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Elections Matter. Redistricting Matters More.

Poor redistricting. Given the tremendous impact redistricting has on all levels of government, voters simply do not tend to give it too much attention.

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this. For one, redistricting — the process by which legislators redraw the political boundaries defining what towns and communities they will represent at the next election — just isn’t a ‘sexy’ issue. It deals with technical issues like adjusting districts to account for population shifts and make sure each lawmaker represents about the same number of constituents as his or her colleague. It doesn’t easily lend itself to the types of human interest stories journalists use to pull readers into articles on, say, immigration, war, abortion, and many other high-profile issues.

It’s difficult to put a face to redistricting.

Also, unlike other issues, redistricting is only really pushed into the spotlight once a decade. Although voters have to live with its effects at every election, redistricting is really only brought up in discussion when legislators engage in it, after the U.S. Census information is released. Any disgust or disapproval inevitably dies down soon after, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to reform the system.

Redistricting allows lawmakers to redraw their districts in ways that benefit them. (Image from Governing Magazine's website.)

In fact, not only do lawmakers have little incentive to consider redistricting reform, they actually have every reason to actively oppose it, because reforming redistricting would dilute their own power to choose their constituents by drawing voters in or out of their districts.

For anyone who has watched the American version of the political drama House of Cards, the characters bring up redistricting several times as key to the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the U.S. House of Representatives. They pin their hopes on a special election for Pennsylvania governor — because without a Democratic governor to oversee Pennsylvania redistricting, the Democrats are sure to lose a number of its U.S. House seats, and thus lose control of the House.

House of Cards is fiction, but the stakes are just as high in real life, as well. It was one of the first things Republicans in Texas did in 2003 once they took full control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, allowing them to lock down their control. Democrats, knowing full well the power Republicans now wielded, broke quorum and fled the state rather than allow the legislature to meet and redistrict. Eventually, though, the Republican majority passed its redistricting plans, turning the 17-15 Democratic majority in Texas’ U.S. House delegation to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Pennsylvania serves as a reminder of the power of redistricting as well. Pennsylvania Republicans have controlled the redistricting process for decades. Most recently, that control paid off in 2012. Even though Democrats swept every office up for statewide election and received more than half of all votes cast in the state for U.S. House, Republicans not only kept their majorities in the state legislature, they actually gained a U.S. House seat.

After an election in which a majority of Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for U.S. House, Republicans still wound up holding a full 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats – or about 72 percent of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

(It should come as no surprise, then, that Pennsylvania Republicans have also put forward plans in recent years that would distribute electoral votes in presidential elections according to redistricting, rather than popular vote. For instance, if one of these proposals, put forward by PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Gov. Tom Corbett, had been in place in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney would have lost the popular vote to President Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent — but Romney still would have taken home more electoral votes. Under this plan, Romney would have received 13 electoral vote to Obama’s 7 votes.)

Redistricting has very real effects on both state and national politics. The immigration legislation pending in Congress is a fairly good case study.

Although a rough consensus seems to have formed around immigration reform and the U.S. Senate passed immigration legislation by a healthy and bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill has stalled in the U.S. House. This seems contrary to the post-2012 election narrative that Republicans are reevaluating their Hispanic outreach efforts, considering Hispanic voters tend to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it makes perfect sense once you consider U.S. House members’ narrow constituency.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans swept into power in state capitols all over the country — just in time for redistricting. House Republicans’ seats are safe. Unlike U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, House Republicans do not have to worry at all about swaying Hispanic voters. Their districts have been specifically designed in a way to ensure they win the general election.

Instead, House Republicans have to worry about other Republicans challenging them in primary elections. As a result, they have to tack harder to the right to avoid offending their base voters and to fend off any primary challengers. That means opposing the immigration reform bill, which is generally unpopular with conservatives. This is not to say passing the bill is impossible, only that it is made much more difficult due to the perverse incentives created via redistricting.

And perhaps that is the hook that journalists need to raise awareness about and put a human face on redistricting — by connecting redistricting to other issues, such as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. At that point, it becomes less about lines on a map and more about the very real impact redistricting has on American families and communities.

FURTHER READING

2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael.

The War on Democracy: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.” Gaudini, Michael.

Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.” Gaudini, Michael. Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

Reforming Redistricting.” Gaudini, Michael. Baines Report.

Republicans Win Fewer Votes, but More Seats than Democrats.” CQ Voting and Elections Collection.

Immigration Reform: Clearing the First Hurdle.” Economist.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

Corbett-Pileggi Election Plan Bad For Democracy,” Gaudini, Michael. Main Line Times.

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

 

Why the DREAM Act Should Pass

A recent Gallop poll shows a slight majority of Americans favor passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (or DREAM Act). The DREAM Act was first sponsored in 2001 by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT). It passed in the House this year and even had a majority of support in the Senate (55-41), where it failed to overcome a filibuster.

Basically, the bill would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children if they join the military or pursue higher education. Read the text of the Senate bill here, and the House bill here.

The consideration of the DREAM Act by this Congress stands as perhaps the most meaningful attempt at immigration reform since the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. That bipartisan bill (brought down by bipartisan opposition) actually contained the DREAM Act as one of its provisions. While the DREAM Act is only a small step on the longer road to comprehensive reform, it is nevertheless worth passing. Here’s why:

  • It is a step toward resolving the status of illegal immigrants currently living in America
  • It will provide the military with ample recruits
  • It will yield economic benefits for the entire country and raise government revenue

Let’s examine these points one by one.

–RESOLVING THE STATUS OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS–

Illegal immigration is tough to measure, but a Department of Homeland Security report places the number of illegal immigrants in America in 2009 at approximately 10.75 million. For context, that’s about 3.5% of the entire U.S. population that same year (which, according to Census Bureau estimates was about 307,006,550 people). That’s bigger than the population of Native Americans (1%) and only a little bit less than the Asian American population (4.6%).

The question that has been plaguing Congress is: what do you do about this sizable segment of the population?

Although many conservatives advocate mass deportation, this is a costly and utterly unrealistic solution. Prominent Republicans like President Bush and George Will have recognized this fact. Immigration and Customs Enforcement head Julie Myers has placed the cost of mass deportation at around $94 billion. From CNN.com:

“An ICE spokesman later said the $94 billion did not include the cost of finding illegal immigrants, nor court costs — dollar amounts that are largely unknowable.

He said the amount was calculated by multiplying the estimated 12 million people by the average cost of detaining people for a day: $97. That was multiplied by the average length of detention: 32 days… Finally, the department looked at personnel costs, bringing the total to roughly $94 billion.”

What is notable about these rough calculations is that they also fail to take into account the economic impacts of mass deportation. Illegal immigrants both work and consume — two basic tenets of any human existence. In fact, many illegal immigrants came to America because of the job availability. In 2009, Mexicans were about 62% of all illegal immigrants. Part of the reason for the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico is due to the fact that Mexico’s labor market cannot currently sustain the number of workers it has at its disposal (though this may change in the near future). Put another way, there’s too many people and not enough jobs. Combine this with American companies’ willingness to hire low wage workers in order to keep prices down, and you have a recipe for mass migration, though the poor economy has actually decreased the number of illegal immigrants in America in the last few years.

The result is that illegal immigrants are firmly implanted in the American labor market. In fact, immigrants often produce jobs where they live, mainly due to the basic economic laws of supply and demand. Immigrants, like every else, have to consume in order to survive. They must rent a home, buy food, clothes, etc… This increased economic activity gets money circulating and creates jobs. Removing this large segment of low wage workers would shock the American job market by removing a huge segment of the population that contribute to both supply and demand.

And that’s only if the government had the stomach for taking such drastic measures. For one thing, mass deportation is a political nonstarter. It would be a difficult issue for American businesses to support. The reasons for this are simple: companies always want to have the advantage over their competition, and immigrants provide companies with that advantage. A 2009 paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta concluded that “firms employing undocumented workers enjoy a competitive advantage over firms that do not employ undocumented workers.”

Illegal immigrants are too frightened of deportation to complain about poor working conditions or low wages, and so accept these conditions, which drives prices lower for the consumer and provides the company with an advantage. Rising prices would be bad for business, as would be losing thousands of workers, so its easy to see why large businesses would likely oppose a mass deportation plan. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, predicts that mass deportation would reduce United States’ GDP by 1.46%. Also, mass deportation could take years to fully implement (and that’s only if it turned out to be possible), and companies would not wish to see their advantage erode if rivals were able to maintain their advantage for a bit longer.

So, that is the state of the debate. To be sure, there are issues I have not touched on, like whether illegal immigrants cause violent crime (studies show they do not, and they may even make some areas safer) or depress wages (maybe for a smallest, lowest paid segment of the population, though it is also linked to wage increases for many others), but this blog post is to focus mainly on the DREAM Act, so I don’t want to get too sidetracked.

With mass deportation untenable, the only other plausible way of solving this issue is some form of legalization. Critics like to use the term ‘amnesty’ to describe any legalization of illegal immigrants currently in the country, despite the variety of ways it could be handled. For historical context, one should remember that President Reagan signed a bill that both tightened border security and provided amnesty for about 3 million illegal immigrants living in the country.

The lack of real alternatives to some sort of path to citizenship and the partisan attacks on ‘amnesty’ has led to an atmosphere where Congress refuses to pass any immigration reform, and states end up taking matters into their own hands. The DREAM Act, however, stands as a politically viable bill that could partially alleviate some of the problem (though not all).

The Migration Policy Institute reports that around 2.1 million illegal immigrants could become citizens under the DREAM Act’s provisions. That same study estimates “that roughly 38 percent of potential beneficiaries — 825,000 people — would likely obtain permanent legal status” under the DREAM Act. Under the Senate version of the bill, illegal immigrants who entered the country as children (younger than 16) and have lived continuously in the United States for longer than 5 years are eligible. Even though it still leaves some illegal immigrants in America without a path to citizenship, it nonetheless provides a sizable segment of the illegal population with the opportunity to become American citizens. This will have economic benefits for the country (as described in the final section) and brings the entire country a step closer to resolving the status of illegal immigrants already living in America.

–MILITARY BENEFITS–

The DREAM Act would provide the American military, currently fighting two wars, with additional, much-needed recruits. A key provision of the bill dictates that one of the ways an illegal immigrant child could become a citizen is through military service.

This would be a boon to the military, which saw a dearth of recruits in the 2000s and failed to meet many of its recruiting standards. In those years, according to a 2005 Guardian article, the military “stopped battalion commanders from dismissing new recruits for drug abuse, alcohol, poor fitness and pregnancy in an attempt to halt the rising attrition rate in an army” and “recruiters, who were under pressure to meet their monthly quotas,” let their standards slip.

The recession has largely reversed this trend, as more people are unemployed and attracted by the pay and benefits of the military as opposed to the uncertain American labor market. In 2005, the unemployment rate was around 5%. Now (December 2010), it stands at almost double that (9.8%). Still, this is no reason to discount the benefit of added recruits that the DREAM Act would provide. For one, the enhanced recruitment numbers of the recession may continue into the recovery, or they may not. This likely depends on the state of the job market, which is lagging behind most other recovery indicators with high unemployment. Either way, the DREAM Act would be beneficial for the purposes of recruitment levels.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute noted in “Staying Power” in Foreign Affairs that counter-insurgency doctrine “implies that security in Afghanistan could be maintained by a competent force of roughly 400,000 troops.” He adds that by the end of 2010, “there will be roughly 300,000 competent security personnel in place, half foreign and half indigenous,” which is far short of 400,000. Theoretically, 100,000 Afghan or coalition forces should make up this gap. Now, it is extremely unlikely that President Obama will send an additional 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. O’Hanlon notes that already, “Obama has more than doubled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.” This, along with the administration’s decision to provide 30,000 additional troops instead of the higher requests made by then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009 and the hope for a drawdown makes it unlikely that Obama will consent to doubling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan yet again. Still, the commander-in-chief cannot command troops that do not exist. The DREAM Act provides the ways and means, though the ultimate choices of command lies with our leaders.

The main point is that the DREAM Act would provide a needed supply of soldiers in return for granting them citizenship. And, really, would we want to deprive American citizenship of men and women who are willing to defend America with their lives?

–ECONOMIC BENEFITS AND GOVERNMENT REVENUE–

Some opposition to the DREAM Act is coming from people who do not want federal dollars extended to these immigrants to help pay for their schooling. Participating illegal immigrants would be able make use of various loan programs (Federal Direct Loans, Perkins Loans) and work study programs, although they would not be extended grants (like the Pell Grant).

The key difference here is that loans are repaid, unless they default (but, of course, default has its own consequences). Recent figures suggest a 7% default rate of college loan borrowers (legal) in the United States — an increase over earlier years, likely due to the recession.

In general, criticism of this facet of the bill (providing college loans to illegal immigrants) seems to come from people who do not want federal dollars to go to illegal immigrants for a couple general reasons:

  • They think that this would reward breaking the law and incentivize people to come to America illegally, and
  • That illegal immigrants (because they are not citizens) should not benefit from tax dollars.

These are legitimate concerns, but (in my estimation) the long-term benefits outweigh any short term costs.

The first concern is easy to address. The law specifically identifies young children (younger than 16 years old when the entered the United States) who have been in the U.S. “for a continuous period of not less than 5 years” before law passes. In other words, it will only be available to illegal immigrants who were not the decision-makers in their families, and who have already been in America for several years. It (unfortunately) does not address the underlying needs for more comprehensive immigration reform, and thus would not reduce the rate of illegal immigration, but neither would it prove to be an opportunity for new illegal immigrants. It would only apply to those already here.

The second concern takes a bit more explaining to address. For one, illegal immigrants do pay taxes — various studies say that between 50% and 75% of illegal immigrants pay state, local, and federal taxes. Certain taxes are inescapable, like sales and property taxes. Corporate taxes can be included as well, since those are generally passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. Illegal immigrants also pay payroll and income taxes through withholding (and “about 6 million unauthorized immigrants file individual tax returns each year” according to the IRS).

This latter point about withholding and entitlement taxes is especially important. Because of withholding, many people qualify for refunds come tax season. Illegal immigrants often do not file for refunds because they do not want to attract any federal attention. Likewise, illegal immigrants still pay Social Security and Medicare taxes even though they will not be able to use either program unless they become legal.

Still, illegal immigrants seem to be a drag on state and local budgets. Whereas federal tax money goes to programs illegal immigrants will never utilize (Social Security and Medicare, for example), state and local dollars are spent on things like education and welfare services, which illegal immigrants families will use. In general, the amount of state and local tax dollars spent on illegal immigrant families is a small part of the total, but it is still more than they contribute to state and local taxes.

The obvious solution (since mass deportation is unrealistic and expensive) is to remove all the boundaries to their attaining higher paying jobs, and paying taxes on those higher wages. A Center for American Progress study noted some of the effects of the 1986 immigration reform. For instance, barriers to illegal immigrants’ upward mobility are removed, and their newfound citizenship “encourages them to invest more in their own education, open bank accounts, buy homes, and start businesses.” Additionally, it notes that legalization is correlated with higher wages (which translates into increased tax revenue)

Yet, the DREAM Act does simple legalization one better. It encourages higher education. In 2008, the median income for male high school graduates was $32,000, while that of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 71.88% larger ($55,000). The jobs these college graduates will be going into will not only be higher-earning, but also more highly skilled, which should help the United States stay competitive in a global marketplace. Legalization will also have the benefit of making these higher incomes fully taxable.

Providing student loans is crucial to this goal, despite opposition to the parts of the bill that allow the government to extend them to illegal immigrants. First of all, it is incredibly difficult (if not nearly impossible) for students from low-wage earning families (as most illegal immigrants are) to make their way through college without some kind of student loan. American students of many different socio-economic backgrounds take out student loans. If a middle class American must borrow in order to feasibly pursue a higher education, how much more difficult will it be for a lower class illegal immigrant to fund higher education?

If the aim is to encourage higher education (and thus higher paying jobs) and citizenship, it would seem counterproductive to deprive these children of the means to invest in their (and our) future.

–CONCLUSION–

The DREAM Act is not a comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a needed overhaul of the current system. Yet, it deserves passage because its provisions would greatly benefit the country — it would take a step toward solving the issue of illegal immigrants currently residing in America in return for a service. That service (either military or educational) would yield future benefits for American security and prosperity. The DREAM Act may have recently failed passage in the Senate, but it is a proposal that has been around for almost a decade. Here’s to hoping it stays around, and becomes law in the near future.


Immigration and Violence

One of the issues consistently discussed regarding national politics (especially during presidential election season) is that of immigration. From what we hear from media commentators, immigration (especially of the illegal kind) will bring about the ultimate doom of the entire American nation because once they get here, violence levels spike.

This, however, does not seem to be borne out by evidence.

Here’s part of the abstract of a 2007 report:

However, data from the census and other sources show that for every ethnic group without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, even those who are the least educated. This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population. The problem of crime in the United States is not caused or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status. But the misperception that the opposite is true persists among policymakers, the media, and the general public, thereby undermining the development of reasoned public responses to both crime and immigration.

The blogger who quotes the abstract also brings up a good point:

This makes sense if you think about it for a minute. If out-of-status immigrants sneeze wrong in front of a cop, they will be deported. So they have the greatest incentive to stay out of trouble with the law. Permanent residents can also be deported for relatively minor offenses—almost any kind of drug possession charge, for instance. Those with the least incentive to strictly obey the law are U.S.citizens, who often, depending on their race and socioeconomic status, face the least serious consequences.

But why listen to reason? The 2007 report isn’t alone, either. Here’s one from 2008:

Contrary to popular stereotypes, areas undergoing immigration are associated with lower violence, not spiraling crime, according to a new study.

Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson examined crime and immigration in Chicago and around the United States to find the truth behind the popular perception that increasing immigration leads to crime.

Sampson’s study results, detailed in the winter issue of the American Sociological Association’sContexts magazine, summarizes patterns from seven years’ worth of violent acts in Chicago committed by whites, blacks and Hispanics from 180 neighborhoods of varying levels of integration. He also analyzed recent data from police records and the U.S. Census for all communities in Chicago.

Based on assumptions that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and settle in poor, disorganized communities, prevailing wisdom holds that the concentration of immigrants and an influx of foreigners drive up crime rates.

However, Sampson shows that concentrated immigration predicts lower rates of violence across communities in Chicago, with the relationship strongest in poor neighborhoods.

And, finally, the newest one, from 2009:

Many criminologists say El Paso isn’t safe despite its high proportion of immigrants, it’s safe because of them.

“If you want to find a safe city, first determine the size of the immigrant population,” says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. “If the immigrant community represents a large proportion of the population, you’re likely in one of the country’s safer cities. San Diego, Laredo, El Paso—these cities are teeming with immigrants, and they’re some of the safest places in the country.”

If you regularly listen to talk radio, or get your crime news from anti-immigration pundits, all of this may come as a surprise. But it’s not to many of those who study crime for a living. As the national immigration debate heated up in 2007, dozens of academics who specialize in the issuesent a letter (pdf) to then President George W. Bush and congressional leaders with the following point:

“Numerous studies by independent researchers and government commissions over the past 100 years repeatedly and consistently have found that, in fact, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or to be behind bars than are the native-born. This is true for the nation as a whole, as well as for cities with large immigrant populations such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami, and cities along the U.S.-Mexico border such as San Diego and El Paso.”

Immigration has been an issue in the United States for centuries. It still hasn’t resulted in the downfall of society as we know it, and all evidence points to it not contributing to any kind of increase in violence. To the contrary, immigration keeps America’s workforce vibrant, as American families get smaller and the American population ages.