Saturday, September 30, 2006

Reframing the Immigration Debate

I just watched an interview with Pat Buchanan on The Daily Show. First of all, kudos to Job Stewart for having Buchanan on and listening to him spew bile through his smiling face. I would have thrown up in the guy's lap, assuming I could hold onto my pacifist ideals strongly enough to refrain from pimp-slapping the man. Stewart kindly allowed the guy to wax conspiratorial about the Mexican government's nefarious plan to invade and conquer the U.S. with an army of peasant day-laborers. Buchanan even went so far as to make a joke about the holocaust of Native Americans. Ha ha, Pat. That’s funny stuff.

I’ve been working with students learning English as a second language for six years now. Most of these students are from Mexico, and some are undocumented. They are also some of the most wonderful young people I’ve ever had the honor to teach. Hence, I get more than a little riled up when I hear Americans reveling in their xenophobia. Buchanan is so ridiculous that I was able to step back from my simmering rage and think about his plan a bit more objectively. I couldn’t help but think of the fact that many red states are decreasing in population because their white kids are leaving to move to blue ones. Without the influx of immigrants this would be even more apparent. This led to an idea:

What if all disbursal of federal funds, every last penny, was doled out to states and the amounts were directly proportional to population? I think this would immediately change the immigration debate. States wishing to expel immigrants might suddenly turn around and start arguing for amnesty. If Mexican immigrants could be counted for money, they would be far more desirable. How long do you want to bet it would take before some Republicans would start calling a given Mexican immigrant 3/5ths of a person?

This dispersal would have other benefits. No more earmarking millions of dollars for bridges to nowhere in Alaska; they’d need every penny they’d get to keep the government afloat. And think about the benefit to the conflict in Iraq. The Army would only get funding proportional to the amount of American troops on the ground in Iraq at a given time. I think we’d hear the Army calling for more boots on the ground very quickly when their funding depended on it. Or maybe they’d be calling for an immediate withdrawal to places like Washington State and Colorado in order to shore up funds in places where their precious weapons systems are being built.

And what would states spend that money on? I think far more of it would go to services for citizens. Blue states might be criticized for their higher rates of taxation and their plethora of government services, but people keep moving to them because… let’s face it… they’re better places to live. Imagine every state working hard to make itself a more inviting place for all, rather than a state that serves only the wealthiest few. Doesn’t that sound nice? Welcome to Oregon.

Is this even possible? Sure. The house of representatives is already proportional to population, so if the reps of the big states wanted this, it would fly there. Those Senators who wanted to publicly claim that the citizens of Wyoming not only deserve a more significant share of the electoral vote than Californians, but more federal tax dollars could certainly say so, but I don’t think it would be politically expedient if any of them had national ambitions. Would the president veto it? Our current president is from a big state and only uses the veto to carry out his crusade against science, so he might be amenable. Does it take away Congress’ power of the purse? Yes, but then this Congress has decided it has the right to cede certain constitutional powers, like its ability to declare war, to other branches. Couldn’t they give up the right to earmark for the sake of the people?

But it won’t happen. Why? Powers acquired are rarely given up, and neither this Congress nor any other would give up its ability to bring home the bacon. Also, immigration is a great wedge issue to tap into without ever really doing anything substantive; fear gets people to the polls even more effectively than moral outrage. The real answer to illegal immigration is so patently obvious that any child could figure it out, but that’s not really what these folks want, anyway. They could support measures to improve the standard of living in Mexico while cracking down on employers here. If the better jobs are in Mexico, the laborers won’t come. Poof. Problem solved. But how do you stir up people’s fears by calmly solving problems?

They want fear. So I propose a simple challenge. No immigrants = no money. That will scare them. The fact that the xenophobes can’t conceive of their immigrant neighbors as human beings without a financial incentive is telling, though, isn’t it?

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