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Rethinking Illegal Immigration

5 Jan

photocredit: Victor Sira-Uprooted

In the first half of the 19th century, Horace Mann dedicated himself to the Common School movement. Providing free, open, and accessible schools across the country was the great equalizer, the “the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Thomas Jefferson was an early, but unsuccessful (twice in his home state of Virginia), advocate of what is now free public education. Mann made it a reality nearly five decades later.

Nearly a century later, President Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill. Thanks to the GI Bill, millions of Americans and their families from every generation thereafter benefited from a legion of college-educated servicemen. College was now affordable and accessible, new opportunities were within reach for people returning from military service.

These two initiatives transformed the employment landscape forever. As anyone in the education field will tell you, it is not about what students learn now, but how they use it once out of school. Free public schools and free college for servicemen and women opened doors for them. But the largest ripple effect was felt outside its core: everyone else had to keep up.

President Obama said he will focus on immigration reform in 2010. The issue comes back to the fore at a time when people who can work here legally can hardly find work at all. He is faced with polar extremes calling for a swift and indiscriminate deportation of all 11 million or so illegal immigrants on one end, and an amnesty granting all of them legal resident status on the other.

It’s highly unlikely that Obama will pick either option. He will probably pick a mix, a trademark Obama solution. But he must understand the often overlooked implications of taking any approach. Just as free public education and subsidized college education transformed not only those enjoying the program but also those outside of it, immigration reform will transform America’s vitality for generations to come.

Free public education and the GI Bill both changed the game by changing the rules. They both, in economic terminology, incentivized people to get educated. They made it easier to obtain, and more “expensive” to pass up. There is now an opportunity cost for those choosing to forgo public school. If you do, you will be competing against people who did take advantage of it, and are more prepared, and therefore more appealing to employers, than you. You will find it harder to get a job, and if you do find one, you will almost certainly be paid less than your more educated counterpart. In either case, you will lose money because you are unemployed, or just paid less than the rest, by not getting educated. Same goes for the GI Bill: military personnel opting to skip this benefit will compete with college-educated candidates, and feel the same pain in finding a good paying job. Money is lost in lost wages, skipping these programs becomes expensive.

When policy is being thought out, these implications are sometimes never considered. The benefits are later noticed once the ripple effect is more visible and pervasive. Unfortunately for Obama, he cannot skip thinking of the “then what?” when reforming our immigration system. With 11 million illegal immigrants (a guesstimate at best) in the United States, any change will surely be noticed.

Illegal immigrants are typically filling unskilled positions such as field worker, janitor, busser, line cook, or any other job that can easily be paid under the table. One of the most popular arguments from those hoping to deport every single one of them is that they are taking valuable, sought-after jobs. They claim these jobs, if undocumented workers were not doing them, would be filled by American citizens, therefore alleviating some of the unemployment woes our country consistently faces. This is absolutely true. If these jobs were vacant, millions of Americans would rush to fill them, especially when so few jobs are being created. But the big question here is whether that is actually a good thing.

Keeping illegal immigrants here does what public schools and the GI Bill do: it makes education more appealing. Allowing people from other countries to work here without papers is making our country more educated. Let me explain:

Think of our job market as a giant ladder. The unskilled jobs occupy the lower rungs; the skilled jobs are up top. The more education you need for a job, the higher up the ladder it is. As previously mentioned, illegal immigrants tend to occupy the bottom rungs, not because they are necessarily poorly educated (some have advanced degrees in their home country, but end up an assistant janitor here in the US), but because they do not have the papers needed to fill a more closely monitored and visible job. Those jobs they are doing are obviously filled and cannot be taken up by anyone else; those unskilled jobs are off-limits to legal American workers. In other words, anyone looking to find a job as a field worker will find it nearly impossible to do so, and will have to keep looking further up. To find something above those bottom rungs, however, means they will need more preparation, i.e. more education and experience. It’s either that or be unemployed for an indefinite amount of time. For someone who has no skill set (which is likely the case for someone looking for a job as field worker/busser/etc.), the easiest way to get minimal education, a requirement to being competitive in jobs higher up the ladder, is a public school.

What if they were not here? What if, for whatever reason, all undocumented workers were no longer working those jobs? Then the previously off-limits rungs at the bottom of the ladder would be accessible to all. Anyone looking to find a job, any job, would not need any amount of education. The pay would be dismal, of course, but it would still be better than earning nothing or minimal unemployment benefits. The key consequence of making these unskilled jobs available is that it would, in effect, make education LESS appealing. There would be a fight at the bottom between unskilled, uneducated candidates to fill these positions, since there is no point in obtaining any amount of education for the sole purpose of getting a job. Money could be earned, legally, with absolutely no education. The opportunity cost that was previously there has been taken out.

There are changes beyond the job market, beyond making basic education less sexy and no longer a necessity, which hit everyone. Once legal American workers fill these jobs, the old rules must change. There can no longer be under-the-table arrangements–the federally mandated minimum wage actually has to be obeyed. This will raise wages across the board, which will increase inflation, since more dollars will be flowing around the country, making each dollar worth less/every product worth more. In product industries, like produce, this will be felt even more. Since legal workers will demand at least minimum wage, and that wage will most definitely be higher than what undocumented workers were previously paid, the cost to harvest lettuce and strawberries will rise, and that cost will passed on to consumers in price increases. Inflation will hit everyone, even those who never picked a strawberry in their lifetime.

Inflation eats into the pockets of working Americans, but loss of taxes and social security deposits eats into the pockets of the federal government. Contrary to the myths circulating in anti-immigrant circles, more than two thirds of illegal immigrants DO pay income taxes and have to pay into the social security fund. From 1996-2003, payments coming from people using Individual Taxpayer Identification, a number issued by the IRS to people ineligible to collect Social Security (i.e. illegal immigrants) totaled $50 billion. As just mentioned, they CANNOT collect Social Security. They are, in essence, giving money away to our legal senior citizens. This thankless contribution would cease to exist, not to mention the taxes paid, if and once they were deported.

The other side of the immigration debate wants legal status for all. What if they were given amnesty? Then something similar to the education depreciation/inflation dynamic would occur, but with less of the costs. Wages would rise, since these workers would become legal and demand a minimum wage, starting the same snowballing effect that would lead to inflation. But the money the government received from them through income taxes and SS deposits would not be taken away. They would pay into the piggy like everyone else. They would also keep the bottom rungs off-limits, making basic education a necessity in the workforce. Some would even take advantage of their newfound legal status and strive to get more education, since many states prohibit awarding financial aid for college to illegal immigrants.

The issue does not have a silver bullet. Any proposed solution will have unpreventable consequences. Wherever Obama goes with his immigration reform in 2010, he cannot overlook the indirect effects it will have for the current and following generations. Horace Mann called education the “balance wheel” of society. Now, Obama needs to picture a ladder, and what rungs he wants American workers to strive for.


Old Posts, Renewed

18 Dec

Here are some most posts, taken from the Archives, that are worth reading for the first time or revisiting for all the good times you had the first time. Enjoy.

Deconstructing Obama’s Speechwriting

Do we need another Ferdinand Pecora to put the rich on trial?

Bittman on our diets, our world, and out future

Dating during a recession

Don’t expect 2010 to be 1994. Part 2: Healthcare

23 Nov

“I’m not going to get into the numbers today, but it’ll — I think if you’re not impressed, you should be.”

Harry Reid is pretty proud of his healthcare bill.  The next few weeks will be intense and immensely important to him and his party. The ramifications of this bill will be seen and discussed for generations, similar to other fundamental legislative changes in the relationship between American government and its people, like the GI Bill and Medicare. They can’t afford to pull a 1994 again.

After the House passed their version of the momentous reform Obama promised during his campaign, Reid and his Senate Democrats are about to make the hardest push yet. Republicans hold considerable power in the Senate–mainly by just lying dead in the hallways–and the Democrats have an ideologically diverse party to wrangle. Reid will lose the sleep Pelosi is now making up.

Healthcare reform is not just economically important and a revision of 1/6 of our economy. It also is vital for Democrats seeking re-election. If healthcare reform fails, it would not be 1994 all over again–it would be worse. The GOP would make a comeback after years of mismanagement, corruption, and ineptitude, and after having done close to nothing of substance in their role as a minority party. .

When healthcare reform does pass (Democrats cannot fathom a plan B), it will pay handsome dividends. As mentioned in the last post of this series, it will give them enough of a nudge to help them avoid the GOP takeover many pundits predict. Democrats need accomplishments to regain the footing they didn’t have most of this decade, and right the wrongs of administrations passed.

Jobs will rule 2010. Unfortunately, they will probably continue to be scarce well into next year. But those that do spring up, the green shoots economists and politicians always look for, will be seized for political ammunition. Healthcare reform has the potential of giving Democrats a shot of momentum, especially if the public option comes with the package. In part that is because healthcare reform and job production are not correlated factors, but causal.

The public option is an often misunderstood thing. But it is just another government-run and funded competitor, like the US Postal Service,  in a market full of thriving private competitors.

As any other new business, it will need people and create jobs. The jobs will come from new bureaucratic institutions, new auxiliary departments, additional support by other already existing government agencies, and by the secondary markets and services any new business can create (developing applications for the iPhone is a prime example). Some are already predicting that healthcare reform, even without a public option, may help businesses create as many as 10 million new jobs due to the money saved in covering their employees. Adding the public option element will make this an exclusively Obama’s Democratic Party victory; any good news that trickles in will be attributed to no one else.

This big picture landscape will be used in small doses for 2010. Even if a few million jobs are created because of healthcare reform, they will not all suddenly appear in one year. It may take years to see the full effect of reform, but those jobs that pop up will be framed as part of a larger outcome. There are regional estimates of how much impact reform will have on local jobs and economies. (An example of that for the state of Colorado).  Democrats will be most convincing if they keep their pleads for re-election local, and measured but hopeful. Otherwise, even the most ignorant voter will know they are making castles out of straw.

While they wait for the jobs to come in, the political boost Democrats will get after reform is passed will be felt instantaneously.  It will revitalize a party that is exercising in shaky fashion the most power it’s had this decade. The last large piece of legislation the Democratic Congress passed was the stimulus earlier this year. The effect of that is still materializing and debated, so they can hardly count that as an achievement. But healthcare reform, which many thought was close to impossible, which crushed their party over 15 years ago, which most thought was just another campaign promise, would communicate political power like very little else could. “Yes, we ARE the majority party…See!” It boosts confidence in the loyalists and makes the undecideds curious: “Who are those studs with a hop in their step?”

This could turn two ways for the Democrats. It could either give them a short-term or a long-term boost. They can either have readily available results to tout in their favor in 2010 and 2012: new jobs, great hopes, a new, fairer, America. Or, it could give them a boost years down the line. This could be a legacy legislation.

The Republican party often recalls with pride President Eisenhower’s Highway Act of 1956. It was transformative, innovative, and had the long view always in mind. It was a bold stroke of risk taking that paid off. That was a legacy legislation. Democrats hope this will be as well. But they also need to show Americans they can benefit today. That is why linking small improvements to grand outcomes is so important. There jobs depends on it.

500 Words on: Cash for Clunkers and the GOP

3 Aug

There is a pretty accurate way to test someone’s self esteem: be bold. Prolong eye contact, speak through an unfiltered voice, or stand your ground and you will incur the wrath of insecure wabblers. They will lash out, violently, at the smallest show of counter-power. Knowing they have no resources to deploy as a defense, they try to claw their way out.

The GOP is still reeling from their defeats. They are lost, with no identity to satisfy their increasingly diverging factions.The party is acting like a siamese twin at a zoo: check out the elephants? no, the tigers! This, contrasted with the president’s eternal cool, makes the comparison unavoidable.

President Obama can count at least one undeniable victory in his short presidential tenure, all thanks to junk formerly left tireless on front lawns. The Cash for Clunkers program, which provides a discount of between $2500 and $4000 when you trade in your defunct, fuel inefficient car for a newer, greener car, is immensely popular. So popular that it is about to go broke 2 weeks after it began. It is a pretty bad sign when the most innovative and successful incentives come from the government, not companies that are actually in that industry (GM, try harder next time).

The battle royale the Republican party is now enthusiastically waging is against this program. An unpopular political identity is criticizing a popular political idea. Fair enough.

But to add ironic salt to this gash the GOP is cutting is the basis of their criticism: Another bailout! Manipulating the market! Free money! Fair enough. So what exactly was the Bush tax rebate two years ago? The rebate tried (and failed) to do the exact same thing as this program: to entice consumers to use the money to buy lots of stuff and be all the consumers they could be. Consumer spending was down, so on with the rebate. Spend spend spend!

They did not, of course, since most people used the rebate to pad their savings. Unlike Obama’s Cash for Clunkers program, which gave consumers the incentive to: A)Buy at a cheaper price, B)Get rid of junk for free, and C)Be green, Bush’s rebate only threw money at them, hoping they knew it was meant to be spent. They didn’t, and it wasn’t. Its purpose was too wide. The money did little to pull up a slumping economy. C4C, in turn, might just save the auto industry–Ford has already reported a large increase in sales from last year, crediting the program for most of the good news.

So why is the GOP picking this fight? Why are they hootin’ and hollerin’ about continuing the program? Because they have no better way to flex whatever muscle they have left. GOP leadership is so weak that they are unable to pull their troops back from attacking a program many Americans like and hope to use. With their low self-esteem, the GOP claws at what’s in front of them. They just clawed their own tire flat.


17 Jul


The confirmation hearing for Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor are still going on as I write this. A highlight: Sen. Sessions has brought up the “wise Latina” remark for the, oh I don’t know, 10th time in the last hour. Riveting.

Confirmation hearings are pretty much a choreographed piece of political theater where Senators attempt to sound fierce or supportive, and the nominee tries to give as little information as possible as to how they actually think. If that all sounds too tempting to miss, I got nothing for you.

If you ARE interested in a break from all of that, here are some poliPicks!

  • Science v. Relgion, the rumble in the opinion jungle! Are scientists hurting their trade by dismissing, or even trashing, religion? Short answer: God, yes.
  • Not so Green economy: What if green jobs really wont help our economy or environment at all?
  • Happy ending: Research shows we are awfully cheery whenever we think about death. In related news, Hershey’s will now be selling really dark chocolate.
  • KKK v.2009: A lot has stayed the same with the Klan, as is evident in this photo gallery: hoods, cross burning (or as Klan members prefer, “cross lighting”), bringing them up young in the cloth. It’s unnerving to think they still exist today, under a social an political reality that may not only help them survive, but grow.
  • Tweet of the day: From comedian Sean O’Connor, @seanoconnz

I hit on Kat Dennings last night on twitter – and for some reason can’t believe it didn’t work.

Here’s a great idea: follow me on twitter, @jzippy

Bonne weekend!

What is your local Broad Unemployment Rate?

15 Jul

The New York Times (those ingenious devils) have created an interactive map that helps you find out your state’s “broad” unemployment rate. The term “broad” in no way indicates this is any sort of fuzzier rate at all. It’s only broad because it includes people who are working part-time but want to work full time (underemployment) and those who want to work but have just given up on the job search the last four weeks (dispirited job-seekers).

Using this broader definition, pun intended, the top states are:

  • California with 20%
  • Oregon with 23%
  • Rhode Island and Michigan with 22%.

I told you this map wasn’t uplifting, just useful.

GM, Back in Black

11 Jul

All it took was fixing the notoriously faulty electrical system in Chevy Blazers.

After 41 days, GM shed $48b in debt, kicked some top execs to the bread line, and “restructured” their management style. They are now out of bankruptcy protection and ready to be mildly viable once more. Yipee.

Not bad for a company that is responsible for this scrap of god-forsaken metal:

Lumina, why did you break down on me in the middle of rush hour traffic–twice?

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