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Immigration Reform: The Promise of Civil Society

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

There is a parallel hidden by history between the Great Depression and the surge of women and children from Central America across our southern border.  It is a parallel crisis of confidence.

As bank after bank failed during the Great Depression and our grandparents (or great-grandparents - I realize to my deep dismay I am actually getting old) abandoned the traditional banking system, an alternative which originated decades earlier in Europe gained currency here.

While credit unions already had an established history back as far as 1850, it was out of the Great Depression that they were formalized here in the United States.  In 1934 the Federal Credit Union Act became law, and provided a chartering process for non-profit, member-owned bank-like institutions.  Services and membership groups were limited at first, but in 1977 legislation allowed credit unions to offer a wider range of products like mortgages and credit cards.  Membership groups also expanded and today credit unions serve 96 million people, roughly 43.7% of economically active Americans.

It is this triumph of civil society which suggests a way forward in the immigration reform debate.

To explain, I first need to explain very briefly that by civil society I mean organic, non-profit organizations which form to meet specific needs.  Political society describes government, its constituent bureaucracies and the dynamics which emerge as those bureaucracies inevitably compete with each other for budget dollars.  Conservative political philosophy, as I advocate for it here in this blog, simply prefers civil society over political society for most of the challenges we face.

And now to the crisis of confidence over immigration.

As I have written elsewhere, the problem here is not at the border and frankly has nothing to do with border security.  It is simply a matter of expecting people to wait in a line that is not moving.  And this particular line is not moving - and thus creating a market for human smuggling - because we have an immigration system built by and for political society.  While the details of the solution will certainly be complex, the solution itself is quite simple.  Immigration is a problem we face together, and we need to take it back from political society.

A High Level Overview

If we take a high-altitude view of this, the solution looks very much like the credit union idea in that employers who depend on immigrant labor could form an immigrant labor cooperative.  Just as banking services are highly regulated, immigrant labor must also be tightly regulated.  But as credit unions have shown us, civil society - audited and regulated by political society - is easily up to the task.  Immigrant labor cooperatives would have to meet the requirements outlined in a federal charter.  Here are a few things which might be called out in that charter:

Security Clearances: We already have a very mature system for evaluating people who will be asked to work with sensitive information and oversee sensitive processes.  National security clearances all the way up to Top Secret/SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) are granted to those working in the Defense and Homeland Security arenas.  Those employed by immigrant labor cooperatives would be required to obtain at least a Secret level clearance.

SAS 70, SSAE 16 & SOC1/2/3: The banking system is required to house its information technology in data centers which meet standards for security, along with external and internal control processes.  While there is technically no "SAS70" certification (it originated as an accounting reporting standard), SSAE 16 provides for stringent auditing, producing a Service Organization Control 1 (SOC1) report.  SOC2 and SOC 3 provide strict audit guidelines for data center service organizations.  At a minimum, an immigrant labor cooperative should be required to meet the same information security standards which are applied to the banking sector.  These requirements can be met by leasing data center space from SSAE 16/SOC2 & 3 compliant datacenters.

Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI): Carnegie Mellon University oversees and markets CMMI as a model for defining processes, including audits to confirm that processes are followed and statistical modeling to measure the degree to which changes improve or degrade efficiency.  (Other similar process evaluation models like Lean Six Sigma offer similar outcomes.)  An immigrant labor cooperative should be required to attain CMMI "Level III" within one year of commencing operation (not an easy target to hit, as any information technology professional who has been involved in these efforts can attest).  Level V (the highest level) should be required within 5-7 years.  Certification would have to be maintained via periodic audits.

Example: The California Central Valley

Here in California, the Central Valley is one of the most important agricultural regions in the United States, and is very dependent on immigrant labor.  As I pointed out in my last post on this topic, this is not because Americans will not do this kind of work.  It is because our economy is usually strong enough that American citizens usually have other options.  Given the choice between working under the very hot Central Valley sun (summers easily break the 100°F mark on a daily basis) or working as an entry level teller, for example, in an air conditioned credit union branch... well, which would you choose?

Thus Central Valley growers depend on immigrant labor, and folks in Mexico and Central America would like to come here to fill these jobs.  At this point the typical conservative position is "that's fine, but they should follow the law and wait in line like everyone else."

As one who has waited in a similar line to get my then-fiancee a visa, I agree.  We will not solve the problem of illegal immigration by making a sham of legal immigration and a fool of people like myself and my wife.  But when the line is not moving, incentives are created for employing illegal immigrants.  This, in turn, then creates the market for human smuggling - and the ugliness we see today at the border.

If the opportunity existed for Central Valley growers to create an immigrant labor cooperative under federal charter with the authority to grant work permits to immigrant workers who will work in the Central Valley, I suspect the growers will happily pool their financial resources to create such a non-profit organization.  Since these growers will themselves be the owners of the non-profit (exactly as account holders are member-owners in credit unions), incentives for efficiency (i.e. for making sure the line is moving) are built in - and the budgetary competition of political society which incentivizes inefficiencies is built out.

Real Immigration Reform

If we are serious about immigration reform, pioneering it in the Central Valley by creating a pilot immigrant labor cooperative under federal charter, funded by the Central Valley growers themselves, offers us - civil society - the opportunity to own one of the biggest challenges we face today as a nation and in our several communities.  Our call for immigration reform should start with a clear, explicit and detailed call for returning as much of this issue to civil society as we can.

As conservatives this also offers us the opportunity to speak clearly to our neighbors - past the sophisticated Progressive public relations ridicule machine - about our conservative view of American life.  It is a view that takes seriously the problems we face - but one which believes civil society will always solve them quicker and more efficiently than political society.

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