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Politics as Usual: In-state tuition is a sideshow to the real issue (OPINION)

October 18, 2011

This being Columbus Day weekend, it seems appropriate to ponder the vexing question of immigration.
I must be one of the few people in Rhode Island who is ambivalent about the issue of allowing illegal alien high school graduates pay in-state tuition at URI and the state colleges.
Everyone else seems to be on one side or the other – loudly, passionately, dedicatedly, even angrily on one side or the other.
This is how I am ambivalent: If we haven’t worried about a student’s immigration status all the way through secondary school, why draw the line at college tuition, and when does discouraging people from being educated ever help anything? On the other hand, immigration laws are on the books, are we going to enforce them or not?
That’s really the rub. In-state tuition is not the real issue; it is just one of the sideshows revolving around the real issue, which is: What do we do about the people in our midst who have not migrated here in the authorized fashion?
You can tell an issue is exceptionally divisive and visceral when you start getting into fights about the terminology. The immigration debate definitely has reached that threshold. If you say “illegal alien,” you are denounced by one side as a yahoo, a redneck and a bigot, oozing hateful racism from every pore. If you say “undocumented person” then the other side calls you a politically correct pussyfooter, a quisling selling out his country to the Spanish-speaking horde of intruders. Consistent with my ambivalence, I tend to use both terms pretty much interchangeably.
The in-state tuition brouhaha is only a microcosm of the total immigration question but it is instructive.
To those who support the lower tuition rates, illegal immigration is a complex, nuanced and ethically difficult problem. Many – but by no means all – of these folks will acknowledge that America should and must do something to make our borders more secure and to keep some kind of control over who is coming here to stay. They admit there is a larger, more universal problem in the abstract. But when it comes to a specific person’s case, they tend to believe that making exceptions should be the rule. But a significant number of people, at least some of whom are in government, would have us disregard immigration laws altogether.
To the opponents, it is a very simple, black and white, cut and dried matter of right and wrong. Their mantra is: “what part of the word illegal do you not understand?”
That has the effect of stopping all argument. The law is the law and that’s that. They don’t want undocumented persons to be given in-state tuition or any other benefit of American life. They don’t want them given driver’s licenses. The only thing they want illegals to be given is a one-way bus ticket back to Central America.
They also point out, correctly, that even if an undocumented person does get a good college education with excellent grades, it is still against the law for employers to hire him or her. That is just one of many contradictory anomalies in our handling of immigration issues.
This group is often accused of racism, but that is as incorrect as it is unfair. Their opposition is not based on the immigrants’ race or ethnicity (at least not for the overwhelming majority), but on the fact that they broke the law, they cut the line, they short-circuited the process to get a benefit to which they are not entitled, but to which others who are obeying the rules and following proper procedures may be entitled to but are not getting.
Nothing irks Americans more than somebody (else) breaking the rules and getting away with it.
That’s why, when Governor Chafee said on the day after the Board of Governors for Higher Education’s controversial vote that he was thinking of finding a way to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented persons, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire. That’s why all those people were outside the Statehouse last Wednesday demanding that the governor be impeached or recalled or hanged, depending on who you were listening to.
So a lot of this controversy is about breaking the law, but one problem is that on this issue the law is the problem. American law enforcement and jurisprudence are all over the board on it. There are immigration laws, but they are poorly and haphazardly enforced. The government seems as ambivalent on the issue as I am.
There are also contradictions galore. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that if an undocumented family lives in a school district, then that school district is required to educate the children in public school. That sure sounds like a legal sanctioning to me. It means that the presence of illegal aliens in this country is officially tolerated by no less an authority than the highest court in the land. There is no other way to interpret it.
The immigration statutes are one area of law that it has become politically incorrect to enforce. And the pro-immigrant side is quick (too quick) to hurl the charge of racism at anyone who tries to enforce it or even advocates for doing so. This gives them a sense of moral superiority, which they do not hesitate to throw into the face of their opponents.
One of the problems of allowing illegal alien students to pay in-state tuition, opponents say, is that it creates a “magnet” to attract more illegals here; that it gives the impression that we are something of a “sanctuary state.”
The “magnet” problem could easily be solved by implementing E-Verify, the federal system that tells employers with a few clicks of a computer mouse whether a prospective employee is eligible to work in this country. E-Verify is also considered politically incorrect precisely because it would be effective. Opponents question its accuracy, but it is about 96 percent accurate and many of the errors it does make are easily correctable, such as adjusting a woman’s identity from her maiden name to her married name. Ironically, studies have shown that E-Verify’s most common inaccuracy is letting undocumented workers through as authorized to work because they used someone else’s identity.
Yet the very first thing Chafee did as governor was pull the plug on the executive order requiring E-Verify for state government employees and contractors. That was politically correct. It was also bad public policy.
Until the state and in fact the entire nation implements E-Verify, it will be impossible to say with a straight face that we are getting serious about controlling immigration.
Jobs are an important part of the immigration issue, especially in the near-depression economy we now seem mired in. Immigrants, legal or otherwise, swell the pool of available labor, driving wages downward for everyone who gets paid by the hour.
It is not that illegal aliens are doing jobs that American citizens won’t do; they are doing jobs for which American employers refuse to pay people adequately for doing. If employers were to increase the compensation they offer, there is no job they wouldn’t be able to find American citizens to do. Some argue that we need illegal aliens to pick our fruit and clean our hotel rooms; well, similar arguments were made in a different context about picking our cotton about 150 years back. It was wrong then; it is wrong now.
Where in Adam Smith’s philosophy does it suggest that if an employer isn’t able to find people to fill a particular job at a given salary, the solution is to get people who are here illegally to work for substandard pay and no benefits? I’m no economics expert, but I think Mr. Smith would recommend that the employer increase the compensation offered to attract more and better candidates for the job. That is the supply and demand of the sainted marketplace that we pay so much lip service to.
I realize this sounds so naïve as to be almost quaint in this age of almost total political polarization, but we as a country must come to a consensus about how to handle immigration, illegal and otherwise, and write our laws accordingly.
We can’t decide what we should do until we decide what we want to do. And we are nowhere close to agreeing on that.
Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at

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