Mar 30, 2006

Immigration: We Wanted a Labor Force, But Human Beings Came

When the Law Doesn't Reflect Reality

Many arguments aren’t always being debated on their merits; people try to rationalize a position they've taken already often regardless of the fact.

Diversion, trickery, and intellectual dishonesty are tools for those who don't care to have an open discussion. Their mind is religiously set on a position, (however they frame the issue), and what evidence falls outside this frame is discarded.

I think this is the case with the immigration discussion—if you call it that—we’re having today. No one would admit to being xenophobic, not outright anyway, but, if you carefully dissect their arguments and further examine their political affiliations then their xenophobia becomes more obvious.

Most of the arguments today aren’t new at all. They’ve been re-circulated every so often since the 1800s. Terrorism, is the new factor, but, heck, preventing terrorists from entering our country has little to do with a sane immigration policy. All the terrorists involved in the 9-11 attacks, (and a couple others arrested), came into this country legally; they didn’t risk the arduous trek most illegal immigrants take. Like the broken immigration system, our intelligence agencies couldn't put all the available evidence together to prevent the 9-11 terrorist attacks. [The would-be highjackers had been spotted, several times, but no action was taken because nobody connected the dots].

Plainly put, it's a matter of being smart and efficient with our laws & tools at our disposal; and when those laws or methods don't work, we should revise them rationally not out of fear. Fear is not a good adviser in making prudent decisions. But, as the 9-11 tragedy and the failed Iraq war have proven, people who aren't honest with the facts are doomed to failure!

We’re not having an honest debate, and, from what I’ve seen thus far, I don’t like the proposed legislation. Therefore, I’m in favor of failure! This Congress can’t pass meaningful and appropriate legislation to tackle the immigration issue, so it’s better that we wait a bit longer. Perhaps the Democrats will re-gain control of the House and may come up with a more sensible proposal next year. This kind of legislation isn’t revisited often, so if we get something bad now, it will stay on the books for a very long time. It's a tough pill to swallow for those who are caught in the insanity of the present system, but half measures aren't prudent right now.

The xenophobes point to the non-English ancestry immigrants as groups that resist integration, politically and culturally. I don't buy this, but even if this were so, what’s the harm? Having enclaves with different-looking and speaking people? So what? It has always been the case in our history; when adult immigrants make a transition from one country to another. It’s hard to master a language when you’re older, work very hard to make a living, and have little time for leisure.

And yet, immigrants do make the effort to learn English and fit it. There are long waiting lists for second-language programs. We know that by the third (if not the second) generation, there's a rapid change and integration in the greater society . It’s a fact that the children of the immigrants throughout (our American experience) have assimilated well and have had a faster socio-economic mobility than the older groups!

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Immigration, Arlen Specter (R-PA), is the son of two immigrants! [his mother came from Russia and his father from eastern Europe]. I'm sure his parents weren't fluent (if at all) English speakers. Within one generation, this household produced a US Senator!

All immigrants realize the benefits from being fully integrated in the society at-large. It just takes some time for it to happen.
While they're trying to achieve their American Dream, they contribute in many ways, and as a group are much less likely to be a "public charge" than other "native" groups.

Patriotism? The vast majority of people who come to this country are no less patriotic than the rest. Have you seen how many non-citizens have served and died in our wars? They’re “green card” holders fighting for a country where they cannot vote in. Do you pay attention to the names of those killed in Iraq every day? Do you recognize how many have Latino and Asian surnames? They are the sons & daughters of relatively recent immigrants if not immigrants themselves. We know immigrants pick our produce, serve us food, and clean our bathrooms, but they also risk their lives for America.

The Cons and Faux News have been saying, “gut welfare” to eliminate the “freeloading illegals”! Whatever. Sometimes their arguments are so ridiculous that don't merit a response. Welfare and abuse isn't a trait of the immigrants. As for wasting money, sure, let's try to do this. Where's the abuse and by whom?

The problem is how we spend our money. It's a matter of priorities and of ..impressions. It also depends where you look or where you don't. People can easily see the drunkard who loiters around the neighborhood while he receives food stamps, health care benefits, and whatever else from society. Ah, that’s why we need to pull the safety net, they say. Let's get real here. Abuse occurs, and the system is far from perfect. We have to compare the cost to the benefits and not destroy social programs but reform them.

What's hard to see, and harder to make an immediate connection with, is how the system gives a lot more to those who have lots already. Tax heavens, no-bid huge contracts, favorable laws & regulations, and so forth, are all part of a skewed economic system that favors the wealthy and whereas the gap between the elites and the rest has taken obscene proportions.

Yeah, but if we were to eliminate the essential education and health care for the immigrants and their children we'd help balance the budget, some argue. Education is the key to a better society. Those who stick around, legally or illegally, do better themselves and the whole country benefits too. Not to mention that an educated person is less likely to contribute to crime--and we pay for it dearly.

Surely, it's a matter of priorities. Hey, look over there: we’ve committed to spending almost a trillion dollars (and countless human lives) because it seemed like a good idea to be a “war president” and “bring freedom & democracy to the world.” Besides, they knew that there would be a transfer of wealth during the war [guess which way?] while the costs of this ill-thought exercise wouldn’t be proportionally shared by all. Some even spoke of patriotism while their fat corporations had a fax machine as "headquarters" off-shore to avoid paying taxes! [bonus question: What's an "American" company based in the Bahamas that recently got a multi-billion dollar no-bid contract from the Dept of Homeland Security? Clue: For the answer, contact the Repub. leaders in Congress who didn't allow discussion on the subject, despite objections from members of both parties.]

I remember, not so long ago we were being bombarded with the slogan “a culture of life”! I remember, I didn’t like their definition, nor did I trust the people who were promoting it. They never explained if this culture of life would be ..funded. You’re on your own, more or less, because they don’t believe in a state that can play a positive role in truly enhancing the quality of life when it matters. Again, it's a matter of priorities, and the responsibility is a two-way street.

The immigration reality presents us with a challenge, but if we have to make tough choices, we must be honest and discuss the facts, not peddle superstition, or allow to be deceived by illusions and false premises. Columnist Paul Krugman of the NY Times brought up some “uncomfortable facts about immigration” [3/27/06] He argues that the low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel the safety net of our social net—which, he acknowledges, is full of holes. He says, “basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they’re here,” with all sorts of benefits. Yet, several sources reveal that illegal immigrants pay about
$8-9 billion every year for Medicare and Social Security taxes. Where's this money, year after year?

But they broke the law! Well, yes, but the punishment should fit the crime. The vast majority of them have lived responsible & productive lives within the law since their original trespass. Any illegal can’t afford to be apprehended for any serious legal violation because this would result in deportation. Most, some 70%, have been in the country more than 5 years! These immigrants come here because they need a job, want to improve their lot, and reunite with family members. Most have been exploited by American employers.

We have already given amnesty to all those American businesses that have benefited from this hard-working & underpaid labor pool. The plain truth is that a great number of the immigrants are essentially citizens already. We have to recognize this fact. The test of citizenship is, in my estimate, more than a formal exam in civics--an exam that most "bona-fide" Americans would fail. It's a rational and an emotional decision to be an American. Once the decision is made, then you measure the commitment and the contributions the individual makes to his adoptive country.

The law itself is not very rational in my estimate. It’s a failed law. It’s not a good law. Let me give you another example: Millions of Americans buy drugs from Canada because they can’t afford to buy them here. The health care/Medicare system is a mess. Yes, there are laws, some passed in the last 2-3 years. Well, be honest, if you needed a prescription drug for your health and couldn't get it here (for whatever reason), you’d buy it from abroad even if this meant that you’d be breaking the law!

As a country that needs immigrants, for their labor and for their varied contributions, we have to treat them as human beings and bring them from the underground into the light of respect and legal status.

We've been chasing the exploited but not the exploiters. If there are jobs not being filled by Americans then we should welcome those who can do them, and we do it in such a way as not to create a labor underclass. The employers have benefited by keeping wages low, because the illegals can't ask for more. Of course, there are some Americans who don't want to discuss the facts because they prefer the present situation to a sensible reform. Giving rights and being fair to a whole new class of people will also impact our way of life. I think for the better, but not everybody agrees with me.

The price for reform maybe too high for some Americans if they have to pay higher prices for produce, to have their lawns mowed, and go without the maid one day of the week. But then if we start on the reform path, we may have to deal with human trafficking & sexual trade/exploitation going on in our country today--another facet of our broken immigration law that deters these people from coming forward if they're illegally here.

Keeping people in the shadow of the law and in the underground may seem like a good idea to those who aren't willing to face reality or put some effort in dealing with a serious problem.

Mar 17, 2006

The New World May Move out of America

Immigration, legal or illegal, presents America with a problem and a challenge. Are we having an honest, rational discussion about it? Not really. When did Congress under Republican leadership—since 1994—pass any legislation that actually solved a problem? I can’t think of anything of importance, unless we’re talking about tax breaks and other benefits for the rich individuals and fat corporations.

In a familiar (careless) manner, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) set a March 27th deadline to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. This deadline is not practical, unless the Republicans don’t want a solution to this problem, especially this election year. Realistically speaking—and reality seems to escape the current leadership—there isn’t enough time to have a discussion and examine a multi-faceted issue like immigration within this time framework. Perhaps failing to produce legislation may be more preferable to having an ugly concoction that will do nothing to deal with the problem today and establish a sane policy for the future. I will return to the topic of immigration as soon as we see what comes out of the Senate committee in the next few days. There are good and bad signs for reform, and I hope Congress can do something after talking about reform for more than 20 years.

Who's number one? Depends how you count

We often hear, “we’re number one”, and I sense that many Americans believe that being “number one” is almost a god-given right. Not so, I’m afraid, because the world is evolving around us, and what used to be good yesterday, may not be as good tomorrow. Other countries are more open to modernity, science, and progress than our conservative nation is. What does conservatism have to do with holding a country back?

There are the economic conservatives who have a certain view of human nature, how to organize society, and the role of the government. Many of them realize that our economy needs laborers, and educated people. The social conservatives are another story; for the most part they’re xenophobes. For a nation built on immigration, there is a strong element of “nativism” in much of the country. The fear of diversity (to put it mildly) breeds hostility to new ideas and un-traditional way of life. The social conservatives, and their leaders—who have invented the time-travel machine back to the old ages via Bush’s White House—see the rest of the advanced countries as moving way too fast forward. For example, if Catholic Spain [never mind the other much-more-secular European states] moves to legalize same-sex marriage, then the outside-the-US world can be seen as a threat to traditional conservative values.

We are running huge economic deficits [did I mention that BushCo not only erased a huge surplus left by Clinton by raised the national deficit to record numbers?] but what is not very obvious yet is that our country is running a talent deficit. We are not attracting world talent like we used to; and by this I mean, scientists, engineers, artists, writers, etc. In the last couple decades, some 50% of post-grad students in computer science, biology, and many other disciplines have been foreign-born. But, fewer and fewer talented students choose to come to the United States from abroad today. Europe, Australia, Canada are more attractive because of the policies implemented here and the image we project to the world.

The conservative turn the US has taken is hurting the country. Richard Florida, in his book Flight From America-The Flight of the Creative Class, points to the three “T”s: Talent, Technology, Tolerance. He points out that the US is not producing enough students with interest in science, technology, engineering, culture. We are not being smart about funding and giving people access to education. As for tolerance, well, this isn’t getting any better, not in much of the mainland. The author places emphasis on the cultural aspects of the country, because America has conquered the world primarily via a “cultural export.” This is good for extending influence, making money—all this with much less military force. He provides a breakdown of our economy: 45% service, 30% creative, 25% manufacture. The creative sector (arts & sciences) is very important, especially if you consider that innovation in this sector helps other sectors too.
The "true and tried" ways of the past
In the “good ol’ days”, might produced right, and the big-stick approach was more successful. Increasingly, this is not the case anymore. Therefore, we better re-think our approach and what has made America number One! Unfortunately, not much thinking is taking place but rather lots of shouting. It’s easier to garner votes this way. The conservatives have been exploiting the fear and anxiety, and, while blaming the liberals, they point to a more traditional values-oriented society as the solution. The fundamental Islam has the same approach by the way. Modernity brings so much fear and anxiety and change is a threat to the identity of people who are unwilling or unable to deal with the change. The reaction is to go back to the castle of the “good ol’ days” and raise the gates.

Conservatism in the US has gained because of the post 9-11 reality. Too many Americans were willing to believe anything. Promptly, the Bush administration was happy to oblige in the politics of fear. But, fear breeds oppression. And, oppression is what we’re getting. Our civil liberties are being attacked, our government says it reserves the right to torture and detain people without charge and for an indefinite length of time. Almost half of Americans say that they’re willing to give the President any authority to keep us safe. Any? Who in their right mind would say this? I don’t know, would babies on skewers placed at close intervals along our borders help deter terrorists from entering the country? Anything?!!! Actually, why the surprise? The President argues, ala-Nixon, that “if the President does it, it’s not illegal”, then the public shrugs its shoulders and Congress considers legislation to retro-actively “legalize” such action!

America was attractive because it offered great opportunities and freedoms others didn’t in the past few centuries. Times have changed. It is no accident that cosmopolitan centers and tolerant societies produce technical innovation and culture. It’s no accident that some of the most successful American companies—Google, Yahoo, E-Bay, to name a few—were founded by foreign-born individuals. We still have the northeast and the Pacific west states that attract lots of talent because of their openness to diversity and modernity. Creativity in the arts & sciences needs this air of freedom, and dare I say, a strong liberal democracy!

Just as capital needs mobility so does talent and skilled labor. The US has become a country with concentrated wealth within a tiny segment of the population, but the rich are not patriotic when it comes to money; theywill invest their capital where they can get the maximum returns. Heck, they even place a fax machine in the Bahamas and claim it as their "headquarters" in order to avoid paying taxes here. Talent will move elsewhere as well. Economic growth depends on how much technology you’ve got, and, someone has to drive this technology forward! In the post-911 era, the US has moved to the conservative side: more isolationist, suspicious, less tolerant, increased militarism, anti-immigrant, and to the Big Brother realm. That’s not very attractive. Since this is a big country, there will be ways to be “number one” in something, I mean, if tiny Cuba can be “number one” in producing Cuban cigars, then we can find something to excel at. We used to beat anyone in basketball and baseball and in so many other sports, but now the competition has gotten better than us. Perhaps we should take the hint.

Editor's note: The Comments feature is again enabled, but due to the large amount of comments received that have absolutely nothing to contribute to the discussion, all comments won't automatically post; they'll have to be approved first by an administrator of this blog--which remains a private domain, not a place for the trolls to come in an mess it up. Sorry for this inconvenience, but the alternative would be no comments at all.

Mar 6, 2006

Bill Clinton: We Have to Give to the World. But, Why?

A Pace Toward Civic Activism & World Engagement
We are here. Hopefully we also have a future. But how do we get there? The “vision thing” [as a former President called it] is nice to have, but there are choices to be made and how to get there. Much depends on how you see yourself as an individual, as a citizen, and, how you see the world at large. The political debate on the role of the government rages on; the disagreements about the role of the government go back to the time when we became conscious of a national identity.

In these modern times, we’re increasingly becoming interdependent and integrated into the greater sum out there. Local and global issues are intertwined closer today than ever before. The Age of Technology has instantly connected us to our fellow humans throughout the globe. Global environmental issues know no artificial borders. Yet, progress isn’t advancing at the same rate everywhere. This discrepancy can be measured not in different time zones but in centuries! There is a global crisis when billions of humans don’t have access to clean water, food, medicine and education. The advanced countries would be deceiving themselves if they think that they can maintain the present situation for ever. This chasm of wealth and quality of life between the have-nots and the affluent will eventually lead to greater conflicts. We already see this happening around the world It’s about water rights, control of natural resources, and a piece of the pie, as much as ideology & religion.

A big and powerful country like the United States has an important role to play in making the world a better place. This is the theme President Bill Clinton touched upon when he came to Pace University’s Centennial Kick-Off Event last Sunday. Bill is a master communicator and he can motivate people; perhaps he’s the strongest voice out there asking for help on behalf of worthwhile causes and institutions. I don’t know whether he wants to rehabilitate his name after a troubled presidency [failings that don’t even come close to the scale of incompetence exhibited by Dubya’s administration] but he’s on the right track. I’d take anyone who wants to help and actually makes a positive difference. He may have failed to act in Rwanda, for example, and hundreds of thousands of people died, but he can save people's lives today through his engagement--like in the battle against HIV/AIDS, abject poverty, etc.

The majority of people in our world don’t have access to clean water. Some 3 million die, 1/3 of them children, because of water-borne diseases. Billions live on under a $1 a day. Hundreds of million of children have no schooling whatsoever. And, on and on. These conditions breed discontent; desperation leads to desperate acts. Wretched conditions with uneducated minds are prime grounds for the recruitment of terrorists. Clinton correctly pointed out that it is in the interest of the US to improve living conditions throughout the globe. But, how do we do this?

A Culture of Life
To begin, we must relate to people as human beings. To “see them” as he put it. I would add, to recognize that the “culture of life” extends beyond the womb and beyond our national borders. The only regions the US has gained ground (post Iraq war) are those tsunami-affected and the earthquake-stricken areas, because we showed up as people who wanted to help fellow humans. People’s hearts are conquered not by bullets but by kindness. Of course the US cannot solve all problems everywhere by itself, but I think we can do a lot better by having a smarter foreign policy. It would have been smarter if we had allocated a trillion dollars [estimated total cost of the Iraq war & occupation] in a
Marshall-type plan (which also benefited the American economy) as we did after WWII in Europe. Smarter, because of the good will we'd have gotten in return, not to mention the greater geopolitical benefits.

Americans are generous people. They raised over $1 billion for the 2004 tsunami victims, almost 50% through the internet. Technology and the internet have given the citizen new & effective ways to participate & be connected-- from his local community, and the national government, to the world at large. We have to do more though, but, again, we have to answer the question, what the role of government is. Contrary to public perception, the US gives a lot less in foreign aid (excluding military) to poor countries than many other advanced countries do. We give about 17 cents for every $100 we make, in private and government donations. Scandinavian countries, for example, give upwards of 80 cents. If every country gave a quarter for every $100 earned (that’s 0.25%) of GNP the world would indeed be a better place to live in.
OK, there are those who’d say we better fix our house before we go out helping others. I just don’t think it’s an “either-or” proposition, but it's a good idea to have our own house in order. We better do this by throwing out the bums every chance we have at the ballot box. Sunshine is a great disinfectant and civic engagement a must. Under the present White House elite our country has become weaker not stronger. We are in ever-increasing debt, have made more enemies, have lost friends, and we’ve changing the image that this is a land of opportunity, tolerance and progress.

Speaking of image, President Clinton’s has improved since he left the White House. I suppose Jimmy Carter showed him the way to become a world statesman. I’m not going to judge Clinton’s motives, but I like it when an image is used to create substance. Clinton may have faltered in bringing about universal healthcare in this country, but, I welcome his voice in this cause today. We can’t keep on spending twice as much for healthcare and get less for it. We’re spending 16% of GNP on healthcare per year. The next highest spenders are Canada and Switzerland, at 11%. The difference (5%) between 11% and 16 % is $700 billion, a third of which is spend on administrative costs. Many corporations are complaining that healthcare costs add a burden to the company’s bottom line and make their products more expensive, less competitive. It can’t be a good thing when the US ranks 27th in the quality of healthcare.
The Stength Within
It can’t be a good thing when 37 million fellow citizens live in poverty [according to the US Census Bureau], when 46 million are uninsured, when real wages have fallen steadily since 1973 (except during Clinton’s last couple of years in office). What can the government do to affect positive economic change for the greater number of Americans? Can we implement an economic policy that generates good jobs? Or, do we accept the rain when it comes in a “trickle down” fashion?

A stronger America can be a good thing if we make the right choices. But, we cannot maintain our leadership status just by beefing up our military. It is impossible to have a security policy that has a primary focus on killing, jailing, occupying our enemies. We simply we can’t do it fast enough, and, under present leadership, we’re falling further behind in our security needs, and stated goals. We all agree that we need to defend ourselves, but we have to think rationally. “We’re fighting over there, so we don’t have to fight them here,” “the war against terror” that will never end, “this is a crusade,” “we’re fighting the axis of evil,” etc., are not practical strategies. The Bush administration exploited & manipulated Americans' feelings for revenge after 9-11. It exploited the feelings of patriotism. Many Americans wanted revenge; many wanted to feel safe again, so they were willing to believe anything!

We have a job to do, domestically and internationally, and choices to make. Education is the key, I think, because almost by definition it broadens a person’s horizons. But, you can’t think before you eat, or, get an education before your basic human needs [safety, food, shelter] are satisfied first. Those of us—who are fortunate enough to have the means to satisfy our basic needs and have leisure time to think & learn—must put our good fortune to good use as citizens. There are values, resources, responsibility, and opportunity to be shared. You can sit back and do nothing, or, you can be the change you want to see.