Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...

At the urging of several friends, who suggested that 140 characters and retweets are insufficient for me to make a point (what were the odds?), I decided it was time to dust off the proverbial typewriter and resume The Perpetual Campaign with some thoughts on America's welcome mat.

So let's talk immigration, and start by doing something almost no one in the public discourse has been doing: try to see the forest for the trees in as non-ideological a way as possible.

Immigration reform is going to happen. As if you needed any more evidence that John McCain is not The Straight Talk Express but is, is fact, just another opportunistic political huckster, when asked what changed in the immigration debate, he offered: "Elections."

Of course, The Maverick is right. Perhaps Marco Rubio can convince himself that if the GOP gets on board with immigration reform, everything will be hunky dory between his party and the 7 in 10 folks that look like him who voted for Obama in November. That may or may not be true. Likely not. But what's undeniable is that the GOP knows that it cannot survive as a party if they continue to piss off Hispanic voters.

Ever since the Civil Rights Act realigned the country, Texas has been the bulwark of the GOP coalition. With New York and California solid blue, the Republicans cannot win a national election without Texas. This is why they became the God-and-Guns-and-Oil party in the first place. If the Republicans even had to invest time and money fighting for Texas, it likely spreads them too thin to fight for North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio. Without Texas, it all crumbles.

But guess what? In an increasingly Hispanic Texas, it's no longer only oil and guns the GOP needs to worry about. It's immigration.

So don't mistake this outburst of collegiality on immigration for an actual trend in the direction of legislative comity. It's simply a lone intersection between the winding roads of political interest. We'll be back to Republican tribal intransigence and Democratic discomfort with the zero-sum game after this word from our sponsors.

The thing is, we're so caught up in why this is happening and identifying the low-hanging fruit of policy band-aids that no one seems to be really looking at what the virtues - and pitfalls - of immigration actually are.

I'm not going to offer a comprehensive immigration plan. There are people who understand the ramifications of each policy idea better than I do. But I do want to take a pass at looking at the big picture.

When the inscription was carved into the Statue of Liberty, it was meant to convey the distillation of the American ideal: we were a country comprised of everyone else's rejects who came here and were able to reach some level of prosperity in ways the Old World simply did not enable us to. How old were you when you learned the term "melting pot"? Not very, I'll wager. And that diversity of cultures and ideas was considered to be the distinguishing chromosome in the American DNA. In many ways, I think it still is.

At the time this idea crystallized and was enunciated, America was a land of limitless resources - resources that far exceeded our ability at the time to utilize it all. We needed the bodies - the raw manual labor - to come here and farm and mine and log and fish and otherwise create value and, ultimately, American power.

And the same was true after the Industrial Revolution: we needed more manual labor to make those raw materials into manufactured goods. More value created, more American power built and projected.

Your tired, poor, huddled masses were the seed corn that grew into an ever-expanding American harvest.

But Houston, we have a problem...

In the post-Industrial era, our economy can no longer support your tired, huddled masses. Manual laborers and service workers don't create value like the farmers and factory workers of centuries past did.

Send us, instead, your graduate students, your tech geeks, and especially your math and science teachers. Because we're running short on those, and that's what will drive the American economy now.

I went to business school with 11 cohorts from other countries, and most of them had to go back from whence they came because they could not find employers who would sponsor them. These are the people we need. These are, I daresay, the "job creators". They will be tax-paying, law-abiding knowledge workers. And we're kicking them out while trying to figure out how to continue welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses.

We need a paradigm shift here.

This is an uncomfortable idea. It's runs counter to the American ideal that we want everyone to come here and make it. But it's a harsh reality, that we may need to actually decide who we can and can't welcome into the family. We need to start looking at whether those who we let in will grow and strengthen our economy, not strain it for the people who are already here.

The other sticky, uncomfortable issue is what to do with the people who are already here and undocumented. I think everyone has long since abandoned the notion of rounding them all up and sending them home, like Roman Morone to Sweden.

We have seen ideas on what the path to citizenship should look like, including paying back taxes and going to the back of the line. These kinds of punitive measures may satisfy Jan Brewer, but they're really counterproductive.

What would be a path to citizenship that would actually lead undocumented families to start adding more value to the economy than they draw? Start with an idea that originated with my mother. She was a first grade teacher, a grade school principal, and later taught college at UNLV - and Las Vegas is a city that has been dealing with a full range of immigration-related issues...

If your child graduates high school, you get a green card.

If your child graduates from college, you're a citizen.

If at least the second generation can add value to our economy, and hopefully help care for you in your old age so we don't have to carry that burden ourselves, then your family has earned its way into being a part of ours, no matter how you got in here.

Immigration needs to be less about the ideal of America turning the world's "wretched refuse" into self-actualized beings, and more about America strengthening itself so it can remain the world's indispensable nation.

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