We're so accustomed to having our intelligence insulted by politicians that we rarely complain about the dumbed down worldview that we’re spoon-fed by both sides of the political aisle. The partisan mudslinging that we’re subjected to these days makes it hard to imagine a world in which candidates might campaign by voicing nuanced, well articulated views on the complex issues facing our country. That’s too much to ask for, but at least we get to watch the primaries, which offer up the entertaining spectacle of Democrats savaging fellow Democrats and Republicans bashing Republicans as they fight for their respective nominations.
But there are a couple of issues that I think we should all hold our candidates to a higher standard. One of these is immigration reform.
Even the language of immigration reform is fraught with semantic landmines. Do you talk about “illegal aliens” or “undocumented workers”? Do you open the discussion with allusions to Ellis Island or by invoking 9-11. Is this about security or fairness. Economics or the American way?
But it's safe to say that we're all interested in the state of our economy and national security – these are two tides that lift all boats. And as real estate investors – we’re more interested than most in how the housing market weathers the current storm, not to mention how we operate as landlords and as consumers of labor intensive services like roofing, landscaping and construction.
More specifically – as politicians target employment, benefits, and housing as keys to the illegal immigration question, some municipalities have proposed legislation which would hold landlords accountable for policing the residency status of their tenants. These are bad laws.
The reality of the situation is that it is difficult to take a complex issue like immigration reform and turn it into an effective sound bite, so it’s rare that we see a candidate discuss immigration with any subtlety or insight. But when I hear anyone address immigration I’m listening for a couple of key things…
Does the candidate acknowledge the complexity of the issue, and our society’s complicity in creating it? George W. Bush has lately become fond of invoking our society’s dependence on foreign oil. This is a step in the right direction (although the solutions proposed are all wrong – that’s another post) but as a society we’ve yet to confront the fact that we’re also addicted to imported labor – especially when it comes to difficult, physically intensive, cheap, dangerous work. When I walk into a construction site, a rehab project, a house that’s being cleaned for showing, or a landscaping job I without fail see a group of workers made up almost exclusively of immigrants. Always. Granted, this fact is exacerbated by the fact that I’m in Houston, but many readers will find this to be a familiar observation.
I live in a suburb where the residents, generally speaking, are more inclined to lean towards the Tom Tancredo school of immigration reform than the Hillary Clinton view. But if you walk this neighborhood on any weekday you’ll see the streets dotted with landscaping and housekeeping crews made up of employees who are in the country illegally. It's interesting that the "Assault on America" philosophy of immigration reform is so successfully sold to those socially conservative families who every week enjoy a beautifully manicured lawn for $35 a pop - courtesy of the invaders.
Does the candidate appeal primarily to fear? In recent years folks who live in my neighborhood here in Houston have been subjected to some of the foulest, ugliest campaigning I can remember as Hubert Vo (D) and Talmadge Heflin (R) squared off for a seat in the Texas State House of Representatives. They both took the low road on numerous occasions on various issues; one of them was immigration. This ad to the right (actual scan of a flier which landed in my mailbox) won the prize for the crassest. According to Heflin, his opponent was so uninterested in the general public safety that if he won then Osama himself would eventually stroll into a local Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and get a drivers’ license.
Heflin lost the election in a very tight race, and I like to think that there were at least a few voters, like me, who were pushed into the opponent’s camp because they were angry about having their intelligence insulted.
Does the candidate talk about people? Immigration is a human issue. Immigration is about people. I think most of us would agree on how we should treat an illegal alien who slips into the country to sell drugs. But how do we treat an undocumented worker who has spent the past twenty years toiling in a Tyson chicken processing plant, paying social security, contributing to his community, and raising his kids who were born here and are now in high school?
If we were to wave a magic wand and magically deport all 12 million people residing in our country illegally, every restaurant in Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, and San Diego would immediately close. Our crops would rot on the vine. Poultry and meat would disappear from our supermarkets. Hotels would shut down. Residential level construction work will grind to a halt.
Some of these industries would eventally recover – but at a great increase in cost to the consumer.
So ask youself: is the candidate presenting the issue to me in all its complexity?