Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Immigration Game

One of the differences between writing for a print publication and writing for this blog is that one often has to adhere to strict word-count limits when writing for print. For the seminary newsletter, I was asked to write an article between 500-700 words. When I first drafted this article, the word count was over 800!

Having to adhere to a word count isn't all bad. It forced me to spend more time with the article than I otherwise would have, eliminating unnecessary words and making the whole thing more tightly focused. There's no question but that the article was ultimately better off for it.

Still, there were a few bits that I had to cut that I felt could have used a bit more explanation. So, for those of you've who've already read the article as it appeared in the newsletter, and for those of you who haven't yet had a chance, here is an expanded version of my article on Immigration. Hopefully, it finds a balance between focus and full detail.
I love games. Especially the kind you can watch on TV. If you were to ask me about almost any game show from the past 20-30 years, there's a good chance that I can tell you all about it, including how the game was played.

Immigration reform is not a game, yet to watch the television reports coming out of Washington D.C. these days, you might think it was just the latest game show. Listen to how often you hear some politician accuse another politician of "playing politics." With national elections looming, it seems clear that our politicians see immigration reform as a game to be won, with the prize being re-election in November. The winners get to come back and play again for another two (or six, in the case of Senators) years.

Like any game, the "game" of immigration reform has certain rules. The rules of American government are extremely complicated, and I couldn't begin to go through them all here, but there are a few rules that deserve special attention. For the sake of clarity, I will use the issue as being debated in the Senate for reference.

Rule 1: Language. Come up with a word or phrase that communicates easily with your constituents, making your position appear to be the best. For the Republicans, this word appears to be "amnesty." No one will go on record as supporting amnesty. It conveys to the average person the sense that people are being allowed to "get away with" breaking the law. To be against amnesty is to put yourself on the side of law and order.

Whatever else may be said about the bill recently tabled by the Senate prior to their Spring recess (still in effect at the time of this writing), it does not grant "amnesty." The current compromise bill being debated in the Senate would require fines and an additional 11 years of work toward the path of citizenship, even at the most generous level.* Immigrants who have been here less than two years would still be required to return to their home country. This is not amnesty. There are penalties imposed on all people who have been here illegally. These penalties are different from what they have been in the past (simply being sent home once discovered, regardless of how long the person's been in the country), but they still exist. However, in this game, the accuracy of language is secondary to its effects.

Rule 2: Strike first. If you're the first to make accusations about your opponents, you set the tone of the debate, forcing them to respond to your claims rather than forge their own arguments. This is demonstrated by the statements of President Bush as the Senate break was beginning. Bush accused Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of "blocking tactics" by refusing to allow votes on several Republican-backed amendments to the compromise bill that was already on the table. Had Reid gotten his message out first, noting that it was the Republicans who voted unanimously to keep the issue open to debate past the Senate recess, rather than bring the compromise bill to a vote, he could have accused the Republicans of trying to kill immigration reform by adding endless amendments to the existing bill. Instead, Reid was left to make his statement after being attacked: "The amendments were being offered by people who didn't want the bill." By being first, the Republicans win control of this part of the debate.

Rule 3: Stall. Delay voting rather than make a vote that your opponents can use against you later. It has already been suggested (by Democrats) that the Republicans are adding amendments to put off voting on immigration reform. This works the other way, as well. Republican Arlen Specter has said the reason that immigration reform has "not gone forward" is "because there's a political advantage for Democrats not to have an immigration bill." This would allow the Democrats to say, "We opposed the party in power. Vote for us if you want real change."

The lack of immigration reform hurts everyone. As it is, undocumented immigrants are exploited by employers who pay substandard wages for backbreaking work. The employer can always threaten to turn the worker over to authorities if the worker objects, and the worker, often desperately needing the money to support a family, has little power to get out of the situation. In turn, low wage workers who are here legally (both natural-born and immigrant) are hurt, because employers would have to pay minimum wage and provide worker's compensation to comply with federal laws, and hiring "illegals" is seen as an easy way to keep costs down. In the "game" of immigration reform, whoever ultimately wins the prize of re-election, it is the people of America that turn out to be the losers.

*For these and further details of the Senate compromise bill, see Republican Lindsey Graham’s web site on the matter at

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