Monday, May 31, 2010

Homes on the Hill: a Metaphor of the Immigration Debate

Imagine that you lived in a town in which many of the families lived in crowded, dilapidated homes. Naturally, families of more modest means would seek to build new homes on more affordable land, on the hills just outside the town. To build a new home outside of the municipal limits required that families spend months navigating through the costly and complex halls of the town bureaucracy to obtain zoning changes and building permits. On top of that, they were required to use licensed contractors that were beyond the means of most families.

Faced with the dilemma of having their children remain in crowded, dilapidated homes or skirting the town bureaucracy, many chose the latter option and built their homes on the hills without the zoning changes or permits. And rather than use licensed contractors they built the homes themselves.

They new that in order to evade the municipal inspectors, they would have to use fake permits. Virtually all of the neighbors, as well as the city inspectors knew that the papers were fake, but chose to overlook this. Why? Because they new that the vast majority of these law breakers were good, hard working people who only wanted to improve the lives of their families. Bureaucrats and businessmen chose to turn a blind eye, because the former benefited from the taxes and political support and the latter profited from the construction supplies and general items that these individuals purchased.

But, in addition to the benefits, these families did impose costs on the city by necessitating the extension of roads, water, sewer and electrical lines, as well as the construction of a new school. Some of the townspeople argued that the costs outweighed the benefits and that the homes on the hills imposed a net tax burden. And of course, some of the townspeople argued to the contrary. But one thing was certain, select politicians and businessmen handsomely benefited from these projects. Few of the townspeople harbored enmity towards the home owners, rather they directed their ire at their political leaders for not enforcing the laws of the land. After all, if the townspeople had to adhere to the myriad of costly, time consuming codes, why should the families in the hill not have to?

In spite of heated debates, most of the townspeople simply went about their lives and ignored the few homes on the hill. Poorer and even middle class families saw that in spite of the occasional token fine or even eviction, the majority of the families on the hill could live there in peace. So, predictably more and more families moved there, until the hills were covered with new homes, so much so that no one could ignore them. More of the towns people began calling for a strict enforcement of the law, because it was one thing to let a few people get away with skirting the laws, but to have the town authorities ignore the systematic violation of the law in their eyes equalled a serious erosion of the rule of law. And then to make maters worse, one of the homes on the hills collapsed crushing its owner. Although the majority of the homes were solid, the hand full that were not made the headlines and soon the town's politicians could not ignore the indignation of more of their constituents.

Almost everyone agreed that something had to be done; the zoning and construction permit system was clearly broken. But a fierce divide existed between the townspeople. One group believed that the town had to implement an amnesty that legalized the presence of the homes on the hills, after imposing a modest fine on the home owners. The other group supported a tough enforcement of the laws, with some of its members declaring that the illegal homes would have to be torn down and its owners would have to start from scratch, but this time with the right permits. While many of the latter group recognized the benefits of legalizing the status of the homes on the hills, they believed that without the tough enforcement of the law, more and more families would continue to ignore the town's laws and build homes without the proper permits. After all, if a home owner could save $20,000 building a home without permits or a licensed contractor, a $5,000 fine would certainly not deter them. And although very, very few of these law breakers were dangerous to the public, most of the towns people recognized that they did not have the capacity to provide unlimited infrastructure to whoever chose to build a home on the hills.

Both sides argued back and forth without resolving the issue, because in a sense both were correct. To evict good, hard working families from homes that they had built and resided in for many years was completely inhumane. But equally the town had to take strong measures to ensure that the boom in illegal construction would not continue, because although very, very few of the violators were dangerous to the public, the town's capacity to provide infrastructure to existing homes was already deeply strained. And on a deeper level, the towns people new that the rule of law that had brought much peace and prosperity to their town dictated that laws had to either be enforced or changed, but they could not be systematically ignored. And both sides argued until the break of dawn until the sun rose over the homes on the hill...

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