Tuesday, May 24

US-Immigration: Brother, can you spare a half-million dollar house?

"Dear Pundita, what do you think of the proposed Kennedy-McCain immigration bill?
Claudia in Taos"

Dear Claudia:
The bill reflects very specific immediate actions with regard to a visa program--but very hazy long-range proposals with regard to security:
Title I: Border Security

Requires the development of various plans and reports [that evaluate] information sharing, international and federal/ state/ local coordination, technology, anti-smuggling, and other border security initiatives.

Establishes a Border Security Advisory Committee made up of various stakeholders in the border region to provide recommendations to the Department of Homeland Security regarding border enforcement.

Encourages the development of multilateral partnerships to establish a North American security perimeter and improve border security south of Mexico.
In effect, the Kennedy-McCain bill asks for studies of the security situation. That is working blind and putting the cart before the horse.

First do the studies, set up the committee, and allow the DHS to review the recommendations. Then, based on the recommendations made by the DHS (and the Pentagon), draft immigration legislation that is specifically designed to take the security angle into account.

Other very important studies should also be commissioned and completed before leaping in with legislation. The United States is seeing a resurgence of infectious diseases that were wiped out in this country. The US is now on the verge of a leprosy epidemic. Not only leprosy but also tuberculosis, polio, and several other serious diseases are threatening the American population and with attendant costs to industry and families, not to mention "the taxpayer."

The path for reintroducing 'extinct' diseases to the US is via foreign visitors of all kinds--tourists, students, immigrants both legal and illegal, and so on. The question is how to set up health screening for the legal visitors, including temporary guest workers. This task should not be left to the US companies employing temporary workers. Nor should it be left to the companies that have come to depend on illegal workers. We need the screening program in place first, before making any legislation with regard to updating visa programs.

We also need to study the "immigrant" practice of buying single-family dwellings for use by multiple immigrant families. To my knowledge the only study done on this situation was by Gary Painter and Zhou Yu of the University of Southern California's Lusk Center for Real Estate; they based their study on analysis of 1990 and 2000 US census data. I have not read the study, which was mentioned almost in passing in a Realty Times column by Al Heavens on immigrant buyers:
[The study authors] also found that immigrants pool resources to buy one home for multiple families, which California new-home developers have been reporting for at least 10 years.
I doubt the study went deeply into the phenomenon and of course the latest census was conducted prior to the effects of very low interest rates on home buying patterns by immigrants. In any case, many immigrant homebuyers in the US are not actually immigrants--they are temporary workers, but they sell the house to other such workers when they return home.

In other words, American homebuyers who conceive of a house as a place to put down roots and raise a family are now in competition for housing with foreigners who snap up houses for use as dormitories.

One can sympathize with the practice--after all, guest workers have to live somewhere, and the east and west coast housing market is now such that an average one-family dwelling is around $500,000. But the housing squeeze in California is now such that companies in the state that desperately need employees can't attract American workers from other parts of the country because housing prices are prohibitive for all but the rich--or for those willing to live with other families in dorm fashion.

To my knowledge the phenomenon hasn't been formally studied on the east coast but from anecdotal accounts many eastern companies surely face the same problem as the California counterparts.

So there is a vicious cycle in motion: The companies need workers, but the housing isn't available for the workers. That forces companies to seek employees who don't mind bunking several families to a house. That's not the American Dream for born Americans or true immigrants--those who want America to be their permanent home.

The dream might have to undergo considerable revision if the housing squeeze on the coasts is not simply a bubble. But that's why we need a study on the immigrant-housing situation before we can work out good legislation pertaining to temporary foreign workers.

Also, more Americans need to understand that the US realty profession is salivating over the huge profits that can be made if more illegals become homeowners in the USA. See: Reaching Out To Undocumented Immigrants by Al Heavens at the Realty Times site.

The studies I mentioned--on security, disease, and home buying patterns--need to be coordinated by one commission. And conducted before trying to cobble together proposed legislation that represents a compromise with the many interest groups pushing hard for immigrant legislation reform "right away."

And before plunging in with more hasty and poorly-researched legislation, it might also be a help if senators McCain and Feingold explained how they were taken for a ride by George Soros with regard to "big grassroots support" for the campaign finance reform bill. I suppose the senators can blame their aides for not looking more deeply into the polls and the "grass roots" organizations. However, this kind of situation tracks back to Yossef Bodansky's complaint about congressionals who are in over their heads when it comes to studying intelligence reports on critical defense issues.

Congressionals are now asked to make recommendations and legislation on numerous highly complex and diverse issues that have huge international ramifications--and without adequately trained staff to help them. The upshot is that congressionals tend to rely on policy institutes and lobbyists to help fill in the data/analysis blanks. This process doesn't necessarily produce bad conclusions, but in the case of the bill you mentioned--and all proposed legislation with regard to immigration--another disaster is in the making.

For details on the Kennedy-McCain bill, see Daily Kos for an overview (and study the comment section for some informative and bitter remarks).

For an eye-opening look at the bicoastal housing squeeze and some jaw-dropping statistics, visit the PBS website for a transcript of the Real Estate Boom segment by the PBS NewsHour with Jim Leherer on May 17. Note that renters are also being squeezed out in California cities.

For earlier Pundita essays on Mexico-US relations and the immigration situation, visit The Mexico Desk


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