WHY WE VOTE
Immigration Reform and Us – and U.S.
[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why an understanding of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]
Bright and early this Sunday morning I received an email from one of the most powerful senators in Congress today. It was a generic email but through the wonders of technology it was addressed to me personally as though Senator X had nothing better to do on this day than to write to me. He’s not one of my favorites but the purpose of his email was laudable. He wanted me to sign his petition for immigration reform. Being in favor of immigration reform is like being in favor of clean air. Who could be against it? It’s how we get there that’s tricky, starting with defining what “there” means.
This email reminded me that ICCFA members should be contacting their congressional representatives and senators with constituent input. Frankly, that’s a civic duty and shame on us who don’t bother. Whatever shape immigration reform takes, it will affect all of us on several different levels. From a strictly business viewpoint it will determine who are our customers and our employees. Today with all members of Congress being easily accessible to their constituents by email, communicating with our federal legislators has never been easier. The problem – at least on immigration reform – is what do we say? My morning email from Senator X actually gave me some useful ideas.
The petition he urged me to sign was so generic that I couldn’t imagine why anybody would NOT sign it. But that was the problem. It urged Congress to resolve our immigration problems, including the much vaunted “pathway to citizenship,” without shedding any light on just how we do that. So here are some thoughts in trying to determine what we want to say in guiding our legislators in that genuinely personal email we send them.
First, as politicians always seem to do, is their use of loosey-goosey terminology. I should write a dictionary on these terms. “Revenue enhancement” means tax increases; taking “collective action” means more government regulations; reducing a proposed increase in benefits is called a “spending cut.” An illegal alien is now called an “undocumented worker.” Personally, I don’t like the term “alien” - it reminds me of sci-fi movies starring Sigourney Weaver. To be at least consistent we should be calling unlicensed drivers “undocumented motorists.” At any rate, a term both accurate and humane needs to be coined that covers extra-legal and often desperate émigrés who are mainly seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If we operated our businesses with this type of smoke and mirrors, all we would have left is a lot of stale air and illusions. The term “immigration reform” should refer to the process of admitting residents of other countries who wish to become residents of this country. This really is a separate issue from what my friendly senator wants me to sign. The challenge facing us is the reportedly twelve million people who are already living in the U.S. They are not strictly speaking “immigrants” because many have been here for years and this situation begs the question of who exactly is an immigrant. It reminds me of what Will Rogers (who was part Cherokee) said to members of the elite, “Your ancestors may have come over on the “Mayflower” but mine were on the shore waiting to meet them.”
What the politicians really mean is “citizenship reform.” There is something distinctly un-American about the idea of rounding up hundreds, thousands, indeed millions of people who have established lives and families in this country and expelling them from our borders. And there is something distinctly American – it used to be called Yankee Ingenuity – about figuring out a win/win solution.
So in the spirit of providing substantive and constructive comments to our friends in Congress, let me suggest some comments on the “path to citizenship.” As I understand the proposals, illegal, uh, undocumented workers will have to be forthcoming and identify themselves to the authorities. They will not be deported or imprisoned for their presence here but they will be assessed a monetary penalty for their unlawful entry into this country. I have no idea how much money this will be. Then they will be required to straighten out their tax status by filing past due income tax returns and paying their back taxes and accrued interest. Again, I haven’t heard how many years back that covers. The IRS generally has a three-year limit if there’s no indication of fraud. Where there is fraud, IRS can go back as far it wants to. So will the failure of undocumented workers to file tax returns be considered fraudulent and if so, will that require another type of amnesty to stay on the path to citizenship (and out of jail)?
Let’s say the answer to these questions is in the affirmative, so a person steps forward, owns up to their status, and wants to straighten out everything to avoid prosecution, deportation, and eventually become a U.S. citizen. Time out for a reality check. Where do these individuals get the money to pay the penalty for unlawful entry, for back taxes and interest? I’m not the first one to raise this issue but I haven’t heard anything said about the businesses that employed and paid these undocumented workers over the years. Will they too be given amnesty for hiring illegal aliens? (Apparently it’s OK to use that term when speaking of American business owners). I am going to suggest that both amnesty programs are mutually necessary otherwise I can see situations where the individual wants to sign on for the citizen pathway only to be threatened with firing by his employer who will be liable for fines and penalties as a result.
I’ll leave aside the issue of the administration of such amnesty programs but it has to be huge. How to keep track of millions of people participating in a federal program that currently does not exist? I don’t know but it has to be expensive. Perhaps the spirit of Yankee Ingenuity can be harnessed to earmark the moneys paid for back taxes and interest and penalties for the new bureaucracy that will have to be created. But once again our government would be doing what it does best: spending money it has not collected on a program where the expenses have been underestimated.
The bottom line: something has to be done and by now I hope I’ve demonstrated why you don’t want to leave the politicians unmonitored to develop their own pathway to citizenship. So when you email your members of Congress (I didn’t say “if” but “when” as in right now), I suggest you stress three guiding principles: 1.) except for cases involving violent crimes, deportation is unworkable and impractical; 2.) the pathway to citizenship must spell out how individuals make payments for their back taxes, interest and penalties, and how the administration of the program will be funded; and 3.) amnesty should be extended to employers of undocumented workers seeking citizenship.
Most of our politicians see future voters and taxpayers at the end of this process, so avoiding a certain amount of cynicism over their concerns is not easy. But to keep the real issue in perspective, when I say “individuals,” I’m referring to people who are destined to become our future customers and our future colleagues at work. So I’ll be responding to Senator X but not quite in the generalized and vague way he was hoping. You should too.
P.S. After posting this, I indeed contacted my two senators through the email facilities of Senate.gov and also my representative at House.gov. Your zip code is your key to entry because no member of Congress wants to hear from anybody except his or her constitiuents. That's not unreasonable but my Congressman insisted on my entering my NINE-digit zip code. I felt like I had to pass a quiz to write him. All three members require that I select the subject matter and I specified "Immigration." After sending my message to one of my senators, his website helpfully announced that it was showing me my senator's statements on this topic. OK, good - but then nothing was listed. Again, we all really need to communicate with these people!