Thursday, April 13, 2006

Guest Op/Ed on Immigration

The Immigration Question by Steve Sklar

Congress is divided on the subject of immigration. It is entertaining proposals to enable many of the 12 million undocumented foreign-born people in this country to become lawful permanent residents and proposals to criminalize them all. Restrictionist hate-group invective, vigilantism at the borders, and massive pro-immigrant demonstrations show that the American population is similarly divided. How to get a handle on immigration policy? For starters, we need clarity on the immigration question itself. As an immigration lawyer, I see it as a three-sided question. On one side is the immigrant. Strong forces drive people here from the many places in the world where, sadly, it is much harder to make a living than it is here. People will even risk their lives to cross a desert or an ocean to come here. On another side is the salaried American worker, afraid of losing his or her job to foreign labor. Even here, it gets tougher all the time for the average working American to survive. For nearly all Americans, poverty is the sound, be we never so prosperous, of the waterfall roaring at our backs as we paddle as hard as we can upstream, and the current flows faster all the time. On the third side is the American employer. Some employers need to hire foreign professionals with skills we can't sufficiently supply here. Others need more general labor from abroad; they can't find native-born Americans willing to do menial work at wages they can afford to pay in order to stay afloat. The immigration question is, how to reconcile the interests of these three sides? Accordingly, the immigration question is at bottom the poverty question. Address the poverty question and we lessen the drive to migrate, the need to import foreign labor and the fear of competition for jobs. However, recent history, from the fall of the Soviet Union to our inability to deal satisfactorily with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, demonstrates that the conventional views from both the left and the right address the poverty question inadequately. What is needed is a third view, one taken not merely from the middle ground but, as it were, from a vantage point above the plain of confusion. This independent view must value the characteristic strengths in both conventional views while spotting wherein they cannot move us forward. There must be such a view. In this great country of ours, bums (that is, men and women) sleep in doorways, and conditions abroad are worse. There is such an independent view. It was actively debated in Congress and elsewhere in this country about a century ago. I think it is high time it was revived. As it happens, it was a thoroughly American thinker who most cogently developed and promulgated that view. The seminal insight that allowed him to do so came to him at the time and in more or less the place of the closing of our great national frontier. Resting during a horseback ride he had taken into the hills outside San Francisco one afternoon in the late summer of 1869 (just a few months after the completion of the transcontinental railroad), a journalist named Henry George had a casual conversation with a passing teamster on the subject of land values. While visiting New York earlier that year he had vowed to understand the relationship between the advance of civilization and the amassing of great fortunes, on the one hand, and the concomitant deepening of poverty on the other. At this moment at the time of the closing of the frontier, it was the rise of land values, accompanying both the progress of civilization and the deepening of poverty, that struck him as being vitally important. To George (and to the multitudes who were influenced by his ideas), the poverty question was at bottom the land question. George is not the only one to have seen that where a society is increasingly able to produce great wealth while its population generally finds it increasingly difficult to make a living, the fault must lie not with production but with distribution. But foremost among those who saw this he was the one who worked out the problem with distribution: If, as he understood, it is the development of society at large that creates and increases the value of land, then the privileged few who own most of the land of a country, enabled by that ownership to demand rent from their countrymen in return for permission to use the land, thereby rob the mass of people of wealth that is rightly theirs. This insight explains certain puzzling facts. The growth of population, the advance of mechanical invention, the policy of free trade, all are of tremendous potential value to the development of civilization, yet all of these things have been, and still are, regarded sometimes as anathema to society. As George saw, so long as our arrangements concerning private property in land permit the monopolistic amassing of great fortunes at public expense, any such contribution to the development of civilization can benefit only the landed interests by raising rent, and will impoverish the rest of the people. (That is why he advocated legislation which would impose a single tax on ground rent.) So it is with immigration, I think. Though immigration is in so many ways a boon to America, some in Congress and elsewhere in this nation of immigrants fear and would limit it, even ban it. But the beneficial nature of immigration itself makes clear that, as with other beneficial dynamics similarly feared, immigration itself is not at fault. Poverty is. And to address the poverty question effectively, I believe we must address the land question. If we are to remain a great country and not decline or fall to ruin as others have, we the American people must guide a struggling Congress by thinking more clearly and deeply on the forces bearing down upon us in connection with the immigration question. Otherwise, those forces will tear us apart.

Maplewood, New Jersey April 5, 2006 Steven A. Sklar


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