Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Immigration reform; at what price?

The budget is still looming in the (almost) immediate future. There are two wars in the Middle East. Health insurance reform ... is not quite finished. And oh yeah, the economy is still in the garbage disposal. So what does the president do? He holds an immigration reform meeting.

Presidents should be able to multi-task, right? And it's not like immigration reform isn't in his purview. It's not just the president, though. The Senate (all of Congress, really) have their hands full just trying to deal with each other. I'm not saying they're useless, but in any given election year, you'll find more congressional infighting than you really care to see.

The country does need immigration reform, though. It hasn't seen a serious effort since McCain-Kennedy in '07 (which was not exactly a rousing success). Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham are looking to be the next dynamic duo tackling this issue. It's rare enough to find two high-profile lawmakers from different parties working together on issues as sensitive as this one; but their efforts, so far, have not drawn much support from their colleagues.

That's not hard to understand. Many believe the solution is to follow and enforce existing laws, though enforcing the law against roughly twelve million people is no mean feat. The changes to be considered by the president at tomorrow's meeting include a path to citizenship for so-called "undocumented immigrants", a less harsh term for those who are in this country illegally. A somewhat more radical proposal will also be addressed: a national identification card, including biometric verification that a citizen has the right to work in the United States. Now, what does "biometric" mean, exactly? It means the card would include your thumbprint, or even a scan of the veins on the back of your hand, to verify that you are elligible for employment.

Setting aside, for the moment, the question of just how much tax dollars we'd have to spend on creating biometric verification for the more than two hundred million Americans who are old enough to work, there are some serious privacy concerns at stake with such a measure. Congressman Ron Paul, appearing on America Live with Megyn Kelly today, discussed several of those issues. One is having your thumbprint on a card and being forced to submit it to prospective employees. A fingerprint is something that is only collected by the government if you've committed a crime, or been arrested on suspicion of a crime. Even at that, it's only shared with other law enforcement agencies. It's not something for private, independently-owned companies to potentially keep on file for years.

There's also the potential that our verification papers would become our national ID papers, making our fundamental identity that much more a part of the government's business. As Congressman Paul points out, even Social Security cards aren't meant to be used for identification purposes. Now, what about driver's licenses, Megyn Kelly asks? Well, all that card does is certify that you're safe to drive. If you don't drive, then it's no one's business at all; and unless your job includes driving, businesses aren't likely to even ask to see it. You don't even need one to be a member of Congress, Paul tells her.

So why do we need one to go to work? Well, in the words of the president, "we need to build on and improve the existing verification system if we are going to get control of the job market for undocumented workers." As Congressman Paul reiterates in his interview, though, "it's always for good purposes ... It's sort of this idea of 'why not have cameras every place on every street corner because we'll catch the bad guys', or 'well, why don't they have cameras in our houses in case there's child-beating or wife-beating' ... You either believe in freedom or you don't." It's a little extreme, of course, but when you're talking about threats to civil liberties, you have to consider extremes of every measure. (You can watch the entire five-minute, forty-second interview here.)

This immigration meeting almost overshadows another measure the president backs that could certainly be considered a threat to civil liberty. Eighteen states currently take DNA samples from people arrested for crimes in addition to fingerprints and mugshots. I repeat, people arrested for crimes, not convicted. The president believes there should be a national DNA database of "arrested" individuals. Proponents argue that, not only would a national database protect the public, but it would clear (and already has cleared) innocent men and women placed under arrest. However, it still means an involuntary surrender of your DNA before your guilt has been proven. Most states don't even take your DNA once guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, let alone before a trial has even been held.

These are not the first instances where the president has shown himself open to measures that place individual's privacy and civil liberties second to the good of the state. Advocacy groups such as Break the Chains and the Center for Constitutional Rights have already spoken out against the national DNA database, and civil libertarians have been opposing the idea of a national worker eligibility card since it was first proposed. Benjamin Franklin has often been credited with saying "They who can sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." I don't know that I necessarily agree with that; but I don't necessarily agree with a national ID card or DNA database, either.

How about you?

UPDATE (03/12/10):

The president held his meeting with Senators Schumer and Graham, and they presented him with an outline of the massive bill they hope to present later this year. Before it can be presented, though, all parties were anxious that it receive more Republican sponsors in the Senate.

Senator Graham said further "in no uncertain terms" that his support for immigration reform this year was conditional upon the president's not using the budget reconciliation tactic (the so-called nuclear option) to pass health insurance reform. However, since the groundwork for using the nuclear option apparently has been laid for some time now, it's unlikely the senator's threat will have much impact on the president's decision.

President Obama also met with a group of Catholic bishops, labor unions, evangelical leaders, and immigrant advocates who had publicly denounced his immigration policies. In the hour-long meeting, he explained to them why, especially after the protracted health insurance battle, immigration reform could not be accomplished without significant Republican support. I wouldn't want to lay odds on how much Republican support he can expect if national ID cards and de facto amnesty are part of the reform.

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