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Monday, March 27, 2006

Immigration Reform

Yesterday, over 500,000 people came out in LA to protest a bill calling for a 700 mile wall to be built along the U.S.-Mexican border. Such protests show how contentious the subject of immigration has become. Not only has it become divisive, but the issue of immigration is quite complex, making it rather difficult for politicians to find the median voter on the issue. For starters, there are party activists on both sides who see this from the perspective of "which party can get the most votes?" This leaves parts of the population, some Republican, some Democrat, who want to allow unlimited immigration for the sake of picking up votes for their party. Then there are those who, for the purpose of garnering anti-immigration votes, who oppose all immigration. Neither of these groups are confined to the politicians - individual voters are thinking this way, and it all has to do with their opinions on where the median voter lies. They vote for their politicians based on this, so they are counted amoung voters when determining the median vote. Then there are those who form opinions without making political calculations. Some want less immigration because they belive immigration is driving down wages. Then there are others who want more immigration because the additional labor is an added resource, meaning that immigration would make the U.S. economy better off.

If immigration were only confined to the issues I just mentioned, finding the median voter would be easy; simply increase or decrease the number of immigrants allowed into the country through the election process until voters are unwilling to increase or decrease immigrants. For example, have a referendum that would increase (or decrease) the number of legal immigrant allowed to come here by say 100,000 per year. If it passes, repeat the process. If the median voter wants an increase of 700,000 immigrants per year, voters will approve immigration increases of 100,000 per year until 700,000 immigrants per year are allowed in. While referendums aren't used on a nation-wide basis, the same can be achieved with politicians. Voters can elect a politician (if this was the only issue) who will increase immigration allowance by 100,000 per year until the median voter was satisfied, then elect somebody else. However, other matters and opinions complicate the immigration issue, matters that can't be resolved with numbers.

While various segments of the population holds various opinions about the level of immigration that should be allowed, these segments, even those that agree with each other on such levels, find themselves further divided with regards to what happens to those immigrants already here illegally. Some want them deported, because they broke the law. Others believe that the law is already unjust. Then there are matters of national security. How stringent should we be with the tests that allow permanent residency? Should it require that they speak English? If so, how long do they have to learn it? What countries do we allow immigrants from? Should Iranian immigrants be held to the same standard as Mexican immigrants? At what point should immigrants be allowed to vote? Politicians are trying to answer all these questions at the same time. The result is that the median voter is very hard to pick out with regard to immigration.

The fact that the issue is so complex could prevent a median voter from being discovered, killing the chances of an immigration reform bill. With seemingly multiple issues being presented as a grouped bill (there are actually many bills as a result of this, not just one), there may not be just one median voter, but many. There is or should be a median voter for each of the questions posed by the bill. Over the coming months, politicians are going to be trying to find a median voter within the median voters. Unfortunately, politicians are typically only good enough for government work. "Good enough for government work" may be progress, but I fear that their difficulty in finding the median voter will result in their giving up on trying and in fact do nothing.

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