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Archive for the ‘immigration’ Category

Did you know that one out of 35 people in the world is an immigrant, according to a 2004 United Nations study? In numbers, that translates to 175 million people (2.9% of the world’s population) versus 75 million (2.5%) in 1960.

In the United States, the number of immigrants total over 34 million, accounting for 12.4% of the population. The biggest national group are Hispanics at 17 million. In some states like California, the foreign population accounts for 27.2%.

Using simple math, it’s clear that the Hispanics are one of the most disfranchised national group in the U.S. The fact that Spanish hasn’t become an official language in states like California shows the minuscule rights Hispanics have.

If a country like the U.S. accepts and depends on immigrants for its economic growth and well-being, its legislation should reflect respect for those cultures and national groups that work in the country. Good examples for the US to follow are countries where more than one language is officially spoken. Some of these are Switzerland (French, Italian, German, Rumantsch), Canada (English and French) and Finland (Finnish and Swedish).

It’s incredible that as we’ve become more interdependent through globalization and can communicate with ease through the Internet, our perceptions of other cultures continue to be in the Pre-Cambrian Era. Even legislation reflects this antiquated stance. The difficulty of immigration reform in the US is a sad example of how some interest groups want the status quo to continue.

There are a myriad of reasons why immigrants continue to be disfranchised. But as long as we continue to teach our children at school that our country, our language and our culture is the best, we’ll never build a world that respects in earnest people from other countries and nationalities.

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Today saw the death of “comprehensive” immigration legislation on the US Senate floor. The proclaimed victors like Jim DeMint  should stop crowing about victory — lobbyists for service sector businesses like hotels and fast food, as well as labor-intense agriculture and construction were the winners. And the crafters of the bill need to recall the basic law of art direction — less is more — and apply that philosophy next time.

Americans are suprisingly unlikely to own a passport — until recently less than 10% of the general population held valid passports. This situation is now changing as passports are finally being required for cross-border travel to neighboring countries and the state department has introduced improvements in security features. The state department’s service fee for processing a passport application (e.g. checking birth records) and production of the physical document is roughly $100. In other words, assuming a population of 300 million, for $30 billion, every US citizen could be put through the passport process and issued a high-tech passport. Obviously, with 6% of the adult population in prison, on parole, or having outstanding warrants, as well as problems such as deadbeats who fail to pay child support and tax-evaders, there is probably a need to consider multiple flavors of passports. But the physical challenge of issuing hard-to-counterfeit passports to all is not insurmountable.

The legal function of passports has traditionally been restricted to use by the federal government in authorizing cross-border travel of citizens. However, there are other functions that passports readily perform. Globally, high-security passports (e.g. using polycarbonates and incorporating holographic features) are far less likely to be counterfeit, which means they provide much better ID security that current state driver’s licenses and US social security cards. (A friend of mine who does Chapt. 7 bankruptcies had one guy come in an offer him five SSNs when he asked “What’s your social security number?” I can’t even figure out how that scheme might work.)

For those of us that have lived the life of stranger in a strange land, the passport has always been the key document. With my passport and various visas I was able to travel about in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe back in the old days unimpeded (I even hitchhiked). During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had the privilege of experiencing the iron hand of Eila Käänö, a high-level bureaucrat in the Interior Ministry who oversaw Finland’s foreigner population. (Finland’s opening up to the world in the last three decades is a truly remarkable testament that societies can put aside provincialism and embrace fairly sophisticated international outlooks.)

At the bottom of the Finnish system were (and still are) the very simple administrative devices of the work and residence permits. If a foreigner behaved and contributed to Finnish society, that person was gradually granted longer work and residence permits, kept on learning Finnish and Swedish, began to get taxed on the same basis as the locals, and after a year was brought into the national health care system and ultimately even allowed to vote in local elections. Also, the state retained the right to deny a work permit to people in fields where Finns faced high employment. Most Americans living in Finland today hold university degrees and I have little doubt that foreigners who have chosen to reside in Finland permanently represent a net gain to the society overall. But there is also a further fact that should not be overlooked — almost every Finn currently holds a valid passport, Schengen or no Schengen.

From this perspective, the US does not really have an immigration problem, at least not in the Lou Dobbs sense. Rather, the federal government — for whatever reason — has been administratively negligent. I went through the embarassingly complicated greencarding process with my wife. Because we had done everything in Finland at the US embassy, our paperwork was apparently impeccable. When we came from Samoa to LAX and she went to hand over the paperwork, including a giant lung x-ray, the official cleared her in about 7 minutes, shook her hand, and commented that he’d almost never encountered such a well prepared immigrant. Of course, we’d spent about three months and $3,000 to get to that point. Finland, in contrast, has nothing like the greencard. The closest thing is probably the permanent resident stamp in the passport, but even that has to be renewed each time you get a new passport. And no matter how long you are in the system, you get thrown out if you move abroad. A greencarder has to visit the US every 12 months if they have again moved away from the US.

Thus, by requiring passports for all, citizen and non-citizen alike, a lot of problems can be disposed of rather quickly. When a citizen presents a valid US passport, it can be assumed that the federal government stands behind the document. This cannot be said of a driver’s license, birth certificate or SS card. When a non-citizen presents a passport, it will contain a valid residence permit and work permit with dates that are unambiguous to employers, and it will provide leverage for the employee to make sure that the employer pays the employee’s social contributions and conforms to the law. And it will reduce the gray economy that has been so well served by the Senate’s latest failure.

Regarding Mexico, there needs to be a fundamental acknowledgement, long ago noted by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in the unfortunately titled The Population Explosion that immigration pressures from Mexico need to be damped not mainly because of the shoddy treatment immigrants recieve, but the simple fact that “the world cannot afford any more Americans.” It’s a wierd book, often hodge-podge, but occasionally brilliant. The best idea is the I = PAT equation. Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. Lou Dobbs, who is after all a trained economist, would do well to incorporate it into his discussion. Mexico has made progress in lowering its population rate, a fact that is seldom mentioned. Mexico’s rising affluence, however, must be accompanied by energy efficient, environmentally friendly technology. Otherwise, there will be a real mess. Also overlooked is the fact that the US is the third most populous country on Earth, after China and India. Make of that what you will.

Pretty good for a couple that spent all their summers in Telluride.

US immigration issues can and should be handled administratively. Illegal immigrants are rarely involved in crimes of moral turpitude, but rather statute violations that have no intent requirement. An administrative approach also makes it possible to apportion costs between the immigrant, employer and government. Under the current regime, immigrants and employers avoid costs, and the government only spends what it can. An administrative approach would also avoid the need to build big fences. Simple, probably not as cheap as Congress would like (but then this is the same Congress that is now spending $11 billion a month on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan), and effective.  

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