But this has been the hardest article I have ever written. What you are reading is my sixth rewrite. I'm still working on my comments for the conference -- to be held Saturday, March 31, at the Hewlett Packard auditorium. The "Immigration Challenges and Opportunities" forum is sponsored by the Peninsula World Affairs Council, the Palo Alto and Los Altos branches of the League of Women Voters, and the Avenidas senior center of Palo Alto.
I am going to focus on issues related to unauthorized immigration because these have been the most difficult to solve or even to address without arousing anger. Last week I scanned all the online columns written recently about immigration, looking at the reader comments -- as I have been doing for the past year.
Besides the oft-repeated, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" there were references to Lenin, communism, propaganda and dishonesty in columns reporting on recent studies about the impact of unauthorized immigrants on wages and job opportunities.
That's when I decided to join the online comments and see what happened if I was consistently respectful and mostly asked questions.
The results became the basis for this sixth rewrite. There was not another hate word after I joined the comment forum, just disagreement. That seemed like an improvement worth trying to build on.
So I'll try again to get past the slogans and name-calling and look at the economic and legal arguments.
There are two main arguments about the economic impact of unauthorized immigration. One is that unauthorized immigrants hurt the job and wage opportunities available to other residents. The second is that unauthorized immigrants use more public services than they pay in taxes.
Both arguments have an element of truth. Some, but not all, research shows that low-skilled immigrants have a small impact on the job and wage opportunities of other low-skilled workers and it is certainly true that unauthorized immigrant families, because they tend to have low incomes, do not pay the full costs of the education and other public services that they use.
But it is also true that immigration, including unauthorized immigration, provides benefits to the economy. Moreover poverty and unemployment rates are no higher than 20 years ago before the surge in immigration. And all poor families use more public services than they contribute in taxes, which is justified on many grounds -- including that educating the children of poor parents is a great social investment.
It is also true that immigration is not the only example of where there are general economic benefits and some people get hurt. This is true for importing Japanese cars and Chinese apparel and for all sorts of "global marketplace" activities.
The high-wage job losses that disrupted many families during the past 25 years have nothing to do with unauthorized immigration. And we don't prevent activities with general benefits just because some individuals may be hurt.
With regard to "What part of illegal don't you understand?" my reading is that both sides want to change the law. People favoring an earned path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants (including me) want to change the law to specify conditions for earning legal status.
People who are opposed to unauthorized immigration also want to change the law to eliminate the legal citizenship status of children born in the United States to unauthorized residents and to change the legal status of benefits such as public education and emergency health care that are currently legal.
Since we can change laws that don't work, shouldn't we focus on figuring out what the best policy is?
Here are the questions that no one answered in the blog exchange:
1) Since many immigrants are married to legal residents and have legal resident children, what do you think about the costs in money and family disruption that will occur with any mass-deportation policy?
2) Since there are approximately 2 million unauthorized immigrants in the California workforce and no more than 250,000 unemployed low-skilled workers, what do you think will happen to the economy under policies that would remove these workers from the economy?
I hope we can develop a calm discussion about immigration in the Weekly's Town Square Web site, before and after the upcoming conference.