Monday, February 18, 2013

Obama immigration plan is too tough and too lenient

This has a climate hook, by the way.

Obama's plan, summarized here, takes 13 years to give citizenship to people who have been here just short of forever.  It also legalizes and puts on the same track the people who arrive the day before the proposal would be introduced as legislation.  These are two different sets of people both as far as our ethical obligations and our self-interest are concerned.

The starting point should recognize three categories, and then argue who fits in those categories:

1. Immigrants who have been here a very long time - these people are Americans, basically, and have about as much right and reason to be citizens as the rest of us.  Once we've figured out that they qualify in this category, the wait time should be short to make them citizens.

What constitutes a "very long time" is a devilish detail that could get much debate, but that debate doesn't remove the fact that the category is legitimate.  The law by necessity draws a bright line somewhere in a gray area.  That's just life.

2. People who arrived recently - these are different people.  They aren't Americans, they are prospective immigrants who happen to be here already.  They aren't integrated into society and they haven't given significant investments of their lives into building the country.  The key here is that we owe them no more than we owe other prospective immigrants, so it's up to us to decide whether it's in our interest to give them a different status than other prospective immigrants who haven't come here illegally.

3. People in transition to becoming immigrants - just because you have to establish bright lines in gray zones doesn't mean you have to deny the existence of a gray zone.  So here they are, people who haven't just arrived but also haven't been here for so long that the only ethical and reasonable thing to do is to fast-track them to citizenship.  Some immediate legalization plus lengthy path to citizenship seems appropriate.  Obama's one-size-fits all approach is probably best just for this group.

The climate angle is this aspect (from the link above):  "The White House draft wouldn’t just affect undocumented immigrants currently in America. Spouses and children of newly legalized prospective immigrants could also apply for an LPI visa themselves from overseas if they pass a background check and pay the proper fees."

If you add triple the number of immigrants from the current 11 million, that extra 33 million people will mean a 5 to 7 percent increase our national greenhouse gas emissions.  Global GHG emissions aren't affected in exactly the same way, but it will increase as these people move from lower-carbon footprints to our own.  Even if the effect is reduced by having a total cap on emissions, the cap itself will be determined in part by how easy it is to live within the cap, and increasing the population by 5 percent will make it that much harder.  I don't think LPI visa holders or green card holders should have the right to bring in new immigrants - they should complete the citizenship process first.

Two other points - first, Obama's 13 year proposal is a classic worse-than-unethical-because-it's-a-blunder.  The significant majority of these people are going to be Democratic voters.  You don't make them wait forever to vote, and you don't start off with 13 years as your opening bid and then negotiate something worse than that with the Republicans.

Second, I think the issue underscores the need for future international greenhouse gas regulation to recognize and reward countries for accepting immigrants.  While Europe and Japan have admittedly done a far better job than the US on climate over the last 25 years, it would be an interesting exercise to estimate what their emissions would have been if they had accepted the same level of immigration.  Still far less than the US per person, but maybe not quite as stellar.