Saturday, February 8, 2014

What real immigration reform looks like

So the immigration debate has heated up a bit again. Unfortunately, the "security pork in return for amnesty for illegal immigrants" monstrosity that is being debated in the Senate is a million miles from what I believe real immigration reform would look like, and is in fact so bad that I cannot even support it even though I love legal immigration and want far more of it. Below, I have summarized what kind of immigration reform bill we should be discussing.

1: Amend the 14th Amendment by adding the words "of an American citizen" after the word "born" in Section 1. Only children of American citizens should automatically qualify for American citizenship under the Constitution. As a matter of policy, children of permanent residents should also qualify almost automatically, but this should be at our discretion. Jus soli "birthright" citizenship is at the core of our immigration problem, and is a policy which almost all nations have rejected as being impractical and abusive. The rest of my plan would only go into effect on passage of the amending amendment.

2: A national ID policy. Our fragmented system makes enforcing immigration laws difficult, as well as mucking up voting and facilitating fraud. This would be coupled with a national voter ID law once the IDs were nearly universally in place.

3: A path to permanent residency for current illegal immigrants. This should be slower than the path for legal immigrants, and come with substantial fines in the form of something like a 10% payroll tax for ten years. The current Senate bill has fines, but they are so small (~$2000) that they aren't any higher than the application fees and legal bills illegal immigrants skipped out on. As part of the amnesty deal, these folks would forgo any chance at citizenship.

4: A 50% increase in the number of green cards awarded every year, to approximately 1.5 million. This would include the reinstatement of the green card lottery. The remainder would be granted on a points-based system that considered skills, age, education, income, family connections to the US, English skill, and time previously spent in the US.

5: Work visas would be sold, not granted. Each month, a fixed number of 3, 6, 12, 24, and 36 month visas would be auctioned off. Obviously, passing a security screen would be required before placing bids. Once won, the visa could be activated any time within the next year and last as long as noted. Bidding for new visas while under a current one would be allowed, thus making it possible for someone to stay in the US indefinitely if they are willing to pay for it and obey our laws. This would cause the price of residency to be bid up high enough that there would be little advantage in "importing" cheap foreign workers. It would also ensure that the companies that really needed to bring over some guru for a rotation in the US would have little trouble doing so. Note that under this system, H1B's would no longer exist. Immigrants who won work visas would be free to work for any employer during the period of their visa, or not work at all.

6: Use the several billion dollars per year generated above to speed up USCIS processing times and iron out any inconveniences that it inflicts on immigrants due to lack of funds (such as the inability to do biometrics processing overseas).

7: Get rid of the "travel permit" system. In a modern world, USCIS should recognize that immigrants to America will often need to move about the globe. As long as the immigrants are paying their taxes and obeying the laws of both the US and whatever country they find themselves in, USCIS shouldn't bother them...and certainly shouldn't force them to come back to the US repeatedly at USCIS's whim, as is the case now. Additionally, any US immigrant who is abroad for any length of time should be considered to be maintaining their US immigration status if they are living with their American citizen spouse or child, or if they or their spouse is working for an American company or its international affiliate. Currently, such people are constantly threatened with having their immigration status revoked for "abandonment", requiring them to repeatedly travel back to the US and spend a fortune on legal fees (it cost my wife and I, as well as my employer, something like $20,000!).

8: Family-based visas should include a temporary work permit and a Social Security card. Currently, these people arrive in the US and are promptly forcably unemployed, as they can't work in the US until their work permit application comes through in 3-4 months, and they can't leave the country without voiding their green card application. This is just a waste of human capital.

9: Get tough on illegal immigrants and their employers. Rapid deportation should be the norm for the former, and crushing fines the norm for the latter. Illegal immigrants and their children should qualify for almost no public services, including schooling or identification.

10: Increased border the extent Republicans are willing to raise taxes to pay for it, and not one penny more.

There. Plenty of pain on both sides...but everybody wins except future illegal immigrants.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Open Letter to Eric Holthaus, or Why I Offset

I have been a regular purchaser of carbon offsets for the last eight years or so, specifically from TerraPass, though they are not the only acceptable provider. I do this because I cannot find it morally acceptable to leave the world in a worse condition than I found it. It is my responsibility to clean up the messes I make, even if that costs me a hundred bucks a year or so.

I was quite dismayed, however, to read prominent science writer Eric Holthaus's article in Slate earlier this week, where he discussed how, instead of flying like a rational person, he road a bus from Madison to Atlanta in order to attend an academic meeting, wasting essentially two days of his valuable time, all to save an estimated emissions of 1200 lbs of carbon dioxide. This can be offset via TerrPass for under ten dollars. Yep, Eric wasted two days of his time rather than spend ten bucks. Why? Because, to quote Eric, "I don’t believe in offsets". He then links to a debate about the quality of offsets that offers no conclusion, nor is particularly relevant anyway is it is a discussion about the UN's Clean Development Mechanism and related international treaties, not the small individual market. But even in the former case of the slow treaty process, independent audits have not been bad, finding that over 90% of offsets are real and "additional" - in other words, are not something that would have have happened anyway. Oddly, famous climate blogger Joe Romm cites the same article as evidence against offsets, linking it with a highly misleading lede. I normally like Joe, but on that day he let his hatred of "rip-offsets" as he calls them get the better of him.

In the case of private organizations, however, there is even less reason to doubt their work. TerraPass, with which I am most familiar, is completely transparent about its present and futures projects, providing long comment periods before accepting them, and routine audits by both TerraPass staff and independent auditors to ensure that emission reductions are being measured properly. Their business critically depends on transparency and they provide it in spades.

Which brings me back to Holthaus. Despite his herculean and largely pointless efforts, he still emitted over 300 lbs of carbon for the transportation portion trip. Since he didn't offset them, obviously his total was +300 lbs for the transportation segment of the trip. Now let's compare that to my upcoming trip to Australia, which TerraPass realistically estimates at 4600 lbs of carbon. In response to this, I will purchase 6000 lbs of offsets for less than $40. I always over-purchase a bit precisely because I worry that TerraPass (or any provider) is not perfect, and I want to keep sure I am in the right side of things. Even if you assume that TerraPass is only 80% effective, which is lower than there is any reason to believe, I would still be -200 lbs for the trip, 500 lbs less than Holthaus for our respective trips.

In my opinion, folks like Holthaus and Romm are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and in doing so, causing a lot of harm. It is simply too painful, in our world designed with high environmental impact infrastructure and economic systems, to live a very low impact lifestyle. Radicals aside, people won't do it. Even crusaders like Holthaus and Romm fall far short of perfection. However, a lot of people can be convinced to pay a bit of money to offset the messes they make, and a few dollars can be highly beneficial here. Claiming that offsets are not perfect enough or pure enough or direct enough will certainly push people away from buying them. However, imagining that these people Eric and Joe pushed away from buying them will then magically decide to drastically and directly reduce their environmental impact instead is wishful thinking.

For me, it is pretty simple. I am pretty low impact (living in Japan will do that to you), and I offset about 120% of the rest, just to be safe. Odds are I am pretty close to carbon neutral, give or take a few percent. Folks like Holthaus, in contrast, have no hope but to be substantially carbon positive given their current courses of actions. Worse yet, they are convincing other people to follow their lead in the wrong direction.


Post-script: For the record, I do not offset work-related activity. I offset what I consume, not what I produce. To do both would be to double-count. Also note that my upcoming set of flights is only the ninth set of my life that was not business-related. I am certainly not a million miler.