U.S. Legislature: A System Broken? Innovation Needed!

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From the day we start nursery school or kindergarten, we are enrolled in a history class of some variation.  In the Post-World War II era, the reoccurring theme throughout the class is America’s tragedies and subsequent triumphs.  The Revolutionary War and the rise of George Washington and Freedom.  The Civil War and Slavery with the rise of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation of the Slaves.  Jim Crow and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.  You all remember.  The message, and the result, is an almost innate sense of pride for our country.  The firm belief that this is the best country in the World; it is, always has been, and always will be.

Lately, however, I have begun to hear a quiet murmur in the back of mind echoed in the people with whom I talk.  Maybe something is wrong here.  Maybe the system is broken.  Maybe that triumph isn’t as inevitable as everyone was raised to believe.

Given my family heritage, I am a loyal reader of the New York Times (my Grandfather was on the editorial board of the Times).  Yesterday’s paper included an article about how college age voters now appear to be switching to the Republican party after supporting en masse the Democratic party just two years ago.  When this article is read in conjunction with the continuously published polls about plummeting approval ratings for politicians of all parties, it leads me to believe that such a swing has less to do with political beliefs and ideals, and more to do with a deep frustration that the party in power cannot create jobs, provide people with the ability to take care of their families, and realize the prosperity our generation was promised since the day we were born.  The promise that we could all be whatever we wanted to be if we just put our mind to it and worked hard enough.  Now too many in this generation either have no opportunity to work or must work as hard as they possibly can in an attempt to break even.

I believe this generation is slowly becoming angry (yes, angry – a level of passion beyond basic frustrations that get drowned out by our day-to-day responsibilities).  A realization may be occurring that our government does not reflect our beliefs and that it can no longer guarantee inevitable triumph.  Whether we are Democrat or Republican, each of us are far more complex than our simple and polarized Legislature.  The politicians voted into office, either through the pressure of the political climate or genuine values, are either hardcore Democrats or hardcore Republicans.  The result is no middle ground.  No opportunity for compromise.  No pragmatic thinking on issues.  Its either a period of socialist economics or a period of laissez faire economics.  Its a continuous series of dramatic, sharp jerks back and forth in political thinking.

We each are more complex than this black and white process.  We are also suffering the effects a political system that, for whatever reason – likely the 24/7 news media – may not be able to promote prosperity anymore.  Because we were all raised to think of the United States as the beacon of prosperity, justice, and freedom in the World, we all assume its just a matter of time before we pull out of this economic meltdown.  Unfortunately, that may not be reality.  It is easy to get lost in all the economic figures and jargon bounced around by pundits and experts, but if one simplifies what is being said, there is a scary reality.  More money is leaving this country every single day than is entering the system.  Our imports far exceed our exports.  Companies continue to outsource jobs.  Over the long-term, no system can sustain itself under those conditions.  Our government is now doing what most Americans were doing the past ten years: purchasing a lifestyle it cannot afford with money borrowed from somewhere else.  Eventually, all debts come due.  As a country, we may be approaching that day of reckoning.  Measures like ‘stimulus money’ are band-aids, not solutions.

An answer is obviously more complex than a two-step fix, but I believe that eventually two things are going to need to occur to get this country back on track:

(1) Modification of Voting Primaries: I firmly believe that the polarized Legislature that fails to properly represent a new, highly educated (either formally through educational institutions or informally through the internet) is the result of our primary system.  In almost all states, each party has a Primary election before the General election.  At that level, Democrats must select the Democratic candidate they want to represent them in the General election and the Republicans do the same.  Unfortunately, the voter turnout for these elections is minuscule and typically only involves your hardcore political junkies.  The result is two General election candidates who reflect the values of each parties idealistic and fringe political bases.  In this system, it is almost impossible nowadays for a complex Democrat or a complex Republican to win the primary and move on to the General election where he/she may appeal to most of us middle-of-the-roaders.  Voters must choose between a Democrat with Democratically vanilla political beliefs who will be unable to work with opposition Republicans or an antithetic  Republican.  The outcome – our current Legislature and the one before that and the one before that…

California recently proposed a modification that I think should be implemented across the board.  California wants to implement a party-less Primary.  All candidates run for the General election and the two candidates who receive the most votes, irrespective of their parties, will move to the General election.  This may create opportunity for people with real solutions rather than those which are politically fringe and idealistic.  We may start to get a Legislature that is pragmatic and more resembles our own beliefs.  The hope of compromise may once again appear on the House and Senate floors.

(2) Investment in Education and Innovation: A more middle-of-the-road Congress may also free our Legislature from the pressure of abandoning long-term strategies and goals in order to win short-sighted victories in order to remain in power.  If this country’s economy is ever going to recovery, then, in my opinion, we need to reverse the out-flow of money and capital.  Think about your own finances, if you spend more than you make, you’re eventually going to be bankrupt.  In order to do that, we need a commodity to sell.  The focus, in my opinion, has been too much on finite resources: natural resources, manufactured goods, etc.  Goods of a limited quantity.

This country’s long-term prosperity is tied to its ability to sell innovation.  We need to once again become the leader in education and innovation.  We need to develop things like green technology, medicine and vaccines, managerial theory, and computer systems.  The products of the minds of our generation are infinite resources.  We need to be the leaders in every cerebral sector in the global economy.  This requires time and investment, however, two things our political system discourages.  The demands of our political system and our media favor instant gratification (however superficial) and discourage long-term gains.  One party will gain power and invest money in a project and then two years later the opposite party will gain power and strip the project of its funding.  Examples include stem-cell research and military weaponry.  We need a political system that can find middle-ground, minimize the politicization of issues and identify a diversification of projects that will yield financial gains for this country.  Then this country can begin to regain some financial security and see sustainable job growth.

In conclusion, while I do not foresee a revolution, I do foresee change.  As the recession deepens and teeters on depression, our generation moves closer to awakening.  The days of prosperity which yielded a understandable contentness in people that left them disinterested in the political system are ending.  Eventually something with this system is going to need to be modified in order to minimize its polarization and attract politicians more willing to invest in our long-term viability.  The subsequent triumph to this tragedy depends on it.

Illegal Immigration: Changing the Argument to Win the Debate

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The debate over illegal immigration continues to rage in this country.  And, as it does, I personally find it to be particularly interesting.  During my third year of law school, I had an academic article on the interaction between identity theft and illegal immigration published in Villanova’s Law Review.  It discussed how Congress can better address identity theft by illegal immigrants, who require identification documents to work in the United States, by strengthening prosecutors’ ability to prosecute offenders of the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act.  Currently, if an illegal immigrant purchases a fake social security card with your social security number on it, he/she will not be subject to mandatory imprisonment under ITPEA because he/she was unaware of the fact that the number on the fake card actually belonged to someone, even if they knew the card was a fake and there was likelihood that the number belonged to someone.

Currently, opponents of immigration reform are employing a diversion tactic to try to win ground in the illegal immigration debate in this country.  Rather than debating the merits of efforts to address illegal, unauthorized immigration, they lose the “illegal” and try to frame the debate on immigration generally.

This past week the New York Times ran an article on the new illegal immigration laws in Massachusetts (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/28/us/28mass.html?sq=Massachusetts%20Move%20On%20Immigration%20Law&st=cse&adxnnl=1&scp=1&adxnnlx=1275321708-5RHHIDrFTUgvQJJpsFg/oQ), which highlights this tactic.  The new laws strengthen the state’s ability to enforce existing illegal immigration law by forcing government contractors to confirm the employment status of their employees, as well as barring illegal immigrants from qualifying for resident-tuition rates at state colleges and increasing priority for citizens with respect to public housing agencies.  Rather than addressing the issue, an opponent, Frank Soults, who is a spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, stated, “It’s a reaction to a political climate that has been successfully manipulated by extremist element... Lawmakers who always supported immigrants before have suddenly turned and voted for the most anti-immigrant bill we’ve seen in Massachusetts in years.”  I find this infuriating!  I have yet to meet someone who opposes illegal immigration and also opposes legal immigration.  It is a ridiculous proposition considering that most of this country descended from immigrants.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF “ILLEGAL” STATUS – DID YOU DESCEND FROM AN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT?

In the beginning, this country had strong immigration laws, but around 1800 they were either repealed or not renewed.  From 1801 to 1875, when a lot of our patriarchs and matriarchs immigrated to the United States, this country’s immigration policy was very liberal and welcoming.  We were a blossoming nation with wide-open spaces and untapped resources.  During this period, the status of “illegal immigrant” did not really exist.  Aliens did not even need to register with the federal government.  This caused our population to dramatically rise and allowed the nation to meet its high labor demands.  Any immigration control was loosely operated by the states.  This changed in 1875, however, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Henderson v. Mayor of New York, which essentially nullified state immigration controls.  This decision forced immigration to be a national issue, which meant that the federal government had to get back into the immigration game.  In response, after dragging its feet, Congress passed two pieces of immigration legislation: the Immigration Act of 1882, which borrowed most of its language from the nullified state statutes, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the nation’s first and only race based immigration act and halted any and all immigration of Chinese citizens.  The acts were followed up by legislation in 1885, which was a response to pressure from labor parties and prohibited prepaid passage and contractual arrangements for the recruitment of unskilled aliens, and the Immigration Act of 1891, which created the Immigration Bureau that operated on Ellis Island.  All four pieces of legislation tighten the federal government’s control on immigration, but continued to allow a free-flow of immigrants into the United States from European countries, which accounted for almost forty-percent of the country’s total population growth.  This period, essentially, was also the genesis of the “illegal immigrant” status in the United States.

Nonetheless, right before the turn of the twentieth century, the pendulum continued to return a position of strict policy as the nation’s attitude towards immigration grew sterner.  The attitudinal shift led to several contentious debates over immigration reform from 1895 until 1921 and included several failed attempts to institute literary tests for incoming immigrants.  Then in 1921, in the wake of the First World War and the onset of the Red Scare, the United States plunged into isolationism, which included the passage of the Quota Act of 1921.  The Quota Act, extended through 1924, was regarded as an “emergency act” and established national quotas for immigration based on the number of foreign-born residents of each nationality living in the United States at the time of the 1910 census.  Then in 1924, Congress updated the legislation and utilized the National Origins Formula, which based the quotas on the makeup of the national origins of the American population as a whole, and restricted immigration from Europe and Asia.  The legislation also instituted the utilization of visas.

Therefore, in case you’ve always wondered, most of us did NOT descend from illegal immigrants.  Our forefathers were native American, immigrated before restrictions existed on immigration or they entered in conformance with the quota system through Ellis Island.

ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION DEBATE: SHIFTING THE ARGUMENT

Times have changed, however, and we are no longer a country with vast unexplored territories and seemingly limitless resources.  Our society is overloading our social systems as we simultaneously face new threats from terroristic organizations who too often slip into our country undetected.  Therefore, opposition to immigration into this country that does not conform to our laws (in other words, illegal), regardless of whether the intentions of the illegal immigrants are noble (i.e., providing for a family), is an understandable position.

Those opposed to either the enforcement of current immigration law or the tightening of our current laws know this and, as a result, they feel the need to rely on deceptive debating tactics.  They are trying to make this an issue about immigration generally, rather than illegal immigration.  Its successful because it forces someone arguing for immigration reform to go on the defensive and establish that they support legitimate immigration — the lifeblood of this melting pot of a nation.  It shifts the argument in order to exhaust the debate, waste political capital, and stunt reform.

I challenge those opposed to immigration reform to step-up and actually debate the arguments.  Explain why immigrants should not follow federal procedure.  Explain why we need to be registered with the federal government but they do not.  Explain why we should not be required to verify our status when stopped law enforcement officers.  Explain why illegal immigrants should be entitled to government benefits such as resident-instate tuition.  Explain why uncontrolled borders do not contribute to a growing national security problem.  Please argue these topics.  Our public discourse would benefit more from legitimate points being made related to this issues than by mudding the debate with ridiculous accusations related to immigration generally.