Some Immigration Reform Proposals

mexican flag
Mexican flag

As Federal immigration reform continues its very slow journey through Congress I’m often amused by the number of politicians and political commentators expressing their opinions about this important issue when it’s obvious they have no firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground, and are just working from the talking points they’ve been given.

I was a welfare case worker in south Phoenix for many years and I’ve spent a good amount of time outdoors in Arizona’s National Forests along the Mexican border so I have some real world knowledge that is applicable to this issue.

Let’s start with my experiences at the welfare office. I haven’t worked there for more than 20 years, but I think many of the things I saw are still relevant. South Phoenix, in case you don’t know, is the poorest part of the city. When I worked there we did five welfare applicant interviews per day. Many of the applicants were Mexican undocumented alien parents applying for benefits for their U.S. citizen children. These types of applicant households averaged about two out of our five daily interviews, or about 40%. Since this was a mostly Latino neighborhood, this ratio would have been much lower in most other areas. Now, keep in mind that this was back in the days when the business community and their Republican allies were turning a blind eye toward illegal immigration because it was providing them with cheap and easily exploitable labor. In effect, they were using the welfare system to subsidize their unskilled labor force.

Of course, not all undocumented alien parents applied for welfare for their U.S. citizen children. But most of them had to in order to survive because they typically had low paying or seasonal jobs. In regards to undocumented immigrants being able to apply for U.S. welfare benefits, you need to understand that their U.S citizen children are still eligible for benefits. If the household, for example, has two undocumented alien parents and three U.S. citizen children, the benefit is prorated and issued for three people – if the household is determined to be otherwise eligible. (We weren’t allowed to notify the INS, now called the USCIS, about undocumented alien adult applicants because that might prevent their U.S. citizen children from getting benefits.)

As you might imagine, it was very difficult for us to verify the income of the undocumented alien parents. They usually didn’t have any paycheck stubs to show us because they were being paid under the table in cash, and their employers were reluctant to provide documentation about this unlawful practice. Subsequently, we often had to take their signed declarations of income.

It wasn’t unknown, however, for undocumented alien applicants to provide some pay stubs to verify their income. It was understood by everybody that the Social Security cards they’d used to get their jobs were counterfeit. In those days, all you had to do to verify citizenship to get a regular job was to provide a Social Security card. I was told you could easily purchase an authentic looking SSN card on the street for about $200. Counterfeiting SSN cards was big business in south Phoenix. The Social Security numbers on those cards were usually made up, so they often didn’t match any living or dead person. This meant the FICA and Medicare taxes being deducted from their paychecks became anonymous contributions to the U.S. government.

There was one clever technique, however, that undocumented immigrants used with real Social Security cards. If they had a boy child who was a U.S. citizen, and he had the same name as his father, the dad used the kid’s real Social Security card to get a job. I presumed some boys were given their father’s name just for this purpose. In these cases, the employee’s FICA and Medicare contributions would accrue to the child’s federal account.

It’s much more difficult these days for undocumented immigrants to use fake Social Security Cards, so the anonymous contributions to FICA and Medicare probably aren’t as big as they used to be. But don’t believe that right-wing nonsense that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes. In addition to payroll taxes, they pay sales tax and property tax – if they own a home.

Female welfare applicants, whether they were undocumented immigrants or U.S. citizens, often claimed the fathers of their children were absent and they were totally destitute and having to stay with family or friends to survive. But sometimes we observed men picking them up in nice vehicles after their interviews. They typically claimed he wasn’t the father of their children. We often tried to verify a household’s true composition, but it wasn’t easy to do, especially since we did home visits during the workday, when the men were typically at work.

But some undocumented alien women used a more sophisticated and patently dishonest anchor baby scheme to hide their spouse’s income. They would travel across the U.S. border just before they were due to have a baby. Then they’d have the baby in a U.S hospital for free, because the law prevents the denial of emergency medical services to anyone, and the baby would automatically become a U.S. citizen because it was born here. Then the woman would go into the local welfare office and apply for benefits for the child, and lie about the fact that she only came to the U.S long enough to have the baby and get a welfare case approved. As soon as her case was approved, she’d go back home to Mexico and share the check she got with the friend or family member who was letting her use their mailing address back in the U.S. We typically reviewed household eligibility every six months, so they’d plan to return for that interview to keep the check coming. But if the case got closed because they didn’t show up for their review, they’d just reapply and get it reopened the next time they were in the U.S.

There’s No Need to Tamper With the 14th Amendment

Some people suggest that we should revise the 14th Amendment to the Constitution because it automatically bestows citizenship to all children born in the U.S. Some of these people are racists who don’t like minorities, and there are conservative politicians who don’t want more minority voters. But the proposal resonates with many Americans because they think it’s unfair they should have to pay taxes for the costs of raising the children of undocumented immigrants.

But the children of immigrant parents are entitled to fair treatment too, as is the generation of Americans to which they will belong. It would be stupid, for example, if we didn’t try to educate all children – no matter their origins. And Medicaid must still be available to all children in the interest of public health.

I suggest that, instead, we should reform our federal welfare laws because public assistance is a privilege, not a right. The Food Stamp and welfare benefits of children whose parents aren’t legally in the U.S. could be limited somehow until the children reach adulthood. It would send a message to immigrants entering the U.S. illegally that they are going to have to be financially responsible for any children they have in the U.S.

What Kind of Nation Builds a Wall to Keep People Out?

Now, let’s switch gears to what I’ve seen along the Mexican border. I agree that building short stretches of wall in urban areas or other high traffic areas can help secure our border. But Arizona’s border with Mexico is 389 miles long, so it would be ridiculously expensive to build a wall along that entire length, or across the entire Mexican border with California, New Mexico and Texas. Besides that, long walls along the border would create some serious environmental problems. Furthermore, what kind of nation would build a wall like that to keep people out?

The vast majority of people who sneak across the border are doing it to make a better life for their families. The things they are willing to endure to have a chance to live in the U.S. are amazing. A couple of years ago I went hunting  for Coues white-tailed deer with some buddies in the Huachuca Mountains in the Coronado National Forest along the Mexican border. Much of these mountains are virtual wilderness and every day we had to climb several miles up into them to look for deer. We came across well-used trails winding through the hills far from any roads and we realized from the accompanying debris that they were created by undocumented immigrants making their way north. We later spoke with one of the many border patrol agents we encountered in the area and he explained that they usually use the trails at night, with paid coyotes (smugglers) leading groups to distant rendezvous spots where they are picked up by vehicles and transported into Tucson or Phoenix. He said that some of the people using the trails were drug smugglers, but the majority of them weren’t. You’ve probably heard other stories about what these people go through to enter the U.S. More than 200 of them die every year trying to cross Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, and it’s not unusual for females to be raped along the way.

Why Are We Demonizing People That Want To Be Americans?

Why are these people being demonized when all they want to do is live in America? Most of the Mexican undocumented immigrants I’ve met are very hard working and honest people that believe in the American Dream. Remember, they are people, just like you and me. It’s been reported there about 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. – most of them from Mexico. We couldn’t deport them all, even if we tried. And any mass deportation program would result in families being broken up, with parents separated from their children. That would be inhumane.

So, what do we do about them? I believe we should offer them a rigorous path to citizenship. I know that some people would decry this as amnesty. But I think that we could structure a process that legally integrates them into our society without creating new incentives for more of them to come here. A similar tactic was implemented in 1986 when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized close to 3 million undocumented immigrants. That law also required new citizenship verification requirements for employers and increased border security – but these measures weren’t effectively implemented. This time, however, we could use modern technology to fully implement an efficient nationwide employer verification program, and our current border security, while far from perfect, is better than it’s ever been.

Our border security, of course, can be improved. But the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how much effort we put into securing the border if things are so bad in Mexico that its citizens are willing to risk everything to come here. They’ll always find a way to sneak across. The long term solution is to refocus our nation’s foreign policy on helping to facilitate Mexico’s economic development. We could also help build and staff new maternity hospitals in Mexico, making it more attractive for women to have their babies there. And we could legalize and regulate marijuana across the U.S., thereby destroying a major market for the Mexican drug cartels and weakening their destructive influence on both sides of the border.

Translating Conservative Talking Points

joseph goebbels
“If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.” Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels – Wikipedia

I hope you will find this satirical list amusing – but disturbingly real.

Liberal lies: Facts that conservatives don’t want to believe, or are incapable of believing

Alternative facts: Lies told by conservatives to defend their irrational political opinions

Clean coal: There’s no such thing, but we’re willing to spend millions to convince you there is so we can keep polluting the air

The Deep State: Federal employees that insist on following the existing laws instead of bowing to right-wing political pressure

Energy you can depend on: Energy produced by burning fossil fuels

I’m against socialism: I don’t really know what it is, but government subsidies should only go to the programs that I like

Our public lands shouldn’t be locked up: Commercial exploitation by private enterprise is the best use of our public lands

Evolution is just a theory: The Bible is the verbatim word of God

Pollution controls are too costly: Polluters shouldn’t have to include all the costs of pollution in the retail prices of their products

God put natural resources on Earth for us to use them: Greed is morally good

The tax system penalizes successful people: I’ve made my money, so screw the rest of you

Class warfare: When the middle class complains they’re getting screwed by the wealthy class

Environmental regulations should be enforced in a balanced manner: They shouldn’t be enforced if they cost anybody money

Campaign contribution limits are a violation of free speech rights: Large corporations should be allowed to buy elections

America is Judeo-Christian nation: All other religions are un-American

Federal command and control: The Feds won’t let the states do whatever they want with the money they give them

Traditional America is dying: The President should be a white man

Pro-life: Women shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies

Public employee militancy: When public employees, such as teachers, decide they’re not going to let themselves be treated unfairly anymore

School choice: I want the taxpayers to help me pay to send my kid to a private religious school

Identity politics: When oppressed minorities have the gall to get politically organized to fight for their rights  

Require the best available science: Perpetually litigate the government’s regulatory process in order to paralyze it

Marriage is between a man and a woman: Homosexuality is an abomination against mankind

Racial unrest: When black people have the gall to complain about the police treating them unfairly

Global warming is a hoax: I don’t understand natural science, and don’t think I need to

Economic freedom: Being able to conduct business in a manner that hurts people or damages the environment without the fear of being held accountable

Religious freedom: Traditional Christian religious beliefs are more important than protecting everybody’s civil rights

We must secure the borders: We’ve got too many Mexicans in this country already

Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio just enforced the law: Who cares if his deputies picked on minorities, they’re the ones that commit the most crimes

We should return to the gold standard: I don’t understand what money is

We must drastically cut federal spending: But only the programs I don’t like

Private property rights: I should be able to do whatever I want with my property, even if it harms my neighbor’s

America is a melting pot, not a salad bowl: I don’t like people who are different from me

No spin: All opinions other than conservative ones are inherently biased

States rights: The Civil War wasn’t really fought over the practice of slavery

Judicial activism: When judges enforce laws I don’t like

Political correctness: Preventing me from saying cruel things to people whenever I want

Liberal indoctrination: When college classes are based upon facts and science

We shouldn’t pick economic winners and losers: The government should protect existing business interests

Protect the integrity of the voting process: Make it as difficult as possible for minorities to vote

Teachers unions are too strong: They won’t allow the teaching of biblical creationism in science classes

Fake news: Any factual information distributed by the media that undercuts conservative beliefs or political objectives

Stop chain migration: Split up immigrant families, separate immigrant children from their parents

Save Social Security & Medicare: Cut earned benefits enough to avoid any potential tax increases

Entitlements: Demonize Social Security & Medicare by implying that they are welfare programs

Gun control: Any limitations on gun ownership, especially common sense measures, school shootings are just a modern reality

Obamacare: Legislated expansion of health insurance coverage that’s inherently bad because it was promoted by President Barak Obama

The Real Threat to American Freedom

spirit of 76
The Spirit of ’76 (Wikipedia)

There was a lot of wood smoke in the air in my neighborhood during the last couple of nights. This was in spite of the fact that the Maricopa County Air Quality Department had declared  No Burn days. (Phoenix metro residents are prohibited from burning wood in their fireplaces on No Burn days because the smoke, combined with certain weather conditions, creates dangerous levels of particulates in the air.)

People who burn wood in their fireplaces on these days can be fined but I knew that whoever was violating the ban in my neighborhood probably wouldn’t get caught because the county doesn’t have many inspectors. It’s highly unlikely that any of my neighbors needed to burn wood to heat their houses, so they were probably doing it because they thought it was romantic to use their fireplaces during the holidays. But that’s a poor excuse, because wood smoke, in addition to being annoying, is a serious health threat to people with respiratory problems. Furthermore, too much smoke in the air could cause Maricopa County to fall out of attainment with federal health standards, which could lead to more severe air quality regulations.

Violating a wood burning ban might seem like a minor problem in the greater scheme of things, but I think it illustrates a more serious problem in America today. I’m talking about the widespread anti-government sentiment in our society. It seems to me that there are more people than ever before who believe the biggest threats to our freedom come from government regulations. I think this attitude was legitimized during the Ronald Reagan presidency. For example, one of President Reagan’s most famous quotes was, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

I have a hard time believing my wood-burning neighbors weren’t aware of the No Burn days, because the county has done a great job of publicizing them. I suspect their attitude toward the wood burning ban was, “Screw the government, they can’t tell ME what to do.” But it wasn’t the government they were screwing, it was their fellow citizens.

Unfortunately, many Americans have come to believe that freedom means they should be able to do whatever they want. But that’s never been the case. Freedom doesn’t mean you have the freedom to do things that are socially irresponsible.

The corrosive belief that our government is the enemy these days is largely the result of the constant stream of clever talking points fed to sympathetic politicians and media personalities by the numerous, well-funded, Orwellian-named, right-wing think tanks. Take a look, for instance, at what happened after the 2008 financial crisis that produced the Great Recession. The crisis was primarily the result of a lack of government regulation in the financial sector. But it wasn’t long afterwards that many Americans were convinced they should instead be angry about how the government intervened in the economy to prevent an economic collapse and promote a recovery. Another example is the rise of the Tea Party, and how they focus their complaints solely on the federal government and ignore the problems caused by the private sector.

Some government regulations are can be irrational and onerous, but the vast majority of them provide a useful purpose – and they can always be changed by the politicians we elect. Effectively administered government regulations will become more and more important as private corporations continue to grow in size and power. But if the entire regulatory process is demonized, the government can’t do its job. I suspect that’s just what the people who fund the conservative think tanks want.

Update

In November of 2016 Republican candidate Donald Trump, a millionaire businessman, won the electoral vote. One of his campaign promises was to radically deregulate the U.S. economy. After taking office, Trump appointed many corporate executives to high level positions in the government, including Wall Street financier Steve Mnuchin to Secretary of Treasury.

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