Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Thursday in Brentwood: U.S. House committee hearing on immigration and health care

NurseAccording to this announcement, the Subcommittee on Health for the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce will convene a hearing in Brentwood on Thursday at 10am regarding the relationship of the Senate immigration bill to Medicaid and healthcare in general:

Field Hearing, Day 1
Subcommittee on Health
August 10, 2006
Main Room at the Brentwood City Hall
5211 Maryland Way
Brentwood, Tennessee 37027
10:00 AM

According to politicians in both parties (story here), these hearings are designed to further weaponize immigration (latest story on weaponization here).

The position that these hearings will attempt to push is that "proposals to provide legal status to undocumented immigrants would increase the cost of entitlement programs" (story here). This argument is revealing as it contradicts the supposed position of exclusionists - that they have nothing against legal immigrants. Through these hearings, they are now saying that legal immigrants under the Senate bill would be a financial burden to the U.S.

My question is, what is the plan for the millions of currently undocumented/illegal/underground/oppressed immigrants who will not ever be deported? Would it be better for them and for us for the law to provide a reasonable avenue for legal status and total integration and participation in our society and economy? Or would it be better to them and for us to maintain the current legal framework that makes it nearly impossible for many to obtain legal status, forcing millions into a semi-isolated civic, economic, and social existence?

The problem with the Senate bill isn't that it provides legal status to immigrants; it's that the legal status is a one-shot grant of legal status, not a systemic change. This makes it similar to the 1986 law. What we need instead is a systemic change to provide reasonably accessible methods to immigrate legally and also to convert to legal status after illegal immigration. Any immigration system that does not have those two features will forever condemn a large portion of the population to isolation and exclusion via illegal status. The illusion of cracking down on enforcement to decrease illegal immigration ignores the draw of our economy and the fact that the only decade of the 20th century that saw a significant drop in immigration was the decade of the Great Depression.

This two-pronged system - more reasonable ways to immigrate legally, and more reasonable ways to become legal after entering illegally - is not so foreign to this country. The very idea of illegal immigration was what was foreign for the first century of our national existence, from George Washington's presidency to Abe Lincoln's. Anyone who came here was eligible for citizenship within 3 years. In an unfortunate irony, after the Civil War saw the great grant of freedom to African-Americans, we turned our sights to restricting the freedom of movement of foreigners, starting with the Chinese. Our first real illegal immigration laws were passed in the 1880's to exclude any and all Chinese immigration to the U.S., lumped in with other prohibited classes like the insane, criminals, prostitutes and the sick. The idea of "my ancestors immigrated legally to Ellis Island" is a misunderstanding in itself, because through most of the history of immigration to Ellis Island, there was no way to illegally immigrate there unless you were Chinese, sick, a criminal, a prostitute, or insane. Even when literacy tests (English or foreign language) and money requirements were instituted, only small percentages of the applicants were turned away - only two percent.

As for ways to become legal after entering illegally, our laws would be more American if we made that process more common. Most of our laws carry the American value of balancing the perceived harm to society of the offense with the perceived benefit to society of not punishing the offense. Putting aside for a moment whether immigration or illegal immigration harms society, and how much punishment that harm would merit (even though it's hard to dismiss 500+ leading economists who agree that "overall, immigration has been a net gain for American citizens"), we need a system that reflects other areas of the law that keep people from being stuck in dead-ends and failing to integrate. Bankruptcy is an example - we abolished debtors' prisons because we are better off as a whole giving people a fresh start in the worst of circumstances, even though we believe a person should pay his debts, because it doesn't do us any good if someone is in a debtors' prison and they have no hope of further contributing to society. Any law student knows the concept of adverse possession - if you stay on someone else's land for a long period of time, and they don't challenge your open claim on their land, the law says that you are officially the owner after that long period of time. We currently have nothing like adverse possession in immigration law. And consider crime, which we abhor. We recognize the benefits to society of plea bargains, probations, parole, and time off for good behavior. The concept of a statute of limitations, which limits the amount of time the government can punish a crime, contains this American value of balance. But currently, there is no statute of limitations for immigration violations - an arsonist can get in less trouble after a decade than a family of illegal immigrants! Immigration law is clearly out of balance with our American values in our other laws - the ones that apply to us.

We are in a position of power, and therefore responsibility, when it comes to immigrants. Don't let politics create a fear for your pocketbook that takes your sights off the high ground. If we oppress the poor and the immigrant in our struggle to prosper, we will surely fail.

Update: Testimony at the hearing contradicted the preconceived argument that foreign citizens without immigration authorization are a significant factor in rising health care costs (story here).

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