to the US, he would enter and not return within the proscribed period of time. He was stoppped cold at the border and had to retain a lawyer before being able to re-enter the US. All of this, while frustrating, was within the immigration laws of the US at the time and he was caught in the middle of them. He took the advice of his counsel and eventually won his passage to the US and married. It wasn't an easy process for him and it wasn't made easy by the laws - but they were the laws, and he followed them.

I, therefore, am a second-generation Mexican American married to a Canadian citizen with legal permanent resident alien status.

So let's press onward. I have been thinking about this issue to a greater or lesser extent since the town of Herndon here in suburban Virginia approved the construction of its day laborer center. This has received national attention. In a nutshell, we have a large Hispanic population in Herndon and Reston. In Herndon especially, overwhelmingly Hispanic day laborers would congregate at an area 7-11 and gas station to pick up daily work. The residents in the surrounding area were not happy about the traffic that this created, nor about the overall effect of a large group of Hispanic men hanging around a particular area. Herndon, then, decided to use its own tax money to construct a day laborer center in another area. This polarized the issue because the prevailing opinion is that many of these workers are undocumented. The prospect of spending tax dollars on a center designed to assist in finding work for undocumented laborers rubbed people the wrong way, and I can understand that.

The Hispanic component attending Herndon High School has increased steadily through last school year, ranging from 14.7% at the beginning of 2002 to 17.34% in June of 2005. The percentage of those identified as speaking limited English is 15.67% and the percentage of those receiving meal assistance is 19.74%. [Note: The 'limited English' and 'meal assistance' measures are not cross-referenced by ethnicity - they are applied to the total school population] Compare these numbers with that of the demographic profile of neighboring rival Langley High School in McLean, VA (for those not from the Northern Virginia area, the Langley and Herndon High School districts are adjacent). At the beginning of 2002, Hispanic students were 2.82% of the student population and have decreased slightly to the June 2005 figure of 2.70%. Those identified as speaking limited English at Langley is 3.67% and those receiving meal assistance is 0.71%. You get the picture.

But it is only one piece of the picture, of course. The differences between Herndon and Langley cannot simply be chalked up to the Hispanic component present at Herndon and comparatively absent at Langley. It's also incredibly difficult to get an impact assessment of the relatively large Hispanic population of Herndon. Because large numbers of the Hispanic community are undocumented, many of the children attending school at Herndon come from undocumented households that do not substantively pay back into the tax base which funds the schools and other infrastructure items. We have a relatively low sales tax in Virginia and rely much more on payroll and property taxes for infrastructure investments. Because many in the Hispanic community live frugally and vehicle ownership is substantially lower within the community, there is an imbalance in tax receipts just for this one area. I have read many articles recently about the same effect in other parts of the country where the Hispanic population is sizeable.

Now, let me turn a corner. As a musician myself in a working band I have the pleasure of working with a gentleman who is Puerto Rican. He feels very connected to the entire Hispanic community and individuals within that community from Mexicao, Guatemala and El Salvador. I had an interesting conversation with him recently. He knows I'm an unabashed liberal - he's visited my blog, we've commiserated about Bush, etc. and so forth. He sent me an email recently about the protest marches taking place as I type this. He wanted to know, when we spoke, if I would participate and I told him that I'm really conflicted on the subject of immigration.

He sympathized and conceded that there are no easy answers. But having personal connections with people who are here illegally in the US, he was quick to tell me that they are not working for $3.00 an hour. Rather, they are coming here and working in landscaping and construction for $9.00 an hour - a fortune unachievable in their respective home countries. He explained that often, entering the US illegally to work is the difference between survival and going hungry. Another band member told a story of a conversation had with a person in Central America who had repeatedly come into the US illegally to work so that he might purchase a truck. A truck was all this person needed to secure his future - it was the difference between living in a shack and having a tour business. A truck was unattainable in his home country - but a few illegal trips into the US earned enough to buy that truck, a shining promise of a future secured for this man and his family, so that's what he did.

On a human level I can sympathize with desperation and a desire to ensure one's family is cared for. But the first example - the illegal individuals earning $9.00/hour in landscaping - I can't believe that there is an American who won't do that work at that wage. Rather, I think that that $9.00/hour under the table would cost, in burdened (wage + insurance requirements + healthcare + taxes, etc.) dollars, the employer about $15.00 per hour which would eat into the employer's profits. It's much more expedient, especially given that the US doesn't enforce its own immigration laws or proscriptions against hiring undocumented workers, to hire someone who you will essentially pay the same as an American contemporary yet costs you substantially less. It winds up being about profits.

I also pointed out that while I find the story about the truck both believable and remarkable, the fact is that this worker used American dollars to send money home to purchase what he needed to return home and start a business that would feed the economy of his home country. The dollars from those types of situations (whether or not the undocumented person in question desires to ever return to his/her home country) have an aggregate effect. If the figures of between 11 and 12 million undocumented aliens is correct, what is the total economic burden? You have to factor in all the intrinsic and extrinsic items - schools. Healthcare. Public services. Public infrastructure. Everything necessary to support a growing population and to catch up, on a State and local level, with the "real" numbers because census numbers are totally inaccurate in those areas with high Hispanic populations. There is a cost to it and that cost is not negligible and it effects every person and family who pays taxes. Schools are supported by census figures and by tax dollars and if the vast majority of illegal immigrants appear on neither roll, schools are supporting a student population disproportionate to the dollars they receive. There is a tacit advantage, then, to students graduating from schools where the Hispanic population is relatively low. See what I mean?

So the conclusion around the table during this discussion was to enable legal status for all these people to solve the financial issue. But I'm telling you - knowing what my grandparents did and my husband did and how difficult and costly it was for them to gain their legal access into America, I just can't get comfortable with waving a citizenship wand and making what was illegal suddenly ok. This sounds ridiculous, I know - but I was commenting this morning that the marches to demand rights for ILLEGAL immigrants seemed ludicrous to me. They aren't slaves - we didn't drag them into America and force them to work to fill a need that we had. They have willingly - circumstances notwithstanding - come to America illegally and to demand rights because they're doing "work other Americans don't want to do" doesn't fly with me at all. Despite the fact that I generally believe marijuana should be legalized, it isn't - and if I get caught with marijuana, I can be arrested and charged with possession. Coming to the US illegally is NOT a gray area for me - it's black or white. You either do it legally or you don't. Amnesty, to me, sends the wrong message.

But then on the flip-side, I don't have an answer, either. Do we scoop up the estimated 11 to 12 million illegals in the US today and send them back to their home countries? It would make a point, no doubt. Would it cripple our economy? I don't know - I know we'd have to adjust. Do we even have the capacity in terms of manpower and the wherewithal to find and deport illegals? I highly doubt it.

So is that the reason for amnesty? Is that the one sound argument? I don't buy that, either. Because there IS one thing we could do. We can already identify areas with high Hispanic populations as a percentage of overall population. We can also identify the businesses that function in and around those areas. We could demand that those businesses follow the law. We could crack down on the employers, who are really the ones, at this stage of the game, who are the sole beneficiaries of cheap illegal labor. Fining them would make a point, and if the fines were punitive enough, a big point. Some proportion of those newly-cited business would reach a cost-benefit breakpoint where hiring illegals would cost more than it gained. That would be the real test of whether Americans aren't willing to do specific jobs. I'd argue that the jobs have to be available to an American or legal resident alien before that claim can be substantiated.

Another issue I broadly have is the issue of language. I saw this piece on CNN earlier today highlighting the story of a man and his wife who came to the US by illegally crossing the border fifteen years ago. They've been here working illegally ever since. They've also had four children, American citizens by virtue of birth. The piece was a good one, highlighting the hard-working nature of the mother and father in this family, and the desire of their children to be educated and civic-minded. They cut to an interview clip with the father - in Spanish. He answered in Spanish. Fifteen years in the United States and he doesn't speak English. I have a problem with that and not for the reason you might think.

English is the language of commerce, advancement and success in America. When you enable non-English speaking people to live in the US and not learn English, you create a permanent underclass - a built-in, near-slave cadre of human beings who will never achieve serious success because of their language barrier. It used to be that you had to demonstrate English proficiency to survive in America - but now, you can get virtually everything in English or Spanish. 911 - Press "1" for English and "2" for spanish - the bank - the phone company - the power company - the driver's test (inexplicably, despite the fact that all ROAD SIGNS are in English) - you name it, you can get it in English or Spanish. How will Spanish-speaking peoples of any legal status learn the most valuable tool for getting ahead in the US - speaking English - if they are constantly enabled in this way? It makes me furious.

So in a nutshell (a looooong nutshell), here's a bulletized list of what I want:

Is this even possible? And what should be done with the illegal immigrants already here? Where is the line between humanitarian concerns and issues regarding national policy? Do we make what was illegal legal and potentially kick off a swell of illegal border crossings? I have no answers and the more I think about it, the greater my questions become. I don't want to arrest and charge arrested illegals as felons (ala the Republicans) but I also don't want to just say "Rule change! You're all legal!" (ala the Democrats and Presdient). It's also very difficult, even here, to find a concise synopsis of the costs and benefits associated with any of the proposals.

Thank you all for reading. I'm niether a xenophobe nor a protectionist. I am honestly looking for a policy that is balanced and sends the right signals and I am not convinced either side has achieved that in this argument. Your feedback would be very welcome.

posted by RenaRF at 2:19 PM 6 comments links to this post


Blogger WordsRock said...

Excellent post. You've managed to touch on every part of this topic I personally wrestle with and clarified angles that were not even yet a part of my own thought process.


7:12 PM  
Blogger RenaRF said...

Suzanne - it's a really tough issue. I don't know how you found my post, but it sparked a respectful but highly energized discussion over at Daily Kos (linked at the top of the post). No answers, lots of questions, lots of emotion, and lots of information.

Thanks for commenting - it's greatly appreciated.

8:04 PM  
Blogger BlitzGaulAgain said...

You should adjust your side-bar pic of the maid because her butt gets cut-off. Nice pic, BTW.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Antonio said...

Hi Rena and others, I'm the Puerto Rican she mentioned who plays saxophone in her band. By the way Rena, great post, I just happen to respectfully disagree with some of it.
I know it's not fair for those immigrants who got here legally that the president and some democrats and a few republicans want to give the illegal immigrants easy amnesty, but the reality is that there's no other alternative. It's either deport them or let them stay here. There's no grey area, we can't send them to the Moon. These people came here because in general they wanted a better life for their families. Many of them came here because of total misery and starvation. Others came because of political persecution, etc. The SAME reasons why the ancestors of the majority of this country came. For 514 years we've had immigrants coming to this piece of land. For 231 years we've had immigrants coming to this country. Now all of the sudden we want to stop that. Some people say. "well, they could still come, but they have to do it legally". Really? Tell that to a Native American and see what they tell you.
It's virtually impossible to come to this country "legally" if you are from Latin America, Africa and Asia, (not Europe and Canada).
When you only have two choices, either watch your children starve to death or come to the U.S. illegally we all know what a the average human being is going to do. Are these people breaking the law? Yes. So were the Black slaves who escaped from their owners and fled to the north, so was Rosa Parks when she sat at the front of the bus, so was Clinton when he lied under oath (just kidding). The fact is that there are laws that are immoral, unfair and stupid that need to be changed. It is not fair that for the past 5 centuries it has been very easy for the white Europeans to come here but not to the Asians, brown Latinos and everyone else. For 5 centuries the European-Americans didn't have any laws prohibiting the entrance to their fellow Europeans, but less than a century ago, when they realized that the majority of the immigrants were coming from other places rather than white Europe then started to control immigration by placing these unfair immoral laws. If for 5 centuries this land had open borders for white Europeans, there should be open borders now for everyone else, it's only fair.
Rena, you said "but I also don't want to just say "Rule change! You're all legal!" Why not? Lincoln said "Rule change!" against the will of the people in the south, at the end of the day it was the right thing to do. LBJ also said "Rule change!" against the will of the people, but now we all go back and say, "it was the right thing to do".
As far as the economic burden you talk about is concerned I'll tell you this, yes many illegals get free education and health care at the expense of the tax payers, but that doesn't compare with how they contribute to the economy in general. My illegal friends make $9 an hour working for a landscaping company. Because of the fact that they get $9 an hour and not $15 (which is what an American citizen could be making by doing the same job) is that we (the People) get cheap landscaping labor. I know, the owner of the company greatly benefits from this, but who really benefits from this is the American people. The same thing goes for the illegal immigrants who work at the tomato fields, construction, etc. The American people don't want to pay $2 for a tomato, $600,000 instead of $300,000 for a house, $500 instead of $300 for some landscaping job, we all benefit from this. You say local governments have to pay a lot to educate the illegal's children, but at the same time their parents build their schools, hospitals, take care of the city's landscaping for cheap, etc, etc,etc. And I could go on and on.
Are illegals semi-slaves? Some could be. But I'll tell you this, I'd rather be a semi-slave than watch my children starve to death. By the way, people blame those countries' governments for their people's misery, but nobody mentions the fact that the U.S. government and it's puppets at the World Bank, the IMF etc are also to blame for that. (I recommend you to watch a documentary called "Life and Debt", you'll see what I'm talking about).

One last point. liberals are supposed to be the compassionate ones, to desire for these people to go back to their countries is not to be compassionate. To deny them citizenship is not to be compassionate. To prevent them from coming to this country is not to be compassionate. To not to be compassionate for your fellow human being is having similarities to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage.
More and more Hispanics in this country vote republican thinking the democrats are not as compassionate as they claim to be. Let's stop that trend, even if it means that more brown people will live in your neighborhoods, at least that's not as bad as having republicans control the country for the next century. That's why George Bush is for amnesty, it's not that he's a compassionate guy, it's really that he's aware of the political implications. Let's not lose the Hispanic vote the way the republicans lost the African-American vote.
Let's be real liberals, not liberals half way. If we care about the civilian lives that are lost in Iraq every day, let's also REALLY care about the lives that are lost south of the border because of starvation. When it comes to the civilians in Iraq there's not much we, the American people, can do about it. But when it comes to the civilian lives that are lost in all these third world countries south of the border there IS something we can do, and that is supporting open borders and the legalization of illegal immigrants.
Rena, please don't fire me, I love playing in your band.

2:59 AM  
Blogger RenaRF said...

Antonio - NEVER fire you babe. :-D

I hear everything you're saying and I heard it Saturday night. Follow the link at the top of the article (the one that says Daily Kos) and check out the discussion over there (over 100 comments). I really agree with your overall argument. My problem is that I think NEITHER piece of legislation addresses the immigration issue in a rational way. It is being addressed in a political way, aimed at the November elections. We run the risk of really endangering immigrants if we make the politically expedient choice.

I believe there IS a way for compassionate immigration and I believe immigration is absolutely necessary. But each side may have to give a little - we don't throw all the illegals out but we don't wave a wand over all of them, either. I want to step back and take a more substantial look at all of this rather than ram legislation through because elections are looming. And the immigrant protest leaders would do well to dial themselves back a bit also. They don't want to win in the short run yet ultimately lose over time.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Swagy said...

The whole issue of immigration is one that is complex and involves many issues.

The simplistic solutions from the extreme right and left will never work; there are enough laws on the books right now to enable effective control of the problem the real issue is the will to enforce the laws already in place.

As I have stated in other forums one real way to effectively control the problem is to cut off the supply of illegal jobs, this would encourage people to get in line and immigrate legally.

The scumbags that want a cheap maid or gardener or picker of crops are the ones that perpetuate this inequitable system. They in turn need to be the ones to pay the price. Prosecute those low lifers and most of the problem will go away.

The heat and fire generated by this issue is, I believe hiding the true tragedy of this issue that is the human toll that the whole thing is generating, from the people who loose their lives crossing the borders, to those that are persecuted once they get here to those that are suffering in sub standard conditions of work. Additionally at the other end the costs to the whole community in providing health care, education and law enforcement, these are cost borne by us all.

Prosecute the employers first, stop people from risking their lives crossing and make available a workable immigration system that is the way to end this whole mess.

In My Humble Opinion


1:31 PM  

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