It has been said about information coming out of Washington that there is the public story and then there is the real story. We are looking at that scenario with S 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act but with an interesting twist as it faces challenges in the House.
The issue of illegal immigration gained wide exposure during the Reagan administration that offered amnesty and a path to citizenship for those already in the country, but offered no effective solution to stemming the tide of illegals.
The public story supporting Reagan’s solution was that the illegals were, first and foremost, breaking US law by being here and working here, that they were a drain on federal, state, and local services while paying little into the public coffers, and they didn’t spend the money earned here but sent it to their home country. So, the public story was that they were a burden while the real story was that rounding up and deporting millions of people is an insurmountable task.
The movement of undocumented immigrants across the southern border continued through Bush and Clinton and grew significantly during the 8 years Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and White House resulting in an estimated 13 million illegals in the country.
During those years the solution seemed to be to stop the flow so Congress approved a 752 mile fence along the southern border. Nearly $3 billion went into that fence which was completed, for most extents and purposes, about two years ago. What wasn’t addressed effectively by those Congresses, understandably, was what to do with estimated 13 million already in the country.
Over those years the legislative response to both stories was akin to Congress strolling along for decades without addressing the population age shift of today in which fewer workers pay into the Social Security Trust Fund while the Boomer generation begins retiring in large numbers expecting to draw on Social Security’s diminishing funds. Some might call that the “head in the sand” approach.
Under S 744 the real story remains that removing all those immigrants and their negative effects on the US is simply not doable while the new version of the public story, ironically, may solve those problems with relatively light lifting.
The lesson learned from Reagan is that amnesty does not stop illegal immigration, rather prompts an increase. Senators seem to get that by considering the Leahy amendment to S 744 that adds over $30 billion to the bill, most to be spent on nearly 20,000 new border patrol agents. Sounds like a lot of agents but the spending could put 14 more agents and more technology per mile of that fence, 24 hours per day. That is a serious effort to stop the inflow.
The House should support the bill if it is truly interested in reducing the deficit and spending on the current immigration issues because, while the immigration issue is an emotional one for both sides of the argument, in the end it is about the cost; a necessity made timelier by several years of slow economic growth and high unemployment.
CBO takes an unemotional approach to the matter; by adding 10.4 million legal, taxpaying workers the usual cost of government services will increase but so will the pay back; taxes paid into the Treasury by an estimated 8 million made-legal workers on the path to citizenship and fees from applicants seeking citizenship could result in a reduction in the deficit by $175 billion. That plus an estimated $200 billion in payroll taxes would replenish the dwindling Social Security Trust Fund assuring those collecting and those soon to collect, that the money is there for them.
So, the public story now is that illegal immigrants, handled correctly, can save the economic day…and it is the real story, too.
Without Extraordinary Leadership, Representative Democracy Suffers
For those of us who think and write about democracy, few things are more appealing than a book about how to make it work better. My shelves are groaning with them.
They contain a lot of good and helpful ideas. There are proposals on how to improve elections and plans for strengthening legislative bodies, judicial systems, and the rule of law. There’s a whole body of literature on how to make government and civil institutions stronger and more effective. There are ideas for buttressing the press and the public’s access to information, and schemes for improving the civic organizations, think tanks, watchdog groups and policy-focused nonprofits that make our democracy so vibrant.
But over time, I’ve concluded that as complicated as democracy’s workings might be, one thing matters above all else: effective leadership. It might not guarantee results, but without it, nothing much happens.
I saw this throughout my career in Congress, but it was most obvious in the counties and communities that made up my district. What struck me over and over was the difference that good leadership — both within and outside government — could make.
For instance, we now have fairly elaborate programs for the education of special-needs children. In my own state of Indiana, and in many others, this was not true a relatively short while ago. But over the years, parents, teachers, school leaders and others recognized the need, stepped forward, and pressed for change at every level from the school board to Congress.
Similarly, managing water resources has been an enormous challenge — dealing with floods when there’s too much and drought when there’s too little is a pressing matter in both rural and urban areas. But over the years, I’ve watched countless local leaders do the hard and sometimes tedious work of developing watershed programs. Our water supply today is far better managed than it used to be.
Everything from getting a gate put in at a dangerous rail crossing to strengthening local health-care facilities to building an effective local law-enforcement system — with capable police chiefs, dedicated judges and energetic prosecutors — demands that people step forward and lead. Strong leadership matters: to quality of life, to how well communities respond to challenges, and to how vital our communities are.
Being an active citizen matters, too, but as citizens we know that we depend heavily on good leaders to make our communities work. We rely on people to roll up their shirtsleeves at every level of our democracy, and we demand a great deal of them. We want them to set goals and motivate us. We expect them to plan, organize and manage effectively. We hope that they can take the disparate strands of our communities in hand and make sure they’re all pointed in the same direction. We look for a sort of tough-minded optimism, a conviction that “I can make a difference and so can you,” so that we’ll be inspired and energized by it.
That’s why communities pay so much attention to leadership development — to identifying and training young leaders who can make a difference to the places they live. Strong, capable, determined leadership provides the energy that improves the quality of life in a community and breathes life into our representative democracy.
One of the eternally refreshing gifts of our representative democracy is that it encourages people to solve problems in their community — to remember, as the saying goes, that democracy is not a spectator sport. Maybe they love where they live and want to make it better; maybe they have a child with special needs who is not being served well by the schools; perhaps they know in their hearts that they can do a better job than the people who are in charge right now. Whichever it is, people step forward — often out of nowhere — to take matters in hand. That’s what moves us forward as a society.
“I believe in Democracy because it releases the energies of every human being,” Woodrow Wilson said. It is the great paradox of representative democracy: we are free to remain passive, but we can’t make progress unless skillful, can-do people recognize that with freedom comes the responsibility to lead.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.