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Part 2: Immigration and the Golden State

In this post I continue my responses to Peter Robinson’s thought-provoking questions about the degree to which immigration has contributed to California’s current predicament (e.g., fiscal ruin, economic stagnation, political dysfunction). Peter’s second question concerns the political impact on the Republican party. He asks:

Q:  There’s plenty of evidence that, as Hispanics move into the middle class, they begin voting Republican, following the same pattern as previous immigrant groups. In California, though, the Hispanics that do indeed join the middle class are always hugely outnumbered as the influx of poor Mexicans continues — and, as these recent arrivals begin voting, they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. The state that gave us Reagan has now become dark blue. … With California out of play, the GOP stands at a permanent disadvantage in presidential politics.  Isn’t all that too high a price to pay for loose immigration policies?

Let’s break this down into legal and illegal immigration. No critic of lax efforts to cut down on voter fraud has been more ferocious than I. But, honestly, I don’t believe that there are huge numbers of illegal immigrants who flock to the polls. And if there were (as well as for other reasons, which I have amplified in other writings on Obama Justice Department), we need to clean house at the DOJ. One way to start would be to make sure the Department, contrary to the directions of Obama appointees, enforces Section 8 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states to clean up their voter rolls.

But I think we’re principally talking about Hispanic citizens. Here, the GOP’s problem, I would suggest, is entirely one of its own making. If a party cannot connect with and make its case to a large segment of the electorate, which actually shares many of its fundamental values (e.g., family, the sanctity of life, economic opportunity), there is something wrong with the party. (Let Obama blame or write off voters.)

The argument that “We’ve tried, but nothing works” is a cop-out. (I’m not persuaded by the argument that John McCain’s inability to attract Hispanic voters in 2008 is proof of this. McCain essentially reversed course on immigration in the campaign. Moreover, McCain couldn’t even connect with New Englanders.) In Virginia,  now Gov. Bob McDonnell told me in late 2008 that Republicans had done a poor job of explaining that it is the illegal part they object to — not the immigrant part. And, in the 2009 campaign, he went to Hispanic communities explaining why conservative positions on education, family, low taxes, reasonable regulation, crime, etc. are good for them. If Republicans tried that over an extended period of time, continued to demonstrate that they are a diverse party (Marco Rubio and other Hispanic candidates and officials help in this regard), and tamped down on the over-the-top anti-immigrant rhetoric, they might improve their standing. “We don’t know that!” critics say. True, but why not give it a shot? (Given current polling data, this might be an opportune time to start.)

The question also touches on comprehensive immigration reform. If we legalize them all, the argument goes, then they will stream to the polls and the GOP will be toast. My response is two-fold: 1) see the preceding paragraph and 2) let’s consider what would happen if many of the current immigrants were legalized. For that discussion, let’s turn to Peter’s final question:

Q.  The 2.6 million immigrants in California illegally consume hundreds of millions of dollars worth of public services each year.  They pay sales taxes—but only sales taxes.  On balance, isn’t it likely that they represent an economic drag on the entire state?  “[T]he several million illegal aliens in the state,” Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently, “might make California’s meltdown a little bit more severe than, say, Montana’s or Utah’s.” Isn’t Victor on to something?

Victor is always on to something! But as I discussed in Part 1, the picture is a bit more complicated than anti-immigration activists would have us believe. The data is mixed regarding the net cost-benefits at the state level. Moreover, there are some illegal immigrants who pay more than sales tax. Do they pay property taxes? Do they, if they’ve managed to get on a payroll, pay Social Security taxes (perhaps under a phony Social Security card)? Some do. I think that saying they act as a drag on the state goes too far. The data cited here and in Part 1 suggest that while state expenditures might be stressed, the overall economy benefits tremendously by immigrants.

Still, I’ll concede that in the short run, new, poor immigrants may use more social services than they pay for in taxes, as compared to the rest of the population. But then — Peter sees this coming — let’s figure out how to naturalize the vast majority of them and get them to start paying all their taxes into the system. Am I arguing for “amnesty”? Amnesty is a free pass. I favor allowing otherwise law-abiding immigrants who want to pay a fine, contribute their share to taxes, and go through background checks and a waiting period to legalize their status. Then they can begin to contribute fully to the coffers of California and every other state.

Comprehensive immigration reform would also entail serious border enforcement, temporary worker rules, and employer verification measures. The constant stream of “poor Mexicans” then would slow down. Then we could get down to the business of discussing appropriate levels of legal immigration and an increase in visas for skilled workers.

I come back to Peter’s basic query: Is immigration (legal and not) a significant factor in California’s mess? In my view it isn’t, especially in comparison to Californians’ enormous self-inflicted wounds (e.g., state constitutional chaos, misguided reforms, public-employee union corruption and excess). Certainly, we should should address the issue. We might get around to it if Obama ever started treating immigration reform as a serious policy matter instead of a political football.

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