Politics & Policy

Immigration Issue, Ignored

SAVE and the Prevention of Unsafe Licensing Act address certain problems, but ignore others.

Before the recess, Congress was busy introducing a slate of legislation to address illegal immigration. Two bills — the Prevention of Unsafe Licensing Act and the Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement Act (SAVE) — have drawn 120 co-sponsors, most of whom are Republicans, though the list includes a couple of dozen Democrats as well.

The SAVE Act would increase the employee verification system to six million employers, beef up the number of Border Patrol agents and detention centers, and pressure state and local cops to enforce federal immigration laws. The Prevention of Unsafe Licensing Act forbids states and jurisdictions from issuing driver’s licenses or other official government identification cards to individuals who are in the country illegally — a direct rebuke to New York Governor Elliot Spitzer’s ill-conceived idea (now withdrawn) that landed Hillary Clinton in hot water during a recent debate.

However useful these bills may be, Congress is remiss in not addressing another serious immigration issue. Dozens of cities, towns, school districts, and other jurisdictions in which non-citizen immigrant populations have mushroomed in recent years are being strong-armed by the Department of Justice into changing centuries-old forms of governance to accommodate non-citizens.

From Port Chester, New York, to Alamosa County, Colorado, to Santa Paula, California, to Sunnyside, Washington, lawsuits filed by the DOJ or public-interest legal-defense organizations have forced these jurisdictions and others to change their at-large system of representation to single-member districts because of the massive influx of illegal immigration. In the case of Sunnyside (pop. 14,000), the mere threat of a lawsuit by the DOJ caused the city to nix its current form of governance. Sunnyside caved in without even fighting back.

Port Chester (pop. 28,000) is a good example of what is happening around the country. During the last decade or so, this small township in Westchester County, New York, has witnessed a 73-percent growth of its Hispanic population, making the Hispanic population a majority of the town’s residents. But because no Hispanic has ever been elected to the town’s board of trustees — all of whom run at-large — the Department of Justice sued to force Port Chester to ditch its 138-year-old at-large system of governance and instead, create six, single-member trustee districts. Of course, the DOJ wants half of those districts gerrymandered in a manner to allow a Hispanic to win — or, in the more formal language of the law, Hispanics must be able to “elect a candidate of their choice.”

One does not have to sympathize with the Minutemen to conclude this is not fair, but the injustice to Port Chester is further compounded when one looks at the details of DOJ’s proposed districts, which are based on the voting-age population overall, rather than the voting population of citizens. For example, one of the districts DOJ proposed will have a 77 percent Hispanic voting-age population, but only a 56 percent citizen Hispanic voting-age population. Another district has a slight majority of Hispanics, but only a 28 percent Hispanic citizen population. In other words, the federal government wants some of the new voting districts to have citizen-underpopulated Hispanic districts and citizen-overpopulated non-Hispanic ones.

So, this gerrymandering will result in a non-Hispanic district being drawn with 5,000 persons of voting age, 95 percent of whom are citizens, to be represented by one Port Chester trustee. A Hispanic district, meanwhile, might also have 5,000 persons, but only 50 percent of whom are citizens. This kind of district scheme will result in one town trustee representing 4,750 citizens, while another trustee represents only 2,500 citizens.

Is it fair that in one district 2,500 citizens get one representative, while in a neighboring district, it takes 4,750 people to get one? No, it’s not.

This is not an isolated case. As numerous school districts, towns, and cities throughout the country have experienced a surge in their illegal (and legal) non-citizen populations, the courts have forced them to adopt new voting systems like the one in Port Chester.

The immigration issue is complex and thorny, but polls clearly indicate that voters — especially Republicans — are far less concerned about illegal immigrants taking jobs away from Americans than they are the government giving illegal aliens a better deal than they as citizens are getting. Forcing jurisdictions to change their long-standing systems of governance and creating disparities of representation between groups because of illegal immigration growth surely falls into this category.

Regardless of one’s opinion about how to secure our borders and address the 12 million illegal immigrants already here, Congress has an opportunity to fix this specific problem now. Simple legislation requiring the courts to count only citizens for the purposes of voting rights litigation would allow jurisdictions to keep their current governance systems in place, regardless of the influx of non-citizens.

By the way, in addition to agreeing to fix our leaky borders, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee and the other Republican presidential contenders should unite behind legislation to remedy this problem as well.

Comprehensive immigration reform that addresses all issues would be more beneficial than a piecemeal approach, but that appears unlikely for now. In the meantime, both Democrats and Republicans should address this problem — waiting will only continue to stoke more animosity and resentment for our immigrant populations, to say nothing of subjecting cities and counties to unfair and perhaps unconstitutional laws.

–Edward Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Unintended Consequences of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act.


Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the president of the Project on Fair Representation.


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