Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Making Sense of Immigration" .. Homework for the 2011 General Assembly Session

The fall 2010 issue of Virginia Issues and Answers: A Public Policy Forum published by Virginia Tech is now on the “newsstands” and online. In the issue are two perspectives on state policy issues related to immigration written by me and Jack Martin, the director of special projects at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Neither Mr. Martin nor I had the opportunity to see each other’s submission before publication, and, now, having read his submission, several points are worth making.

Virginia already has more than 40 laws on the books dealing with immigration related issues, and has led the nation in addressing the issue of unauthorized immigration at the state and local level.

Accordingly, I conclude my article, titled “Making Sense of Immigration: Keeping State and Federal Roles in Balance,” with the following:

Most of the 40 laws now on the books were said to be needed to keep Virginians safe, reduce costs or improve the ability and authority of law enforcement to combat gang activity, drug trafficking, and terrorism. None of these programs has yet been proven to be effective. Some have, however, been shown to affect adversely working people and their families who have committed no crimes. No further legislative action should be taken unless and until the laws now in place have been shown to be inadequate to address any discernable adverse impacts of unauthorized immigration on Virginians. To do otherwise is simply to continue making political points at the expense of human rights and dignity.
After seven years of going over and over the same ground, including election year 2007 in which over 130 pieces of immigrant-related legislation were introduced, I believe those who will ask the 2011 Virginia General Assembly to enact additional laws (and take valuable legislative time to replay failed arguments from the past) have a high standard of proof to meet when it comes to showing why more legislation is needed or will be effective and why its benefits outweigh its costs (both financial and social). Mr. Martin’s piece, entitled “Why Immigration is an Issue for Virginia Lawmakers” doesn’t do that.

Let’s start with the fact that Mr. Martin repeats FAIR’s oft-cited shibboleth about the 9/11 terrorists that seeks to inflame deep-seated fears by conflating terrorism and immigration and tying 9/11 to the “illegal immigration” debate. It is true that seven of the 9/11 terrorists had Virginia driver’s licenses and may have used them as identification to board airplanes. It is also true that, after 9/11, Virginia led the nation by enacting a legal presence requirement in 2003 to bar anyone in the country without authority from getting a Virginia driver’s license or ID. What Mr. Martin doesn’t point out, however, is that every one of the terrorists had entered the country legally and almost all (except possibly three) were still in the country legally. The immigration status of these evil men had nothing to do with their evil purpose nor their access to licenses. They did commit fraud to obtain the licenses; they were in the country legally but not residing in Virginia, as required. However, since Virginia law continues to allow anyone who can show that he or she is in the country legally to get a Virginia driver’s license for the duration of their authorized stay, the reality is that similarly-situated evil-doers would still be able to get Virginia licenses and ID’s today if they were able to establish (truthfully or fraudulently) that they were living in Virginia.

Mr. Martin then goes on to recount FAIR’s disputed “facts” about the “impact of illegal immigration” to bolster his otherwise unsupported argument that “combating illegal immigration is an important and legitimate interest for states.” The impacts of immigration (legal and illegal) are much debated, as testimony before the House of Representatives by Mayor Bloomberg and others shows. For Virginia-specific data, read the report of The Commonwealth Institute on Tax Contributions of Undocumented Immigrants.

Relying on FAIR’s time-worn rhetorical flourishes, Mr. Martin makes no specific recommendations for additional changes he thinks are needed in Virginia law (beyond the 40 laws already on the books), but simply exhorts lawmakers to “do more” to “exercise their authority to discourage illegal immigration.”

Mr. Martin does not say how current Virginia law is inadequate to meet his stated objective of getting “illegal immigrants” to leave Virginia. Data released recently by the Pew Hispanic Center show that the number of unauthorized immigrants in Virginia fell 65% between 2008 and 2009, one of the highest percentage declines in the country during the same period. If Mr. Martin’s real objective is to encourage a reduction of unauthorized migration to Virginia, this data would appear to show that Virginia’s efforts to date are working.

Before we add to the growing fear and distrust among immigrant community members and growing hostility toward new Virginians among our residents, by replaying old “us” vs. “them” arguments, I hope the members of the General Assembly will take a deep breath and ask Mr. Martin and his allies: “what exactly is it that you want us to do, what will it cost for us to do it, and why should we invest our scarce resources doing it at a time when we are seeking to balance our budget and cut taxes?”

Note: Want to know more? A good resource is "Giving Facts a Fighting Chance: Answers to the Toughest Immigration Questions" by the Immigration Policy Center.