Friday, April 3, 2009

Policies designed to fail

San Diego columnist Ruben Navarrette this morning wrote a provocative column about the mixed messages that the immigration authorities (and the Obama administration) are sending after a raid against illegal immigrants from an auto parts plan in Bellingham, Wash.

Although an advocate for more immigration and legalization for those already here, he nonetheless deplores the schizophrenia of existing US policies:

In one sense, I feel sorry for illegal immigrants. They make the decision to come here, even if it means breaking the law. I won't defend that. But still, we play with their lives, and we play with their heads. They must think Americans are loco. We confuse them with mixed messages. It starts with the two signs at the border: "Keep out" and "Help Wanted." We all but beg them to work for us, and then too often we abuse and exploit them as if we rue the day they punched in.
That paragraph perfectly captures the paralysis of US immigration policy, as the politics of different interest groups produces conflicting policies (and a huge gap between nominal laws and actual implementation).

Among the Democrat constituencies, the immigrants (and their relatives and supporters) want more immigration. The unions want the immigrants to come so they can organize them, but many blue-collar workers (who compete for unskilled jobs) want them deported.

Among the Republican constituencies, the manufacturing, construction, hospitality and agricultural employers want the workers to increase the supply and reduce the cost of labor; some firms will enforce the law (such as I-9 forms) but many will just go through the motions of compliance. In addition to business owners, the GOP has both libertarians (against government intervention) and homeland security types (that want to seal the borders).

Workers who are here legally have a social security number, but those who are not use a made-up number. The Bush Administration actually started to enforce the immigration laws by sending letters to employers when the name and social security number don’t match — which would have virtually ended employers hiring people for salaried jobs who didn’t have the proper work visa.

However, in response to the effects of the new enforcement, there was a huge hue and cry — suggesting that many people don’t want the law enforced. (The nominal reason was false positives, but that could have been readily fixed by fine-tuning the policy if people wanted the policy to work).

Politicians speak out of both sides of their mouth — telling different things to different audiences — and kick the can down the road rather than make tough choices. Such cynical manipulation cannot be healthy for the operation of a free society or respect for the rule of law.

Navrette’s conclusion:
We need to change the law. But, until that happens, we need to enforce the laws we have. After all, if we don't respect what's written on the books, why bother to go through the motions of rewriting it?
Amen, brother.

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