Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Border guards rough up another Canadian

"Was that a threat?"

That's how U.S. border guards at the Lewiston Bridge border crossing responded to a Canadian shopper when, exasperated by the abusive treatment afforded to him and his wife, he asked, "what are you going to do? Shoot me?"

Moments later, the couple were in handcuffs, with American officials insisting that they'd been threatened and assaulted. Fortunately, the Canadian man -- identified only as "qtronman" on YouTube -- had recorded the incident, and he later uploaded the recording, so we know the border agents are lying.

The couple were on their way to a mall in Niagara Falls, in the United States, when they were ordered out of their car by a U.S. border guard -- apparently because they didn't care for the Canadians' impatient tone when they couldn't name the specific stores they'd be visiting.

Throughout the exchange leading to the arrest, the Canadian man comes across as exasperated but cooperative -- not out-of-line for a person dealing with other adults he considers to be acting in an abusive and irrational way. He didn't bow and scrape, though, which may have antagonized the border guards.

The officials, on the other hand, sound provocative, and even as if they're enjoying their use of authority.

Official: "We don't need any grounds."

Shopper: "Well, that's ridiculous."

Official: "That's the United States. I'm sorry. I don't know what to tell you."

Shopper: "You don't need any grounds for your actions?"

Official: "Absolutely not."

In related news, Peter Watts, a Canadian scientist and science fiction writer, has been fined roughly $1,500 by a U.S. court after he was roughed up by U.S. officials at a border crossing in Michigan.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Arizona poised for anti-immigrant pogrom

Will she or won't she? Join the nativist frenzy that has infected Arizona, that is. And the "she" in question is the Grand Canyon State's Governor Jan Brewer, on whose desk festers one of the more far-reaching efforts to invoke police-state tactics in the name of persecuting people who just want to be Americans.

How nasty is the Arizona immigration bill? Well, the state Senate's own summary is available here, and the text of the bill is here. Among its failings, if passed, the law would require government employees, including law-enforcement officials, to inquire into the immigration status of anybody they encounter "if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S."

What constitute's reasonable suspicion? That's not defined, so it's pretty much up to the petty official on the spot. That makes every trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and every effort to report a crime, a potential immigration interrogation for anybody with a sun tan. Nativist Arizonans like to complain that immigrants don't submit to the various licenses and permits that bedevil modern life. If untrue in the past, that will certainly be true in the future.

And immigrant neighborhoods may have to deal with criminals themselves, since a call to 911 will just be an invitation for trouble.

The bill also prohibits any effort to restrict government officials from compiling and exchanging information on people's immigration status for even the most petty of reasons. That's anybody's status -- not just aliens. Welcome to the database.

The bill turns mere presence on public or private land in the state by an alien into trespassing if that person "is not carrying his or her alien registration card or has willfully failed to register." You say you invited them onto your land? Too bad -- it's still trespassing, and a separate charge because you dared to "conceal, harbor or shield an alien from detection."

Oh, and the bill also forbids hiring day laborers from your car. Really. There must be a union guy among the authors.

Cardinal Roger Mahony may have exaggerated a tad when he referred to "German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques" (Arizona still lags in the areas of forced labor and bullets behind the ear), but the immigration law is intrusive and authoritarian. It assumes that economic activity is a privilege to be allocated by the state and that individuals must submit themselves to inspection by government officials until they have proven the pristine status of their nationality.

Perhaps the proposed law's worst sin, aside from its brutal hostility toward people seeking to do nothing more than work hard and make a life for themselves in this country, is the vastly expanded opportunities it creates for government officials to harass anybody they meet and force them to produce documents and demonstrate their innocence of alien taint.

It really is nativism as channeled through a bureaucratic police state -- one that's more Brazil than Schindler's List.

And that's the mess sitting on Jan Brewer's desk.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Immigration raids and the Fourth Amendment don't mix so well

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents made headlines last summer when one of their teams raided, without a warrant, a home in Yuma, Arizona, unconnected to illegal immigrants and owned by an agent with a sister agency. Now, a report penned by experts in law and law enforcement says that ICE regularly ignores constitutional guarantees when conducting its raids.

The raid on the Slaughter home may have raised eyebrows across the country, but such conduct has become all too common in parts of the United States. In the Southwest, drivers have become accustomed to roadblocks along the highways manned by Border Patrol. Even some police officers, such as those in Arizona represented by the Mesa Police Association, have grown weary of the endless targeting of illegal immigrants, and have pushed back against proposals to turn every encounter between cop and pedestrian into an immigration status check.

In fact, Mesa's Chief of Police George Gascon is one of the authors of Constitution on Ice: A Report on Immigration Home Raid Operations, a report from the Benjamin Cardozo Law School's Immigration Justice Clinic. According to that report:

Through two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, the authors of this report obtained significant samples of ICE arrest records from home raid operations in New York and New Jersey. Analysis of these records, together with other publicly available documents, reveals an established pattern of misconduct by ICE agents in the New York and New Jersey Field Offices. Further, the evidence suggests that such pattern may be a widespread national phenomenon reaching beyond these local offices. The pattern of misconduct involves:

• ICE agents illegally entering homes without legal authority – for example, physically pushing or breaking their way into private residences.

• ICE agents illegally seizing non-target individuals during home raid operations – for example, seizing innocent people in their bedrooms without any basis.

• ICE agents illegally searching homes without legal authority – for example, breaking down locked doors inside homes.

• ICE agents illegally seizing individuals based solely on racial or ethnic appearance or on limited English proficiency.

That sounds an awful lot like what the Slaughters went through. According to Jimmy Slaughter's affidavit, attached to his complaint against the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Supervisor Neil Baker and the seven agents who raided his home:

On July 24th 2008 at approximately 1730 hrs I was at home with my wife when the doorbell rang," Slaughter wrote in an affidavit included in the eight-page lawsuit. "I opened the door and noticed approximately 7 uniformed Ice agents with vests and guns standing at my door. I could only see 3 unmarked cars in front of my home.

I said what's up fellas? Not having a clue as to what was happening. The lead agent stated that, 'We have received information that Guadalupe Uolla is residing at the residence.' I opened the screen door to look at the paperwork and five agents entered my house.

My wife asked me what was happening, thinking this was a joke. The agents then told my wife to stand in the center of our living room; we were in the middle of folding laundry during my day off. Not once did anyone say they had a warrant.

Note that Slaughter was able to end the raid by demonstrating his own Border Patrol credentials. His status also allowed him access to Baker, who supervised the raiders and who he chewed out over the phone. But even with his privileged status and access, Slaughter still ended up seeking redress through the courts.

Most encounters with ICE don't end so "well." Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that immigration agents have sometimes illegally seized and deported citizens during the course of their raids.

ICE teams have apparently made a habit of visiting homes under the authority only of administrative warrants issued by their own agency. These administrative documents don't meet the standards set by the Fourth Amendment's guarantee that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." The Cardozo report details:

According to ICE’s own Detention and Deportation Officer’s Field Manual, "Warrants of Deportation and Removal are administrative rather than criminal, and do not grant the authority to breach doors. Thus informed consent must be obtained from the occupant of the residence prior to entering.”

As the well-documented Slaughter raid illustrates, that's a provision they regularly ignore.

How often do ICE agents barge into homes without legal authority? That seems to vary from place to place. The Cardozo report looked closely at raids in New York and New Jersey, and found that informed consent was not first obtained 24% of the time in the Garden State -- and a whopping 86% of the time on Long Island. The situation has been bad enough that in New York, Nassau County police pulled out of one 2007 operation with ICE because of “serious allegations of misconduct and malfeasance.”

The Fourth Amendment was added to the Constitution over 200 years ago by people who had suffered, in their lifetime, government agents who forced their way into private homes and businesses at will. It seems that whatever protection that amendment may once have provided is pretty well gone.

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Monday, June 1, 2009

New passport hassles at the border

A few years ago, when I rented a house in Mexico's Puerto Penasco, my friends and I crossed the border with nothing more than a flashed driver's license and answers to a couple of curt questions. As of today, that same trip requires a show of official travel documents. It's the latest step in the century-long process of closing the world's borders. Travel to America's neighbors, until recently a casual matter, now requires the permission of the state.

The whole world used to resemble a Mexican summer rental circa 2005. Actually, traveling much of the world was an even more casual matter as recently as the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents. In a 2004 article for The Globalist, David Fromkin, a professor of history and law at Boston University, wrote:

According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, "until August 1914, a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state." You could live anywhere you liked and as you liked. You could go to practically anywhere in the world without anyone's permission.

For the most part, you needed no passports -- and many had none. The French geographer André Siegfried traveled all around the world with no identification other than his visiting card -- not even a business card, but a personal one.

John Maynard Keynes remembered it, with wonder, as an era without exchange controls or customs barriers. You could bring anything you liked into Britain or send anything out.

Real financial freedom

You could take any amount of currency with you when you traveled, or send (or bring back) any amount of currency -- your bank did not report it to the government, as it does today.

And if you decided to invest any amount of money in almost any country abroad, there was nobody whose permission had to be asked, nor was permission needed to withdraw that investment and any profits it may have earned when you wanted to do so.

Contrast this with Friday's U.S. State Department press briefing, conducted by Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Consular Affairs Brenda Sprague:

Implementation of the land and sea border crossing requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, better known as WHTI, begins Monday, June 1st. This is the day that Americans will need WHTI-compliant documents in order to cross land and sea borders into the United States. WHTI-compliant documents verify both the identity and citizenship of the individual in a single document, which must be presented to the border official.

Travel document requirements for air travelers were tightened back in 2007. Today's deadline means that once-casual ground transit across America's northern and southern borders, and easy puddle jumps to the island nations of the Caribbean, are things of the past. From now on, if you want to drink in Tijuana, dine in Montreal, or sun yourself in Bermuda, you'll need to carry a passport, a passport card, a trusted traveler card, or an enhanced driver’s license (Real ID-style license that's effectively a national ID card).

Government officials tell us that the world has changed, so the rules have to change with them. International terrorism, espionage, smuggling and other dangers mean that we need to abide by tighter regulations regarding when and how we can cross borders.

Somehow, oddly, those new rules always seem to transform travel from a right into a privilege.

The terrorism concern seems a valid one, but it's not as new as the security-staters pretend. An attempt to blow up the British Parliament was thwarted over 400 years ago (and has made for bonfire-lit parties every Guy Fawkes days since). The faces and terminology change over time, but not the will to do harm.

Espionage is nothing new either. Spies have been around since there was something to spy on.

And smuggling is equally ancient. Despite the hysteria of modern drug-warriors, the existence of smugglers has historically been a sure sign that a government's tariffs are too high or that it's engaged in the doomed project of trying to ban stuff that many of its subjects are determined to have.

But we're all much safer because you now need passports to return to the country from Mexico and Canada.

Well ... maybe not. After all, it was only a few months ago that a hacker drover around San Francisco, reading data from passport cards in people's pockets using a homemade scanner.

And respected security expert Bruce Schneier has written of the Trusted Traveler program, "there are so many ways for the terrorists to get trusted traveler cards that the system makes it too easy for them to avoid the hard path through security."

So maybe we're not getting much more safety in return for having to show our papers. But show them you must -- even if, like two former presidents, you were caught unaware by the changed rules.

It'll probably be a while before I rent another house in Mexico.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

More fun at a Border Patrol checkpoint

The pastor of a Baptist church in the Phoenix area says he was stopped at an internal Border Patrol checkpoint, Tasered and beaten. Steven L. Anderson, of the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, was returning from San Diego on Interstate 8 when he was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint -- a common but controversial feature of what the ACLU calls the "Constitution-free zone" within 100 miles of the U.S. border, where law-enforcement authorities conduct suspicion-less searches in defiance of traditional protections for individual rights.

Anderson says that, after he stood on his constitutional rights and declined to answer questions at the checkpoint, Border Patrol agents brought over a dog and claimed the animal had sniffed out either drugs or a human body in his trunk. Anderson refused to permit a search, at which time DPS (highway patrol) officers were summoned. The officers broke out his car windows and the pastor was Tasered and beaten before being arrested.

Injuries are plainly visible on Anderson's face in a video he made after the incident.

Anderson identifies three of the Border Patrol agents as C. Diaz, B. Griffiths and E. Gomez. He is due in court today, where he plans to plead "not guilty" to all charges.

More information is available at the Anderson family blog.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Constitution-free zone takes to the rails

You're traveling by train. Suddenly, it slows and comes to an unscheduled stop. Armed, uniformed men come aboard with dogs. They question passengers, search luggage and remove one of your fellow travelers for further interrogation. Is this some Cold War-era movie? Nope. It's New Year's Eve on an Amtrak train in California.

I wrote not too long ago about my family's experience at a Border Patrol checkpoint along Interstate 8 in Arizona. We were stopped in the desert, briefly questioned, and then allowed to proceed -- a little wiser about the modern security state. My family's experience was far from unique. The following story comes to me from a Southwestern state legislator with whom I frequently correspond (he prefers to remain anonymous):

At about 5:30am Dec 31 in Imperial Cty. CA, but well away from the Mx. border, US Border Patrol agents stopped and boarded our westbound Amtrak train with a dog and proceeded to walk through all the cars. This woke up my sleeping child and angered me. Amtrak staff told me this was 'random', not based on any specific suspicion or request, and sometimes BP makes trains stop for these searches. Nevertheless, Amtrak staff seemed to fully be part of the program and did not protest or protect passengers in any way.

I saw the dog 'hit' on one passenger's backpack, which BP then searched, without asking for consent, and found a pipe. The guy was pulled off the train, made to put his hands on his head and searched, then let go with only having his pipe taken (likely due to being in CA, if in AZ or many other states he likely would've been hauled off in handcuffs).

I asked BP agents 'why the stop?', and had a bright flashlight directed at my head in a threatening manner for a while as I was told their view that 'we can stop any person, vehicle or aircraft any time for any reason anywhere within 100 miles of the border'. I followed them to observe and eventually IDed myself as a State Rep. and made my disapproval of this conduct clear to BP and Amtrak and their behavior improved and they soon left. The USBP sector chief here (El Centro) is Calhoun.

Our train was on time up to this point, but ended up being late to our destination due to this approx. 30 min. invasive stop. This stop and search, without any reason, disrupted passengers, did not make us any safer, and delayed our trip.

This also happens a lot on buses, I've been told.

My correspondent is right -- this does happen on buses. It also happens along the highways, as I well know, and at ferry terminals. Searches at ferry terminals have become such an issue in Washington state that Customs and Border Patrol provided San Juan Islanders with a FAQ as to what they can expect during such checks, and their (limited) rights when encountering CBP agents. Among the information provided by the CBP is a hint as to what sort of treatment travelers who resent questions from uniformed enforcers can expect:

Am I required to answer the agent's questions at the checkpoint?

No person can be required to give evidence that incriminates themselves - that is a constitutional right. Neither can any public official compel or coerce such a statement if the person being questioned refuses to give one voluntarily. However, the law is quite clear that agents can interrogate any person who is an alien or who the agent believes to be an alien as to his right to be or remain in the United States. A refusal to answer could be construed as an articulabel fact supporting a level of suspicion to further investigate and possibly to arrest, depending on the totality of the circumstances at hand.

So, if you keep mum and stand by your right to remain silent, that may be taken as grounds to haul you off in handcuffs as a suspicious character.

The U.S. government claims special powers to conduct such searches anywhere within ... well ... about a two-hour drive of the border. That's right. Up to 100 miles inland, you can expect the sort of treatment my correspondent received on his train journey.

The American Civil Liberties Union refers to this 100-mile corridor round the perimeter of the United States as the "Constitution-free zone." As a map of the zone demonstrates, it includes many of the largest cities in the United States -- and about two-thirds of the population.

My correspondent was a little more courageous than many of us might be when he challenged federal agents during the encounter and voiced his displeasure. He's also a public official who reports an improvement in the behavior of Border Patrol agents once he revealed his identity.

I don't know that the rest of us could expect such respectful treatment. In fact, there's a good chance that most of us would just earn extra scrutiny by failing to bow and scrape, just as that FAQ provided to San Juan Islanders suggests. The ACLU provides the following video of San Diego resident Vince Peppard describing what happened to him when he declined to open his trunk at a checkpoint within the Constitution-free zone.

That's America in 2008. Without muss, fuss or a public vote, many of the constitutional protections we thought we had were quietly stripped away.

Feeling a bit of relief because you don't live near the border? Don't feel too safe. If the government can effortlessly trim your rights once, it can do it again.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Underground economy provides shelter for illegal workers

Not long ago, Arizona joined the immigrant-bashing frenzy by adopting a law (signed by Janet Napolitano, soon to head up Homeland Security), that essentially requires all new hires to be vetted through the federal government's buggy E-Verify system to determine their eligibility to work in the United States. Employers who knowingly hire illegal workers can have their business licenses suspended on a first offense and permanently withdrawn on a second offense. The law made it more difficult for businesses to openly hire illegal immigrants, but it didn't eliminate the need for willing and able labor. Now, not too surprisingly, it turns out that employers and workers are resolving the conflict between the law and economic reality by going underground.

The Arizona Republic reports:

Blocked by the law from getting payroll jobs, many illegal immigrants instead are performing services or selling items on the side for cash.

Others have tried a different strategy: borrowing the identities of citizens or legal residents to land jobs with employers.

The maneuvers are allowing many undocumented families to remain in the United States despite heightened enforcement of immigration laws and a battered economy that has erased many jobs.

There are no studies that estimate how many illegal immigrants have turned to cash-only work to survive in Arizona. But economists say one of the results is that much of the money immigrants earn is going unreported and untaxed. That deprives the state of income-tax revenue even as tax revenue in Arizona is plummeting because of the faltering economy.

This should be a shock to exactly nobody. In many countries over the past few decades, the United States included, an increasing share of business activity has been taking place out of sight of government authorities. Why? Well, the reasons for this growth in underground activity aren't difficult to determine. In a presentation to the World Bank, No-Wook Park, a research fellow at the Korea Institute of Public Finance, explained the causes of the underground economy as:

  • Higher tax rates and social security contributions
  • Increased regulation
  • Forced reduction of weekly working hours
  • Earlier retirement
  • Unemployment
  • Decline of civic virtue and loyalty towards public institutions

Independently, Friedrich Schneider, a professor of economics at Johannes Kepler University of Linz, says (PDF), "The shadow economy includes all market-based legal production of goods and services that are deliberately concealed from public authorities for the following reasons:

  1. to avoid payment of income, value added or other taxes,
  2. to avoid payment of social security contributions,
  3. to avoid having to meet certain legal labor market standards, such as minimum wages, maximum working hours, safety standards, etc., and
  4. to avoid complying with certain administrative procedures, such as completing statistical questionnaires or other administrative forms."

Note that avoiding regulations features prominently among the causes set forth in both definitions of the underground (or shadow) economy. Arizona's employee verification and employer sanction regulations may be popular among crowd-pleasing politicians and nativist voters, but they have proven to be exactly the sort of burdensome rules that businesses and workers want to dodge.

And so they go underground.

How many go underground? It's hard to know. In Arizona, income-tax collections are down 13% from last year, but the economy has slowed in that time, too. To get an idea of the scope of the phenomenon, we can look at Massachusetts. There, where regulation is especially intrusive, taxes are high, and there are plenty of illegal workers, a recent study (PDF) "estimates the underground economy on Martha’s Vineyard conservatively at 12 percent of reported wages and 16 percent of reported jobs."

No-Wook Park says the underground economy grew in the United States from the equivalent of 3.5% of GDP in 1960 to 9.5% in 1995. Schneider, whose numbers are generally considered the most authoritative, puts the shadow economy in the U.S at about 8.4% of GDP as of 2003. If Schneider and Park are right --and they almost certainly are -- increased regulations should increase the size of the underground economy. So, however much shadow economic activity was taking place in Arizona before the new law, there's certainly more of it now.

And as the underground economy grows, an increasing share of economic activity takes place beyond the reach of tax authorities. Arizona may already be feeling that pinch as revenues dry up. Raising tax rates is no solution, since that's yet another spur to operating in the shadows.The economy chugs along, in defiance of resented regulations -- and increasingly it does so without benefit to the government.

That might be a good thing in many ways. But the underground economy functions beyond the protections of the law, too, and without the benefits that accrue to an above-ground job. If your boss stiffs you, there's little recourse if you're working in the shadows. And you can probably forget about health coverage.

But despite the threat posed by law enforcement, the lack of legal protections and the uncertaintly if shadow status, a large number of people prefer life underground to surrendering to objectionable regulations. Regulations targeted at illegal workers are just like any other burdensome red tape. If they are so intrusive that they stand in the way of economic activity, that activity will continue underground without regard for the rules.

In Arizona, as elsewhere, the underground economy provides shelter of a sort for people who need to make a living no matter what the government says.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Will Obama take Janet Napolitano off Arizona's hands?

Secretary of Homeland Security is a lightning rod position, charged as it is with harassing air travelers, chasing brown people across the border and preventing hurricanes from being inconvenient. That said, Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, is a perfectly competent choice for the person tasked to tell us if today's threat level is "orange" or "mauve" and to, more seriously, shake out some of the organizational difficulties at DHS. But she's unlikely to represent any sort of softening in policy at the department in terms of immigration or civil liberties. And let's hope that somebody other than her has control of the checkbook.

By Arizona standards, Napolitano is a moderate on immigration. That means she's capable of vetoing a bill requiring her to dispatch National Guard troops to monitor the state's southern border while, at the same time, dispatching National Guard troops to monitor the state's southern border of her own accord. Napolitano eventually persuaded the federal government to provide funding for about 2,400 soldiers. She also signed into law a measure that threatens to strip state businesses of their licenses to operate if they're caught hiring undocumented workers more than once.

This nails down the moderate position in a state where high-profile Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a cartoonish bully, has gone so far as to raid city hall in Mesa in a search for illegal immigrants. Napolitano has gone head-to-head with Arpaio in battles that are roughly equally about philosophy and ego, and it will be interesting to see if she continues that feud from a D.C. perch.

In civil liberties circles, Janet Napolitano gets some credit for formalizing Arizona's rebellion against the federal "Real ID" scheme to convert state-issued drivers licenses into standardized national ID cards. While she did sign the bill blocking the state from complying with the federal ID law, that was only after it became clear that her own "3-in-1" ID plan for bringing Arizona into compliance with Real ID was a no-go with the legislature and with state voters.

Even in putting her name on Arizona's pro-privacy rebellion, Napolitano framed her support in budgetary terms, saying:

My support of the Real ID Act is, and has always been, contingent upon adequate federal funding. Absent that, the Real ID Act becomes just another unfunded federal mandate.

Napolitano's rise to head Homeland Security may mean the end of Real ID -- or it may mean that she'll continue the push for a national ID card, but this time with more federal dollars attached.

Speaking of federal dollars ... Money management just might become an issue if Janet Napolitano is approved for the Homeland Security post. A new report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office reveals that spending oversight is a shambles at DHS. "15 of the 57 DHS major investments reviewed by GAO were designated by the Office of Management and Budget as poorly planned and by DHS as poorly performing."

But Napolitano won't just leave fond memories behind in Arizona -- she's washing her hands of a financial catastrophe. The state's budget, already bloated at $9.9 billion, is conservatively projected to suffer a $1.2 billion deficit this year. That's on top of a $2 billion shortfall passed forward from last year. Tom Jenney of Americans for Prosperity, an organization that has been tough on the governor's financial habits, flat-out says, "[Napolitano is] going to get off the Titanic as it slips under the water. I think Obama’s got a life boat for her, and if I were her, I’d probably get off the ship."

Of course, fiscal irresponsibility will be no more of a change of pace in D.C. than Napolitano's lines on immigration and privacy.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Fun in the sun with the Border Patrol

Last week, my family drove back to Arizona from a conference in San Diego. We took Interstate 8, a major highway that runs within a couple of miles of the border in California, but diverges from the boundary with Mexico in Arizona. Somewhere east of Yuma, we were stopped at a roadblock.

Traffic crawled through a gauntlet of official vehicles in green-and-white livery before coming to a complete halt. A Border Patrol agent came to the window and stared hard at all of us -- my wife, my three-year-old son and yours truly. I bit my tongue while my kid did his best to look sinister. My wife just responded with a curt "yes" when the agent asked if we are all citizens.

Then we continued on.

This wasn't the first time we've been brought to a stop in the middle of the desert by uniformed men. Border Patrol checkpoints are an all-too-common occurrence in this part of the world. In fact, if you haven't hit one yet, you should probably get prepared. While these checks are supposedly particular to the border, the government interprets "border" loosely, to cover areas up to 100 miles from the international boundary. As the ACLU points out, that "Constitution-free zone" includes nine of the nation's 10 major urban areas, and almost two-thirds of the population.

The last time my family hit one of these checkpoints was in California, also on I-8. The agents set up temporary stations in the middle of nowhere, far from turn-arounds and exits, stop and quiz everybody who passes. If you don't raise their suspicions or tick them off, you go on your way. If you're less lucky ... well ... there's not a lot of shade out there while they interrogate you and toss your vehicle.

We've never been asked for proof of citizenship, and I'm not sure what we would do if we were. Like most folks, we don't travel with our birth certificates and passports. In fact, my wife has never had a passport. Basically, we're skating on our accent-free English and non-Hispanic, non-Middle Eastern appearances.

That's not a lot to hang your hat on. The ACLU cites the case of "Vince Peppard, a San Diego retiree who with his wife was stopped by the authorities on a road east of San Diego, at least 15 miles from the U.S. border. Peppard and his wife proved they were U.S. citizens but still found themselves subject to demands that they allow a search, interrogated, threatened and harassed."

In Washington state, farmers complain that inland citizenship checks on Olympic Peninsula are scaring their workers away. "We're very unhappy with the feds," said Dan Fazio, director of employer services for the Washington Farm Bureau. "We believe these roadblocks violate the constitution, be it the federal or the state's."

Yeah, that's sort of near the border with Canada.

Border Patrol agents' sometimes abusive attitude toward their captive audience has been a matter of controversy. Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington complains, "Gruffness: that has turned people off. They need to try to treat people nicely, not try to terrify people."

But rudeness is the least of it. People taken into custody by Border Patrol have compained of mistreatment including: the denial of food, water and medical treatment; physical and verbal abuse; separation of families; and the failure to return belongings.

And it's always encouraging to be stuck in a line crawling its way toward a checkpoint, knowing that confrontations between Border Patrol and motorists sometimes turn violent, as one did earlier this month near San Diego. Who doesn't want to be there when the bullets start flying?

Well, me for one. But there's nothing I can do about getting stopped if I want to travel around Arizona and southern California.

But I can make sure that we have proof of citizenship; we're all getting passports, and I guess we'll have to keep them in the car with us.

That's the United States in 2008: carrying passports with you so you can travel within the borders of your own country with a little hope of escaping abuse at the hands of the authorities.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pick xenophobe A or xenophobe B

Arizona Senator Tom O'Halleran is a tired old hack with a miserable "Needs Improvement" (update: his latest rating is an even worse "Champion of Big Government") score on spending issues from Americans for Prosperity who cast his vote for the latest red-ink-soaked state budget that threatens to put taxpayers on the hook to cover a looming $1.5 billion deficit. So what's his primary opponent Steve Pierce challenging him over?

Who will be meaner to brown people, of course. My wife being a registered Republican, I have mailers from both candidates touting their tough-tough-toughness on border issues. That's all these mailers address.

Too bad I support immigration -- even illegal immigration.

Yes, Pierce does -- oh yeah -- say he's a bit more conservative on spending. But then in the next breath he promises to throw more dollars at government schools.

Which leaves primary voters choosing between two candidates who are campaigning on their dislike of Mexicans.

The Democratic candidate, Pat Chancerelle, doesn't seem to hate Mexicans, and she probably wouldn't be any worse on spending than O'Halleran -- but she'll need to take time off from starring in the latest Mummy movie to compete for the office. And as a candidate she ... oh ... well ... I'm sure she's a very nice person.

I can't find a Libertarian candidate, or I'd park my vote there on general principle.

With so much at stake, isn't it nice to know what issues excite the candidates?

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Do you have permission to hold that job?

From the Arizona Republic:

Following the lead of at least 11 states, including Arizona, President Bush signed an executive order requiring contractors that do business with the government to use an electronic system to ensure their employees are eligible to work in the United States.

The order, announced Monday, is unlikely to influence defense contractors who already have to confirm an employee's status to work in the United States. However, it would force a gamut of businesses to use E-Verify, the Employment Eligibility Verification Program that critics say is flawed because it doesn't detect identify theft.

Identity theft isn't the only concern, I'll add. We should all be concerned that the government is rapidly turning doing business and seeking jobs into privileges to be dispensed by government officials. Forget land of the free, this is becoming the land of "do you have permission to do that?"

Even if you think we should all have to ask "mother, may I" of government officials before we're allowed to make a living, you probably want mother's grant or denial of permission to be based on something with a degree of accuracy -- not flawed information. But last year's Westat report (PDF) on E-Verify, commissioned by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, found:

The accuracy of the USCIS database used for verification has improved substantially since the start of the Basic Pilot program. However, further improvements are needed, especially if the Web Basic Pilot becomes a mandated national program – improvements that USCIS personnel report are currently underway. Most importantly, the database used for verification is still not sufficiently up to date to meet the IIRIRA requirement for accurate verification, especially for naturalized citizens.

Most troubling: "Among U.S. citizens who received tentative nonconfirmations, approximately 10 percent (9,900) contested and were found to be work-authorized."

Wow. That's ... not good.

And yet, that's the system all new hires must go through in Arizona, and which all employees of federal contractors must go through nationally.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Middlemen grease E-Verify's wheels

The federal E-Verify scheme has been criticized (by me, among others) as intrusive, unreliable and a threat to privacy. Now, it turns out that it's such a pain in the ass to use that businesses are hiring specialists -- registered agents -- to run the names of employees and prospective hires through the system for an extra fee. Says the Arizona Republic:

Mehr is among the dozens of business owners who have decided to hire registered agents to use the federal government's E-Verify system, a Web-based program that electronically checks the employment eligibility of newly hired employees. Though E-Verify is free, agents say they have found an entrepreneurial niche because businesses are willing to pay a small fee to have someone help them with government regulations. ...

Just what are businesses' complaints about this oh-so-easy-to-use barrier against the sinister forces of eager and affordable labor?

Laura Kendall, co-owner of Intricate Builders LLC in Phoenix, said in an interview that she, too, has had problems with E-Verify after spending nearly seven hours over two days last week trying to get just one employee verified. She said the frustration might lead her to hire a registered agent.

Kendall, who has background as a real-estate agent and office manager, said she tried to log on to the E-Verify system on three different computers but was unsuccessful one day, and when she finally got on the following day it took her two hours to go through the tutorial.

"They put all this responsibility on us and threaten us if we don't comply," said Kendall, who runs a small construction framing company. "The thing that upset me the most is when I couldn't go on the system, there's nothing in Arizona to help an employer. The answer I seemed to get was that it's a federal program."

This reminds me of the peculiar New York City practice of hiring expediters to deal with the city's byzantine regulatory apparatus. The New York Times reported on this fascinating development in 1991.

[W]hat, you may be wondering, is an expediter? They are the people who are hired by architects and building owners to get permits for construction and renovation -- by figuring out which forms to fill out, which lines to stand in and what will satisfy a particular building examiner. That's right, the process of getting a building permit is considered so complicated and time-consuming that an entire industry has been spawned to deal with it, even to the point where expediters hire their own expediters. ...

While the act of permit-getting may sound straightforward enough, in New York City it definitely is not. There is an old building code (which applies to certain applications for buildings built before the end of 1968) and a new building code. There are fire-safety codes, zoning ordinances, a housing-maintenance code, a multiple-dwelling law, a handicap law and asbestos-removal requirements, to name but a few obstacles for expediters. The building code and zoning regulations have been modified and amplified so many times since the 1960's that they have grown from 400 to 3,000 pages in that time.

"Our system of rules and regulations are so complicated that the average person just can't deal with them," said Judith A. Faulkner, who has been an expediter for more than 11 years.

In Arizona, as in New York, the problem of a bureaucratic barrier has become a business opportunity for those willing and able to negotiate government processes that baffle many other people.

Experts in bureaucracy often bring a little extra to the table, besides their skill in dealing with red tape. When I hired an expediter-like service to get me a New York City pistol permit in the mid 1990s, I was charged a substantial fee in addition to the cost of the permit itself. While I was never explicitly told so, it was implied that part of the fee went to the expediter, and part was used to grease palms at One Police Plaza so that the paperwork would go through without a hitch.

That's not unusual. As the Times pointed out, "Expediters have been arrested for bribe-paying in the past, and Mr. O'Brien says he believes that a number of the 14 Buildings Department inspectors who were arrested on bribery charges last year took payoffs from expediters."

A knowledge of who and how much to bribe is, frankly, one of the services expediters sell.

The registered agents handling E-Verify cases haven't been accused of such improprieties -- not yet, anyway. But they do have a special advantage, since it's easier for them to get the results that employers want from the system.

Julie Pace, a Phoenix immigration lawyer who specializes in the employer-sanctions law, said she is not surprised companies are using registered agents who have a lower level of accountability in using E-Verify.

While employers who use E-Verify are required to check photos of authorized non-citizens on a government database, registered agents, Pace said, are not subject to that requirement. And, she said, agents do not have to make photocopies of documents and keep them.

"We are all baffled the government would come out with two sets of standards," Pace said. "They (agents) do not have to comply with the same requirements as businesses."

A lower hurdle to overcome for registered agents? That's just asking employers to use the middlemen to increase the likelihood that they'll be able to hire workers without a hassle.

As much as I admire the entrepreneurial ambition of registered agents and expediters, the need for their services adds unnecessary costs to doing business. Everything becomes just a little bit more expensive, a little bit more to be avoided if possible and, perhaps, going into business at all becomes just a bit more unattractive.

Registered agents, expediters, extra costs and a whiff of corruption are understandable reactions to burdensome bureaucracy. But we'd be better off without the red tape that makes it all so necessary.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Are you sure you're not illegal?

Could Arizona's jihad against folks with Spanish surnames be reaching just a tad too far -- embracing people holding actual U.S. citizenship? That seems to be the case, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Juan Carlos Ochoa, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in an upper-middle-class subdivision near Phoenix named Laguna Hills, can't find a job because a government database classifies him as a possible illegal immigrant. ...

Because many did not register their citizenship with the Social Security Administration, they are often listed as possible illegal workers.

That's what apparently happened to Ochoa, 47, who became a citizen in 2000. He quit his job as a car salesman at the end of last year and got hired by a local Dodge dealership in February. Days later, his new employers called him with bad news -- E-Verify classified him as a possible illegal immigrant. He only had a couple of days to convince Social Security that he wasn't.

He had lost his naturalization certificate, so Ochoa took his U.S. passport, Social Security card, driver's license and Arizona voter identification card to the local Social Security office. He was told he'd have to request new papers from the Department of Homeland Security, which could take up to 10 months.

"I love this country, I'm happy in this country," said Ochoa, a father of two, who escaped eviction this month only because a church group paid his rent. "The guy who made this law, I don't know him. He's started destroying a lot of families."

American citizens mistaken for illegal immigrants are only a subset of the problems caused by the anti-immigrant frenzy. Other problems include families impoverished, people thrown out of employment, economic damage and the right to engage in business treated as a privilege that can be revoked by the government. But they make for especially poignant victims because there's no pretending at an excuse for ensnaring them in the net of sanctions and penalties, unless you're just out to inconvenience Hispanics.

I've written before that the best possible reaction to the sanctions law, short of outright repeal, would be enormous growth in the size of the state's underground economy. That would guarantee jobs for immigrants, employees for businesses, and somewhat offset the damage done by the law. But life in the shadows is cold comfort for people who've actually jumped through the hoops required for full access to the American dream -- and find themselves denied the fruits of their efforts.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Phoenix pastor monitors police abuse of immigrants

First off, I know nothing about God's Army church or Pastor Richard Tamayo beyond what appears in an Arizona Republic article. But I have to respect anybody who responds to reports of abuse of immigrants -- particularly abuse committed by police -- by strapping on a gun and grabbing a video recorder.

Standing in the shade of a young paloverde tree, Pastor Richard Tamayo talks about Christianity with eight day laborers in the parking lot near a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Instead of a Bible, the former New York Police Department undercover officer has a gun in a holster and a mini Sony digital camcorder in his left hand.

Tamayo, of God's Army church in northeast Phoenix, is investigating allegations of abuse against undocumented immigrants in his congregation. These men in denim jeans and grass-stained shoes don't speak out for fear of being deported, he said.

"We're out here ministering, and they're speaking to people they feel comfortable with, the church," Tamayo said. "Contractors will hire them for two weeks then not pay them. We're looking into that. Police officers are abusing their authority, assaulting people. What these people need most is a voice. God's Army will be their voice."

Tamayo addressed a Phoenix City Council subcommittee Tuesday on behalf of his congregation, which spans 32nd Street to Cave Creek Road and Bell to Greenway roads.

At the meeting, Tamayo told the subcommittee that he will be gathering witnesses and investigating allegations against Valley police departments. Phoenix police representatives could not be reached for comment.

The phenomenon of video recording as a weapon for use against out-of-bounds officials is becoming increasingly important. The amazing combination of cheap recording technology and easy distribution via the Internet ensure that incidents that used to disappear into civilian oversight filing cabinets (at best) will now become sources of public outrage.

Tamayo appears to be taking matters a step further by putting his church behind the monitoring effort and strapping on a gun to let his targets know that he won't be intimidated. Variations of that model can easily be implemented by organizations acrss the country.

In St. Louis, the ACLU has distributed video cameras for exactly this use, and has provided training to volunteers. The effort has already had results. Orlando CopWatch volunteers patrol with video cameras to record police interactions with the public. Even police retaliation against a CopWatch activist helped the group's cause, since it drew press coverage.

So whether or not Pastor Tamayo is able to do as he promises, he's probably a pace-setter for future organized efforts to monitor authorities.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Fun with E-verify

Over at Coyote Blog, Arizona businessman Warren Meyer details his state-mandated venture into the federally run E-verify system for determining the employment status of new hires. The dual-jurisdiction issue leads to some ... err ... interesting problems with conflicting rules.

Right now, I am going through a 6000 screen required tutorial that I have to endure before I can use a system that requires me to fill in about 3 blanks and hit enter.  (Of course, since this is a government system, the tutorial has already crashed twice three five times and I have had to restart it each time).  Somewhere in the midst of the training, I reach this admonition:

You may not discriminate against applicants and employees based upon their citizenship or immigration status with respect to hiring, firing, or recruitment or referral for a fee. This includes treating citizens and non-citizens differently during the hiring process, such as screening out non-citizens or not hiring lawful immigrants based upon their immigration status.

WHAT?  Personally, I am all for living by this, but isn't this EXACTLY what the law is requiring me to do?  To discriminate against people, and ban my hiring of them, based on their immigration status?  How can I possibly keep my actions legal if I am required to discriminate based on citizenship status but I am also banned from discriminating in hiring based on citizenship status.  How Orwellian can we get?

More on Arizona's experiment with xenophobia enacted through business regulations here.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Go, no stay, oh I just don't know ...

Even as Arizona lawmakers are trying to drive (mostly) Mexican immigrants from the state with a harsh employer sanction law that threatens dire economic consequences, they're also trying to lure those same immigrants to the state with a proposed guest worker program intended to off-set the effects of that sanction law.

Hmmm ... politicians seeing a need to fix a problem that they created. Who'd have guessed?


Friday, February 8, 2008

Anti-immigrant victory threatens us all

Arizona's threat to strip employers of their business licenses if they knowingly hire illegal immigrants survived yet another legal challenge. U.S. District Judge Neil Wake ruled that the law does not infringe on the federal government's power to regulate immigration since it doesn't apply to immigration directly, but instead to permission granted by the state to employers to do business.

The battle isn't over yet -- this challenge will join another awaiting the attention of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 9th Circuit is unpredictable, so it's anybody's guess as to the ultimate outcome.

But even if you're a cheerleader for the sanctions law and firmly in the camp that wants to see a crackdown on illegal immigration, this ruling should give you pause. Judge Wake has effectively given the nod to Arizona's implicit argument that doing business and seeking employment are privileges to be dispensed by the state according to whatever criteria officials may set. Licenses, then, become little more than levers with which to force businesses into compliance with the wishes of government officials. The E-Verify database that employers are required to consult becomes a means to grant or withhold permission to work to those seeking employment.

This isn't the rationale that was originally used to sell the idea of licensing businesses. It's increasingly hard to find a jurisdiction that still bothers to justify requiring licenses of businesses, but a few still go through the effort. The town of Cave Creek, Arizona, keeps a document online (PDF) that says:

Purpose: The purpose of the Business License is to provide an additional protection to the citizens and visitors of the Town from fraud and misrepresentation; to ensure that sales tax revenues are reported equitably; and to provide a database of the commercial activities within the community.

So the stated purpose of the business license is to ensure that businesses aren't scam artists, that they pay their taxes and to keep track of how many businesses are in the community. That seems a stretch to me -- especially the part about weeding out scammers (how is that supposed to work?), but this rationale is at least related to the fundamentals of doing business -- and paying protection money to the politicians doling out the licenses.

Cave Creek's reasons for revoking business licenses get a bit stretchier, but are still related to the fundamentals of conducting business honestly:

Licenses issued under the provisions of this chapter may be restricted, suspended or revoked by the Town Clerk, after notice and an opportunity for a hearing, for any of the following causes:
A. Fraud, misrepresentation or false statement contained in the application for license.
B. Fraud, misrepresentation or false statement made in the course of carrying on the business.
C. Any violation of this chapter.
D. Conviction of any crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.
E. Conducting business in violation of any Town ordinance, county ordinance or state law relating to the public health, safety and welfare.

So no fraud or misrepresentation, and you can't do business in such a way as to harm the public. Honestly, you could drive a truck through the moral turpitude clause -- and probably through the bit about "public health, safety and welfare," too. But the overall implication is that the license is supposed to make sure that businesses operate in an honest and above-board fashion. There's no implication that threats of revocation are intended to be used as a bludgeon to enforce compliance with every whim of the political class.

So how did we get here?

It was probably inevitable the moment that licenses were first required. No matter how well-intentioned and closely related to the business of doing business the original requirements for licenses may have been, they still converted doing business into a privilege. Once you require permission to engage in an activity, the conditions for that permission can always change. Permission was originally granted so long as you didn't fleece the yokels and gave politicians their take. Now permission is conditional on compliance with a law that has nothing to do with the integrity of the business itself. Licenses then become just another enforcement tool to guarantee public submission to government authority.

So it is with the E-Verify database. The requirement that all job applicants (and, potentially, even job-holders) be vetted through the database makes employment a privilege to be doled out only to those who have government permission to work. The conditions for that permission now depend on residency status, but there's no reason they can't be expanded in the future. Depending on political trends down the road, permission to work could be denied to tax resisters, convicted drug dealers, political radicals or any other disfavored class of people.

In its fervor to drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona and, eventually, out of the United States, the nativist movement is making it increasingly necessary for all of us to avoid offending government officials, simply so we can continue to put food on the table.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Arizona starts to see nativist fallout

Barron's magazine predicted that Arizona's move to impose tough sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants would result in an "Arizona apocalypse," and while it's too early to know if that dire forecast will come to pass, something is certainly in the works. Facing a ten-day suspension of their business licenses after a first offense, and a permanent revocation of licenses after a second transgression, companies are laying workers off, reassessing their ability to do business and even moving out of state.

Reports Agence France-Presse:
A crew leader who worked for Rick Robinson's Phoenix landscaping company left the state because his wife is an illegal worker. The worker was scared his wife would be deported.

"I've talked to other companies who have said they can't find anybody," Robinson said. "I've heard they're going to Utah or Texas or New Mexico because they don't have a law like this. We and other landscape companies are uncertain as to how far-reaching it will be. People don't know what they can and can't do. The whole thing is confusing, gross, and unfair."

David Jones, head of the Arizona Contractors Association, said he knows of three construction companies which have laid off 30, 40, and 70 employees respectively since the beginning of the year.

Unable to find jobs, or fearful that their loved ones will be caught and deported, illegal immigrants and their legal friends and relatives are fleeing the state in what the press has dubbed "Hispanic panic." In a state where illegals make up better than 10% of the workforce, the exodus promises to have a major impact. The vacancy rate in Tucson-area apartment complexes favored by illegal immigrants has jumped dramatically since the law went into effect. According to the Arizona Daily Star:
The vacancy rate on Tucson's South Side jumped to 11.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007, up from 7.1 percent a year earlier, according to Phoenix-based RealData Inc., a real estate research and consulting firm.

That area of the city has more than twice the rate of foreign-born residents than the city as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the Southeast Side, 10.7 percent of apartments were empty, up from 5.9 percent a year before. That part of the city has a lower percentage of foreign-born residents.

As a whole, the metro area vacancy rate grew 1 percentage point to 8.3 percent, according to RealData.
Of course, advocates of the sanctions law will say that this is exactly the result they were hoping for; they want Hispanics to flee the state (usually, they'll claim that they just want the illegal ones to leave). But with workers leaving Arizona, taking their rent money, mortgage payments and shopping dollars with them, and with state employers facing rising labor costs -- if they can even find workers -- the economy is likely to take a major hit. In fact, the University of Arizona predicts a $29 billion economic loss if illegal workers are successfully purged from the state (full report here in PDF).

Of course, the law won't be universally successful. Faced with a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't choice, many businesses will just take their chances with illegal workers, and many will slip under the radar. At least one immigration expert -- Marc Rosenblum of the University of New Orleans -- predicts major growth in the underground economy, with more workers than ever before getting paid off the books.

Black markets have dulled the economic effects of stupid policies in the past, and will likely do so this time around too. But off-the-books workers will have less security and less money than they would if allowed to function in the official economy, and they'll contribute less than they would otherwise. That's especially true since workers have the option of going where they're welcome -- already there are reports that Mexicans intent on seeking work in the U.S. are bypassing the increasingly unfriendly border states. Why take an uncertain cash job in unwelcoming Arizona when you can get a job with benefits in Oregon or Virginia?

The real losers will be the people of Arizona -- the nativists tightening the screws, the workers and employers getting the shaft and the disinterested rest who find making a living increasingly treated as a privilege to be withdrawn at the whim of government officials.


Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Arizonans resistant to hiring law

Arizona employers may now be subject to penalties for "knowingly" hiring illegal aliens, but they aren't rushing to comply with the law.

A new law penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants took effect at midnight on Tuesday.

But thousands of Arizona employers have yet to use the free government service to determine if their workers are legal...

Only 7 percent of all employers in Arizona have registered for e-Verify.

Business owners seem to be waiting to see if the intrusive law will actually be enforced, or whether one of the legal challenges to the nativist measure will successfully toss it into the dustbin.


Monday, December 31, 2007

Arizona risks all with a nativist plunge

Starting with the new year, Arizona employers will be on the hook for "knowingly" hiring illegal immigrants in a state with a growing economy and a squeaky-low unemployment rate. Businesses fingered for hiring workers who informally crossed the border in search of a better life -- and Maricopa County officials, among others, have promised mob-pleasing strict enforcement -- face the loss of their business licenses for ten days after a first offense, and permanently after a second offense. It's no wonder that businesses are nervous about the potential impact of the new law. So are illegal immigrants; they've begun an exodus from the state, heading for friendlier U.S. jurisdictions, or back home to Mexico.

That's a big problem, because illegals represent about 11.6% of the Arizona workforce, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. That's a lot of workers leaving the state, and a lot of customers taking their shopping dollars along with them.

No wonder Barron's accuses the state of "strangling its own economy," further saying:

...threatening businesses with extinction for hiring people hungry for work may be the most self-defeating legislative enterprise since the Volstead Act, which enforced national Prohibition.

It will overwhelm or corrupt the officers who are supposed to enforce it. It will disrupt Arizona business, reduce the profits of its most lucrative industries, raise unemployment and lower economic output. It will enrich New Mexico and Nevada and the state of Sonora in Mexico, site of Arizona's outsourcing, at Arizona's expense.

That's the power of misguided democracy: Satisfy a vocal minority, and everybody gets it -- good and hard.

Businesses that bite the bullet, swallow the economic disruption and try to screen all of their new hires in accordance with the law face uncertain prospects. The law strongly pressures employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the status of job applicants. But the free federal service is a pilot program that has never been tested by heavy demand from employers. Even the pilot version of the program has shown an unsettling propensity for erroneously labeling workers ineligible for employment -- 4% of the time, according to a 2006 congressional report, and up to 10% of the time for naturalized citizens, according to a recent report prepared for the Department of Homeland Security by Maryland-based Westat.

That's a lot of people wrongly denied employment, all to keep brown folks from building houses, landscaping yards and pumping the economy along to a heady pace.

There's more at stake here than economic fallout, of course. The new employer sanctions law seems based on some very dangerous premises: that doing business and taking jobs are privileges to be doled out only at the pleasure of government bureaucrats. Do we really want this country to turn (more) into a place where earning a living and hanging out a shingle are favors to be gained only by going hat-in-hand to a government office and asking "mother may I"?

And do we really want the details of our employment status -- and whatever other data may accrue in the years to come -- to be centralized and easily accessible in a government database?

When Barron's editorial writers predict an "apocalypse," they're more right than they know. It's not just the health of one state's economy at risk, but a strong dose of economic and civil liberty sacrificed for the sake of pure bigotry.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Can second-class (non)citizenship be a good thing?

Starting January 1, 2008, Arizona businesses face draconian new sanctions if they hire job-applicants who don't have the government's permission to be in the U.S., and they'll be mandated to use the feds' controversial and remarkably unreliable E-Verify system to check on the status of workers. So it's with some interest that I read "Guests in the Machine," an article in January's Reason magazine by Kerry Howley on Singapore's use of guest worker programs as an alternative to reliance on illegal workers and the possibility of implementing such a program in the United States.

Howley's piece isn't yet up at the Reason site, which is a shame because it's a important treatment of a contentious issue is available here. Bypassing all the political hype about "amnesty" and the racist mutterings about brown folks taking our jobs, she outlines Singapore's flawed, sometimes heartbreaking, but overall successful program for integrating a large class of foreign workers (42.6% of the city-state's population is foreign-born) into a nation that doesn't really want to open its borders to permanent immigrants. The result has been a flood of construction workers and household maids who help power Singapore's booming economy even as they are sometimes abused by employers, denied access to basic legal protections and made always-aware that they are guests who can be booted out of the country at short notice. Even so, they come for economic opportunities that don't exist back home, and they channel vast sums to families left behind, providing seed capital to build new homes and businesses and to buy education that makes previously undreamed-of opportunities available to the next generation.

Call it an imperfect, morally hazardous win-win.

As Howley makes clear, this example elicits both temptation and revulsion in a country like the United States, with a history of mixed feelings about immigration, as well as a mythology that suggests that everybody who comes here wants to be (and should become) American. Can Americans live with a large population of economically productive second-class (non)citizens eternally denied a soak in the melting pot? (Never mind that many past immigrants -- as many as half of all Italians who landed on these shores -- eventually took their earnings back to the old country.)

I'll admit to being extremely torn on this issue. On the one hand, I'm an open-borders guy. I don't care about government-drawn borders (or about governments, for that matter). I believe that people have the right to go where they wish, seek jobs from willing employers and enjoy the full protection of their rights no matter where they were born. I don't believe they should be a burden on others, but my opposition to reliance on a welfare state applies across the board, to the native-born as well as immigrants.

But I don't expect to see open borders anytime soon. The idea is essentially a political non-starter in a nativist age.

So, that leaves us with limited options.

1. There's continuing reliance on illegal workers who, because of their illegal status, are vulnerable to abusive employers, have little legal recourse, and are forever at risk of arrest, deportation, and the loss of whatever wealth they may have accumulated with their labor, but not yet sent home. That option may satisfy labor needs as well as immigrants' need for money (and their home countries' hunger for capital) but it comes at a high moral cost.

2. We could pursue a Lou Dobbs-style crackdown, imposing tough sanctions on employers, militarizing the border and rounding up illegals for shipment home. If it's successful, labor costs, and resulting costs of goods and services, rise. American businesses then operate, permanently, under an increasingly nerve-wracking regime of intrusive inspections and reliance on government-quality databases, with opening the door to customers every day treated ever-more as a privilege to be doled out for obedience to politicians and bureaucrats. Those who would have been immigrant workers stay at home, with few opportunities in their own poorer countries. Everybody loses, except for nativist rabble-rousers.

If it's unsuccessful, we end up with option one, but with less economic freedom and more tension at the border.

3. Or we could try a guest-worker program, providing access to labor, and opportunities for residents of poorer countries to accumulate skills and capital -- at the risk of creating a class of workers who can never hope to enjoy full rights or settle on a permanent basis.

I'm still holding out for open borders, but I think a guest-worker program deserves consideration.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

In praise of illegal immigration

A statewide boycott of shopping and work by (mostly) Mexican immigrants to protest Arizona's draconian new law which punishes business that hire illegal workers appears to be sputtering. I'm not surprised. Mexican immigrants, legal or illegal, are probably too busy working and raising families to stand on corners waving placards.

I've recently admitted the obvious limits of my home-improvement skills and hired professionals for three big renovation projects. In two of the cases, much of the work ended up being done by Mexican workers with limited language skills who put in long hours under the summer desert sun. I didn't inquire as to their immigration status--I don't really care. But I'm sufficiently plugged into the local building contractor community to make an educated guess that any green cards held by the workers who helped make my house so much nicer to live in are about as legit as the ID I used to get into bars back in the age of New Wave music.

Contractors and skilled craftsmen I know tell me that there are two groups of preferred workers in the construction trades in this area: "older" Anglos who've seen their 40th birthdays come and go (and it pains me to refer to 40-plus as "older") and Mexicans of any age. That's because those workers tend to be stable and reliable--they show up on time and give value for the money they're paid. Younger Anglos, on the other hand, have a reputation for disappearing after they get their first paychecks. I have no doubt that it's unfair to paint all twenty-something carpenters named "Smith" as meth-heads and layabouts, but that's the stereotype.

There aren't enough older Anglos to go around, and some of them are, perhaps, not as spry as they once were, so that leaves the other preferred group. Tradespeople I've spoken with are convinced that the industry would collapse without the flow of illegal immigrants from across the border.

What does that all mean?

It means that, at least in the small area in which I live, illegal immigrants are largely seen by employers as a vital boon to the economy--they're high-quality imported labor for a region that is no longer so good at producing decent labor on its own. They come to an area where the jobs are ripe for the plucking, leaving behind a country that may produce good laborers and tradespeople, but which fails to produce a sufficient stock of well-paying jobs.

It seems to me that both Mexico and Arizona are benefiting from a cross-border flow that wouldn't exist if the two places didn't have complementary assets--and deficits.

So, while I don't expect the current boycott to have much effect, I do appreciate its message. I wish more Americans were fully appreciative of the willingness of some people to risk arrest and even death to sneak into a foreign country, just so they can work.