Thursday, May 25, 2006

How to tell an Amnesty from a Banana

"You all know it's not amnesty." Said McCain, addressing Vitter, "Call it a banana if you want to ... to call the process that we require under this legislation amnesty frankly distorts the debate and it's an unfair interpretation of it."

The immigration debate taking place in Congress has more than its share of attempted sophistry, avoidance, and outright misrepresentations. Nowhere is this confluence of debased debate more readily observable than in the controversy over whether “earned citizenship” is, in fact, a not so hidden amnesty.

Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines amnesty, “as the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Similarly the Fifth Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “an act of forgetfulness; an intention overlooking; a general pardon, especially for a political offense.”

If dictionary definitions were policy, it would be crystal clear that the provisions for dealing with illegal immigrants already in the country would amount to a “forgetting,” an “overlooking,” and indeed a “pardon” which is, after all, an official forgiveness for a committed offense. Regretfully, those seeking honesty in the debate will find no solace in their dictionaries.

That is because both the president and his backers insist they are against an “amnesty. “ How is it possible to both grant a “forgetting,” and a “pardon” for a past offense—breaking our immigration and numerous other laws (social security and document fraud, etc.), without by so doing granting an amnesty? Well, apparently it depends on what you mean by amnesty.

Mr. Bush says, “We must face the reality that millions of illegal immigrants are already here. They should not be given an automatic path to citizenship. This is amnesty, and I oppose it. “The core of Mr. Bush’s position is that illegal immigrants will have to pay a price for their law breaking and only then will they be granted a “forgiving” or “pardon.”

It is therefore the balance of the price exacted to the gains conferred by breaking the law that is critical to the president’s case that “earned citizenship” does not amount to amnesty. If illegal immigrants gain much more from having broken the law than they will in “paying a price “ to become regularized, they can easily consider the “price” they pay as a “transaction cost” much like parking tickets in New York City for truck deliveries.

Moreover, if the transaction costs are minimal they result in two other substantial consequences to the country. First, if the benefits of illegal immigration far outweigh an “transaction costs incurred in getting the benefits, they become an inducement to others. Second, if the benefits outweigh the costs, there will be tremendous political costs to the majorities of American citizens who do not want to reward illegal immigration. The major cost here will be a widespread feeling of public betrayal and alienation.

President Bush recognizes the cost-benefit calculation and its political implications. That’s why he argues that the advantages of “earned citizenship” will not be given “automatically.” Rather than simply being “pardoned” (clearly an amnesty) illegal immigrants will have to pay a price in return. The question is: What is that price?

According to Mr. Bush, illegal immigrants will have to, ”to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law -- to pay their taxes, to learn English and to work in a job for a number of years.” In other words, aside from the “meaningful” penalty pegged at about two thousand dollars paid over eight years, illegal immigrants would have to do exactly what they are already doing here illegally. They will live here, work, and learn some English while they wait their turn in line.

About that line Mr. Bush says, “But approval would not be automatic, and they will have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law.” That sounds fair, except when you realize that there are two different lines of immigrants—those waiting outside the country to get in, and those inside the country waiting for their green cards and citizenship applications.

Those waiting in the country have immense prize over those waiting outside of it. Primary, they live in the United States with all of the rewards that living here entails. That list includes: electricity, adequate housing, paved roads, higher wages, and free education—the list is long. Secondly, they will enjoy all the civil and political rights that come with having a legal status and living on American soil. Third, they will be working and earning more money than ever possible at home. Fourth, their children will become American citizens-itself an enormous advantage, and they will then have standing to bring their extended families. Fifth they would be bring their wives, children, brother, sisters, aunts and uncles, who in turn will be able to sponsor other relatives. Seventh, they would enjoy the benefits of the social security benefits earned through fraudulent social security numbers and fake identification. Eighth, they would be eligible for all the advantages built into the new bill for “guest workers.”

Over all, the balance of advantages gained for illegality vs. the “costs” of becoming legal are decidedly one sided—in the direction of benefiting illegal immigrants. The problem with this is that it undercuts any sense of fairness and erodes compassion. It is as if a person illegally gained the possession of a furnished house and was told that in order to gain legal ownership, we asked them to return a chair. Nor is compassion satisfied by a deal in which the offending party has to do very little to make amends while being offered copious compensation. Many Americans will come to believe that their interests have not been taken into account and their legitimate concerns disparaged.

On the other hand, future illegal immigrants will think the trade off well worth it, and this adjustment, like the seven before it, will result in new waves of illegal immigration. That is an extremely undesirable result, but it is not the worst one.

The bill, as it is now written, not only contains many provisions that substantially increase the benefits to illegal immigrants; it also dramatically raises the number of legal immigrants that will be allowed into the country. Both of these results are exactly contrary to what a majority of Americans want.

Mickey Klaus quotes Immigration bill sponsor Republican Charles Hegal sneering condescendingly at "the political lowest common denominator." I guess he means people like me.

Self-proclaimed “straight shooter” John McCain accusing critics of “distorting the debate” even he claims that words and actual immigration bill content have no meaning beyond that he will grant them.

Then there is the puzzling and upsetting behavior of the president. Mr. Bush has apparently been thinking a lot recently about his legacy. He also recently told an interviewer from the German newspaper BILD that “I want to leave this office with my integrity intact.” His stance in the immigration debate, to date, is helping with neither.

This president with the most searing appraisal of our national security circumstances, has already reneged on his public commitment to make “temporary workers” return home at the conclusion of their stay. Nor has he helped his cause by drawing a false distinction between “amnesty” and mass deportation while not pointing out the true middle ground--border and workplace enforcement‡ illegal immigration attrition.

The bill, as it stands is a lemon, not a banana, but if it were the latter, it would be a rotten one.