State Immigration Policies Gone Wild

Afton Branche

In the absence of federal immigration reform, state governments have taken up immigration policymaking with remarkable zeal. In 2010, every state in session considered immigration laws and resolutions. In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures finds that states passed a whopping 346 laws and resolutions addressing immigration issues. And last month alone, Fox News reported that states introduced more than 600 immigration measures.

On the positive end, several laws supported immigrant integration by funding refugee resettlement and naturalization assistance, or offering in-state tuition to undocumented youth. Of course, many other state legislatures have taken up restrictive and in some cases ridiculous immigration policies. Many laws focus on giving local police immigration enforcement powers in addition to their primary duties, while others impose voter ID schemes or enact employer verification requirements. The worst state laws attempt to turn public institutions into satellite ICE offices.

In Arizona, Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill that would force hospitals to verify whether a patient is in the country legally. Let’s hope that early opposition from doctors, medical professionals and immigrant advocates prevents this foolish policy from passing. But the fact that this is even on the table is frightening. In Virginia, the Democratic-led state senate successfully held off a spate of anti-immigrant laws, including one that would require local school boards to tally children “who could not provide a birth certificate or enrolled in English as a Second Language courses.”

It’s hard to figure out the legislative intent behind these measures. Do Arizona lawmakers really want to scare undocumented immigrants away from seeking treatment for contagious diseases? Do Virginia’s elected officials really want to discourage immigrant children from attending school? I think any legislator interested in a healthy or educated populace would not. But it seems that nothing is off-limits in the immigration debate. As one Virginia Democrat put it, “What’s next — they’re going to require the grocery stores to find out if you’re here legally before you can buy food?”

Too often, immigration hard-liners introduce bills intended to save money by targeting or identifying undocumented immigrants. In practice, however, restrictive policies end up draining public budgets and marginalizing legal immigrants in the process.

A powerful New York Times story highlights the impact of a recent Virginia policy that effectively cut off hundreds of legal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses. Under the law, federally-issued work permits were no longer sufficient proof of residence needed to get a license. The policy shift cost one Tunisian man his limousine business. The article goes on to describe the various remedies state officials used to help legal immigrants who were wrongly denied driver’s licenses—all at the taxpayers’ expense.

Supporters of local immigration crackdowns should know that verifying an individual’s immigration status is not as easy as it sounds. Immigration law is an exceedingly complex field, wherein a person’s right to stay in the country comes down to one piece of paper or ruling from a federal judge. Hospital workers or teachers shouldn’t be trained to recognize these documents or otherwise participate in half-baked immigration enforcement schemes. This would waste time and resources better used to assist the general public.

As we wait for Congress to take on immigration reform that addresses undocumented immigration, our elected officials should stop targeting immigrants and their families, and instead focus their energies on crafting laws that truly serve the public interest.

New Revenue vs. the “New Normal”

Amy Traub

Budget shortfalls have left American cities and states stuck with a “new normal” insists the conventional wisdom. Citizens must accept the hardships that come with longer fire department response times, dirtier streets, lost transit service, shuttered libraries, locked up parks, and more crowded classrooms – there’s no alternative. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the money simply isn’t out there to meet residents’ needs for basic public services. Granted, we have tremendous and growing inequality, with the top ten percent of families receiving nearly half of the nation’s income and with more than a fifth of all U.S. income going to the top 1 percent, but that’s irrelevant. If those very fortunate residents were asked contribute more to keep their communities afloat, they’d instantly flee the city or state. So the argument goes.

The reality looks a bit different. New research refutes the idea that wealthy residents are abandoning the states that tax them highly. In fact, the states the most millionaires per capita were also among those with the highest marginal income tax rates.

The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Frank notes:

This isn’t to say that taxes don’t matter to the wealthy. They do. A lot. Some states with very low marginal income tax rates, such as Connecticut and Alaska, also ranked high on the density list.

But there are lots of other economic factors at work in the millionaire state counts. And that’s the point. When it comes to creating and retaining wealth, the health of state economies and work-force skill levels seem to matter much more than state tax rates.

Frank quotes David Thompson from the organization conducting the millionaire study, who adds “in general, most high-net-worth households don’t base their living decision on tax rates, but on things like quality of life, access to good education, infrastructure and culture.”

Yet all of these benefits, from culture to a skilled workforce, take public resources to generate and maintain. The data suggests that those individuals with the most resources might not be as averse to chipping in for their communities as the conventional wisdom suggests.

Keeping it Public (If the Libraries Don’t Sway You, the Blazing House Might)

Amy Traub

Last week, the New York Times reported on Library Systems & Services, a private, for-profit company that an increasing number of towns are contracting to take over their local public libraries. The company pares budgets and turns a profit by, among others things, replacing long-term employees with those who will “work.” In the article, CEO Frank Pezzanite mocks “this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries” and ridicules the idea that “somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.” The problem? Local residents seem to believe there is something all-American – and possibly sacred – about this community institution. I know where they’re coming from.

Public libraries represent the best of American tradition of local communities chipping in for the common good, while advancing democratic values of free inquiry and universal access.

Through our local libraries, we all contribute to create a public space where anyone can access the world’s outstanding literature, music, and film; popular entertainment; the fruits of human knowledge and insight; computer and internet access; resources for jobseekers and students; edifying speakers; programs that engage schoolchildren; and story hours that delight the youngest members of our community. I’m never going to check out that new Janet Evanovich novel (or, for that matter, Bill O’Reilly’s latest bestseller) but I’m damn glad my tax dollars paid for it to be available on the shelves. The common resource is bigger than any of our individual tastes.

Something of that is lost when a profit-driven company turns a community institution into a source of private gain. It’s not just the likelihood that public employees earning middle-class salaries will likely be turned out in favor of less experienced staff – although I’ve written in opposition to that as well. Rather, it’s the idea, articulated by American Library Association President Robert Stevens in response to the Times article, that for-profit libraries may not “remain directly accountable to the publics they serve.” Or, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt, “shifting ownership onto businessmen allows the state to relinquish moral obligations… A social service provided by a private company does not present itself as a collective good to which all citizens have a right.”

The point may be subtle when we’re talking about computers and books on a shelf (no matter how critical a part of democracy) but it’s hard to ignore a house on fire. This morning at Think Progress, Zaid Jilani describes the situation in Obion County, Tennessee, where fire services are funded by subscription fees rather than general tax revenue. Those who pay the fees can call the fire department to save lives and extinguish blazes. For those who can’t or won’t shell out for the service, Jilani’s headline says it all: Tennessee County’s Subscription-Based Firefighters Watch As Family Home Burns Down. Maybe there’s something to the “American flag, apple pie” thing about public services after all…

The Alaska Contradiction (Why the Right Doesn’t Want You to Notice the Streetlights)

Amy Traub

A cognitive dissonance animates the Right in America, and the New York Times nails it with today’s front page case study of Alaska. The state depends more than any other on public support, from its earliest days when “the federal government expended great amounts of money carving this young state out of the northern wilderness” to the present in which Alaska benefits from an outsize allocation of stimulus dollars and other government spending – not to mention tremendous public subsidies for the oil and gas industries that have driven the state’s economy. Yet Alaska is also a hotbed of anti-government sentiment, denouncing the very support that built it and keeps it functioning. “It just feels like the federal government intrudes everywhere,” complains a local GOP official, apparently heedless of the ways that this “intrusion” enables Alaskans to get by on a daily basis.

The same contradiction has lain at the heart of American conservatism from the birth of the New Right in 1960’s Southern California (see historian Lisa McGirr’s brilliant book on the topic) to the present day: the very people who denounce an interfering government most intensely are often among the greatest beneficiaries of our public institutions. How is the contradiction bearable? It helps if you don’t think too much about it, if the government’s role in one’s life can be made invisible, even forgotten. Dependence on public support must be made to look like rugged individualism; reliance on webs of regulation must appear to be the work of unconstrained free markets. Problems may not arise until the efforts to hack away at “big government” become too successful: the “invisible” public services we need to live our daily lives are most apparent when we begin to lose them. Alaska may still be cushioned by disproportionate federal largesse, but in communities across America, the loss of basic services is happening now. Reporter Michael Cooper recently summed up:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further — it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation and sending working parents scrambling to find care for them.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.

Pundits wonder why Republicans are focused on a renewed campaign scapegoating immigrants rather than focusing exclusively on the nation’s economic straits. The need to distract from the loss of public services which undermines the anti-government message, may have something to do with it. This in turn is an opportunity for progressives to highlight the ways ordinary American rely on government, starting at the most local level – and should fight to keep it strong.

New York City’s War on Public Workers

Amy Traub

“The Wall Street bankers who caused the crisis got bailed out by the feds – but teachers, detectives, and token booth clerks are being told to cut back.” The quote, reported by columnist Adam Lisberg in this Sunday’s Daily News, aptly sums up the way that New York’s public sector workers have become convenient scapegoats for the budget problems caused by the nation’s Wall-Street induced economic collapse.

Consider the growing furor over the cost of the city’s public pensions, heavy with suggestions that most city workers are retiring to live high on the hog at public expense. Despite some heavily publicized individual abuses by city and state employees, most public retirees don’t live lavishly. As Lisberg points out:

The city’s Independent Budget Office says the big reason pension costs will rise in future years is that pension funds took a big hit in the recession and need more cash to make up what they lost… Those huge pensions, by the way? The average retiree from the main city pension fund … received $33,194 in 2008, the last year for which figures are available.

Yet, Lisberg adds, it’s also the case that many working people in New York have no pension at all, and would dearly love the retirement security New York’s teachers and bus drivers enjoy. He’s right, and, as the Drum Major Institute’s Dan Morris notes in the article, the American middle class will only expand when more private sector workers can win the same solid health and retirement benefits, and enjoy the same collective bargaining rights, as their public counterparts. Yet attacking city workers only drives us farther from that goal. As I pointed out in the Nation earlier this month:

There will be less pressure to address the decades-long erosion of pay and benefits for most working people in the private sector if public anger can be focused on the bus mechanic who still has health coverage… At its heart, the scapegoating of public employees is an insidious way to divide public and private sector workers who share many of the same interests.

The assault on public workers occurring in New York City and across the nation is anti-worker and anti-government at its core. Working people who want decent health care and retirement security should fight for those benefits in their own workplace, not fall for the attack against the public employees who have managed to negotiate and hold onto them.

Swallowing the Right-Wing Line on Public Employees?

Amy Traub

As Congress fails to provide the support needed by recession-smacked states and cities the New York Times today details how a desperate public sector is turning on itself, scapegoating the very people who keep our public institutions running and deliver the services we rely on. It’s yet another phase of the war on public workers.

The Times complements my observations in the Nation by noting that Democrats are increasingly falling for this fundamentally conservative line of thought:

…some elected officials are realizing that getting tough with the unions can be good politics in down economic times, as government employees’ benefits are held up as examples of excess — and as taxpayers (and voters) demand greater accountability. Gary N. Chaison, a professor and labor expert at Clark University, said some Democratic officials now see it as a “badge of honor” to take on the unions.“They see it as a way to show their independence,” he said. At a time when many private sector workers have been badly squeezed by stagnant wages, soaring health care premiums and shrinking 401(k)’s, resentment has grown…

Of course, it’s not public workers who are to blame for the squeeze on private sector employees, but the companies who are wringing generous profits from a desperate workforce. Yet we’re too busy begging businesses to create jobs to hold them accountable for private sector job quality.

It’s far easier for politicians to pander to the resentment conservatives have stirred up against public workers than to make the case to constituents for Congress giving a hand up to our struggling communities, or to raise taxes on those who flourished through the hard times. Yet parroting the conservative line gives too much ground to what is fundamentally an anti-worker and anti-government agenda. Democrats who opt to tar and feather public workers and their unions should be clear about what they’re signing on for:

There will be less pressure to address the decades-long erosion of pay and benefits for most working people in the private sector if public anger can be focused on the bus mechanic who still has health coverage. With a slim majority of all union workers employed in the public sector, the conservative class war amounts to dragging unionized public employees down to the level of contingent no-benefits workers before they can leverage their power to help private sector workers raise their own workplace standards.
Higher Costs and Lower Quality as Public Services Go Private

Amy Traub

As budget crises force cities to cut back public services, private companies are stepping in to profit from the unmet demand. But there’s a cost to communities when markets take over what were once public functions: the new private services are often more expensive and with less public oversight, they may also offer lower quality.

In California, revenue-strapped community colleges are struggling to cope with escalating demand for affordable higher education. Many find themselves unable to offer sufficient spots in the courses students need to fulfill graduation requirements. Enter the private sector. The New York Timesreports: 

Kaplan University has an offer for California community college students who cannot get a seat in a class they need: under a memorandum of understanding with the chancellor of the community college system, they can take the online version at Kaplan, with a 42 percent tuition discount. The opportunity would not come cheap. Kaplan charges $216 a credit with the discount, compared with $26 a credit at California’s community colleges.

Why pay $26 a credit to interact in-person with fellow students and professors when you could pay greater than eight times more to participate in a potentially larger and less personal course online? The Times notes that “Thus far, Kaplan has no takers for its courses.” But if community colleges are forced to cut back far enough, the private alternative may be the only choice for many students.

Meanwhile in New York it’s public transportation that’s taking a beating. As the Metropolitan Transit Authority cuts bus service, the city is now establishing routes for private commuter vans to serve areas suddenly lacking transit options. The catch?

…passengers who are connecting to a subway or bus will have to pay $2 to ride the vans as well as public transportation fare, which is $2.25 for a single trip. “The issue here is not whether it’s more expensive or less expensive; it’s whether the service exists or not,” Mr. Bloomberg said…

The city insists it will step up enforcement of private van companies, yet the Times acknowledges that the plan “expose[s] passengers to the dangers of an industry that had operated with little oversight over the years…”

We’ll continue to look at how these privatization efforts degrade job quality for the employees involved, be they transit drivers or college professors. But the impact on folks who used to be known as “the public” but now look more like a profit-making customer base is all too clear.