Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Immigration Reform, Abstract and Personal

Where to stand on immigration reform is easy -- in the abstract.

We must have secure borders. A nation that can not control its borders can not long remain a nation. The tide of illegal immigration must be stopped.

That's the easy part.

But for so many of us, it becomes much more difficult when viewed on a personal level.

You may not know an illegal immigrant. You may not have had a nanny or au pair who overstayed her visa, or worked contrary to the visa's terms -- or was just plain undocumented. But you may well know someone who has employed an 'illegal' nanny. You may not have a lawn service -- but you probably know people who do.

I don't have either a nanny or a lawn service. But I worked for a building contractor nearly 30 years ago, after my first year of law school, as a laborer. I was the only Anglo among the laborers. The others were Mexican. I did not know their immigration status, but I can guess. We lived in an area (now the built-up Northwest suburbs of Chicago) that had a long tradition of Mexican migrant laborers coming through each summer to work local farms.

Anyway, these men got to work before I did, and left later. They were stronger than I was, and worked harder. And they sent much of their money "home" to their families.

It is impossible to see such men as felons.

It is fascinating to listen to the immigration debate today: The conservatives claim to be protecting the wages of American workers. The liberals call for the operation of a free market in labor. (No, I didn't get that backwards.) And the big business types, that one would ordinarily assume to be in the conservatives' camp, are all in favor of 'guest worker' status for illegals (do you think that might be because they buy into the idea that illegals keep wages down?).

But in all the talk about fences and felonies, on the one hand, and 'guest workers' and amnesty on the other, I'm not hearing enough about whether the immigrants among us already are here to become Americans -- or just here for the cash. In fairness, the McCain-Kennedy proposal supposedly requires that illegals learn English as part of their process of normalization. But there seems to be some sort of embarrassment about being American that permeates our society at all levels, and that is a matter of concern to me.

My children have all had an assignment, in grammar school, to write about their 'country of origin' -- and to put 'their flag' on the cover of their report. When my oldest told me about this assignment, I told her to put an American flag on the cover and write about the United States. This is where she was born. I got angry when she insisted that she had to write about either Cuba (where her mother's family comes from) or Ireland (home of my remote ancestors). (And I was angry with the school, not with my daughter, because that was what the assignment required.)

I think it's wonderful that a family keeps the traditions it brought with it into this country. It's nobody's business what language is spoken at home. American culture is a tapestry, woven from the threads of the myriad of traditions imported to these shores by immigrants. But people who come here should come here to become Americans; those of us who are Americans should be proud of who and what we are -- even if, and maybe even especially when, we disagree with a particular President or a particular party.

When did the oath of citizenship change? It formerly required renunciation of every foreign prince or potentate. Now we have "dual citizenship." It's not just Mexicans voting in Mexican elections in Chicago. There were Iraqis driving across the Midwest to vote in Rosemont for the new Iraqi government. We recently had a prominent Chicagoan campaigning to represent 'overseas Italians' in the next Italian parliament. (I don't know if he won or lost.) I know many Americans with Irish passports (although that may not a bad idea, I suppose, as a safety measure given the enmity which Americans can face overseas).

My point is this. The topic of immigration reform can't be limited only to a discussion of what to do about illegal immigrants. We have to address whether we who are here already are also asking newcomers to assimilate, to become Americans like us. I think we need to renew and celebrate our belief that being an American is something special, and desirable. That doesn't mean we embrace the prejudices that scarred our ancestors: Being an American is not about having blonde hair or blue eyes; being an American has always been more about ideas than genetics. (Don't tell me that I'm overlooking slavery and the subsequent struggle for civil rights. I'm not. I dispute the contention that this central fact of American history undermines my point. It underscores my point instead: Indeed, the civil rights movement can be seen as a struggle for African Americans to fully participate in the American meritocracy.) To be an American requires the embrace of principles of individual liberty, fair play, self-reliance, equal opportunity, tolerance. Yes, that's a partial list; yes, we can argue about what these values mean. I think of Frank Capra movies when I try to define what being an American is -- but I realize even that reference can be, and was at one time, controversial.

There's a quote from Theodore Roosevelt about immigration circulating now among red-meat conservatives. The cited link shows that TR made this statement shortly before his death, in 1919, not in 1907 as the ubiquitous e-mail asserts (hence the reference, omitted in the partial quote that follows, to the "red flag"). But here's the important part of the quote: "In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin."

Isn't that a good basis upon which to start discussing how to deal with the illegal immigrants who are already here?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Losing Another Old House in the Community

The Edison-Norwood Times-Review is running a story in this weeks issue about another Victorian house in Old Norwood that is about to face the wrecking ball. That link is active for only a limited time, so let me quote just a bit from the article:

Time is running out for a Norwood Park home that was built shortly after the community was annexed by the city of Chicago in 1893.

The James A. Low house, 5957 N. Nina Ave., a single-family, frame residence is targeted for demolition. According to records from the City Landmarks Commission, the application for a demolition permit was put on a hold list Jan. 23, postponing a decision for 90 days.

On the Chicago Historical Resources Survey, the house is rated "orange" -- the second highest classification -- meaning it "possesses potential significant architectural or historical features."

The house, which according to the survey was constructed beginning in 1895, was also listed as "contributing" to the Norwood Park National Register District.

* * *

Alderman Brian Doherty, R-41st, said he was informed by Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner of Landmarks, that the house does not meet the criteria necessary to designate it a city landmark. Doherty called the standards "very subjective."

The Norwood Park Historical Society's Tom Spenny called the Low House an important piece of neighborhood history that warrants preservation.

He has been trying to save the Low house, but doesn't expect it to remain intact much past April 23, when the demolition hold period expires.

The story illustrates a growing problem in the City of Chicago: How do we preserve our past and our property rights both?

The article quoted Ald. Doherty on this issue:

"The city shouldn't tell people what to do with their property." Doherty said. The best way to save historic buildings, he said, is to give the property owners incentives to preserve them.

I think the alderman is entirely correct on this. But what incentives are appropriate?

There is a vicious cycle at work here: Beautiful old buildings attract new people to a neighborhood. Property values are enhanced by the newcomers who fix up or demolish run-down properties and build "McMansions" (as the link shows, this is not just a Chicago problem) -- and everybody's property value goes up. And so do the property taxes. Older folks living in the older houses may have trouble paying both the new, higher taxes and the costs of maintaining the properties. Now the one-time neighborhood gems, some of the very buildings that attracted the newcomers in the first place, are the small ones, the shoddy ones, the ones in the crosshairs of developers.

I worked for many years in the River North neighborhood. When we moved in, the area was run-down, faded, and not a place to be after dark. But there were beautiful buildings everywhere, like the Hotel St. Benedict Flats and dozens of beautiful buildings along Dearborn Street, particularly north of Chicago Avenue (we were just south). Now that whole area is a forest of skyscrapers, full of expensive condos and luxury apartments. The Hotel St. Benedict Flats has survived, although it's been threatened more than once, but many distinctive buildings have been lost. And yet: It's those buildings that helped developers sell the "charm" of the neighborhood in which they were building.

On the other hand, if you could sell your three-flat to a developer for 10-20-100 times what you paid for it -- wouldn't you take the money and run?

And that's why building owners fear "landmark" status like the plague: It prevents the owner from demolishing his building; it may prevent the owner from making all sorts of improvements. In the meantime, the assessed value rises along with the skyscrapers or the McMansions next door.

I'd like to know if we can link property taxes to landmark status; that is, if we can induce property owners to accept landmark status by offering to freeze, or even rollback assessed value on "landmark" properties. Perhaps this would supply sufficient incentive for owners to hold onto and preserve their distinctive buildings.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Morning After the Primary

The votes are in, but not yet counted, from yesterday's Illinois primary.

One thing is certain, however: Thousands, probably tens of thousands, of Illinois voters were effectively disenfranchised.

I'm not referring to the speculations about the new voting systems that are thoroughly documented in today's newspapers. Rather, I'm talking about Republicans in Cook County (except those in a handful of Republican subcircuits) and Democrats in the collar counties who took ballots for their parties -- and were thereby prevented from having any say in who would be elected to the bench.

Judicial races are decided in the primaries in Illinois. In Cook County, the Republicans don't even bother to put up candidates for the circuit bench in countywide races: The winners of yesterday's primary races must wait until December to be sworn in, but they will take office at that time. November is only a formality.

The bar associations say this shows the need for "merit selection" of judges.

But what is merit selection? Politicians slate judicial candidates now; the slated candidates usually win. "Usually" means not always. Sometimes it's because a "slated" candidate is "dumped" in favor of someone else by a group of committeemen. Sometimes it's because the slated candidates have 'funny names' and they are beaten by a man or woman whose only qualification for elected office is a mellifluous Irish surname. But sometimes the slated candidate loses because a more qualified candidate finds a way to squeak by.

With merit selection, the politicians get to slate the candidates -- and they will always win. Because politicians will do the selecting, whatever "blue ribbon" commissions are set up to disguise their choices.

I know most voters don't know and don't care about judicial candidates. I know the newspapers can't be bothered to cover judicial races. Here's a link to the March 1 story that appeared in the Chicago Tribune -- the only one I could find while searching the website this morning. Not one candidate is mentioned. Last Sunday, instead of reporting information, the Tribune ran a six-panel editorial cartoon in the Perspective section lampooning how people choose judges in the absence of information with which to make informed choices.

My perception is that the Chicago Sun-Times does a better job of covering judicial races, largely because former Chicago Law Bulletin writer Abdon Pallasch is on the staff -- but I must confess that my search this morning of the Sun-Times web site for appropriate illustrative links came up empty.

In any event: I propose that we do away with partisan primaries for judicial elections. All judicial candidates would appear on all primary ballots, for whatever party. A candidate who receives 50% plus one would be unopposed in November -- in all other cases, the top two finishers would be paired off. It would not eliminate slating, but at least those persons sufficiently civic-minded enough to come out for a primary election would not have to choose between party loyalty or forfeiting the opportunity to stand up and be counted as to who will serve them on the bench.