Of bikes and bureaucracy
Mayor Dave has recently come under some fire for a trip to Amsterdam to scope out that city and country's bicycling culture and infrastructure.
Brenda Konkel, in an open letter to the City Ethics Committee, wondered why said trip was not seen as a clear violation of our ethics laws. You see, in order for government officials to accept things like trips to Amsterdam from business interests, the rules state that it must have a demonstrable benefit to the city and not simply be a gift given in order to curry favor.
It can be a thoroughly blurry line, though. Where does the scale tip in favor of "benefit to city" or "gift to curry favor," exactly? Because Mayor Dave and the other officials who went on the trip argued that it was undertaken in order to learn more about ways in which Madison could be made more bicycle (and alternate transportation in general) friendly. That is, in my opinion, an important and noble goal, but I'm also concerned that the means may ultimately mar the end.
Clearly there need to be better, clearer, and more succinct guidelines for what does and does not constitute a violation of ethics laws in terms of what government officials can accept. The "benefit to the city" stipulation doesn't seem to be cutting the mustard, anyway. And I don't want to see Madison's push for better transport options derailed by shady (or even perceived to be shady) dealings. This is already enough of an uphill battle as it is.
Plus, if Mayor Dave and friends want to learn about ways in which we can make the city more bike friendly, they need look no further than the Platinum Bicycling City Planning Committee report. The result of 18 months of brainstorming by bike advocates from around the country, the report deals with many of the same things the officials cited as having learned about in Amsterdam.
I'm not saying there's nothing to be learned from places like the Netherlands, which clearly has a bike culture worth striving for. But I think it's worth saying that there are less expensive and less potentially unethical ways to go about learning those things.
A nation of immigrants wrestles with itself
I've been watching, mouth more often than not agape, all of the recent developments in regards to America's treatment of her immigrants rather closely lately. Arizona's breathtakingly discriminatory and unconstitutional law has certainly pushed the issue back into the spotlight, but this is something we've been dealing with since the first generation of non-Native Americans were born on American soil and decided that they were more American than those newer immigrants still coming over.
It's always struck me as a supremely strange situation. Here we are, a nation of immigrants and their children, and yet we cannot seem to put together a comprehensive, effective, and compassionate system of immigration laws. Instead, the United States relies on a poorly enforced hodge-podge of regulations that has, in some instances, done more to enable racial and ethnic stereotyping and fears than it has to create a meaningful system of laws.
It's less surprising when immigration controversies flare up in places like Arizona, but the fact is that many of those same problems face every state in the country-even Wisconsin.
Just this past weekend, hundreds of area residents gathered at the capitol to protest Arizona's new, draconian laws and to show their support for fairer treatment of immigrants nationwide. It was just one of more than 60 May Day rallies that happened across the country, including the estimated 65,000 who gathered in Milwaukee.
And though the percentage of immigrants living in Wisconsin was only 4.3 percent of the state's population (as of last count in 2006), it's seen a dramatic overall increase in those numbers in the last couple of decades. Between 1990 and 2000, for instance, the number of immigrant residents here increased by 59.4 percent.
All of that is to say that immigration policy and the treatment of minorities in general is not something Wisconsin can afford to ignore or botch.
The answer should never be to take away or limit anyone's rights, though. Working toward a more equitable and stable solution is going to be a long, complex process but falling back on laws based on knee-jerk assumptions and fear should never be the solution.
For instance, Democratic leaders in the Senate recently unveiled an immigration reform plan that would require that every worker in the nation carry a national identification card that would include biometric information about them. I can hardly think of a more backwards, Orwellian idea, frankly, and I'm appalled that anyone would introduce such a thing, let alone Democrats.
Allowing state and local police to stop and detain people based on the color of their skin, where they're looking for work, what kind of clothes they're wearing, or what language they're speaking is a shockingly undemocratic move. Requiring a sort of internal passport for every citizen is so violently anti-American that I hardly know where to begin. All of it would be both prohibitively expensive and bureaucratically difficult to implement, too, but I'm still more focused on the moral hazards involved.
Yes, our immigration policies need serious revision. We must find better ways of ensuring that those who wish to come to our country and work and live honest lives can do so without fear of discrimination or overly complicated and time-consuming paperwork. Once that's taken care of, it should leave us freer to make sure those who still break the law are held accountable in a reasonable and just fashion.
We must also make sure that we're targeting all law breakers and not just non-citizens. There are far too many employers in this country willing to hire and exploit undocumented workers, who make a lot of money doing so, and almost never see real consequences for their actions.
The final, far stickier piece of this puzzle is the fact that most immigrants are leaving their home countries for good reason: lack of economic, educational, and social opportunity and freedom. The United States can't go into these places and tell them how to do things, but we can set a better example right here on our own soil. We can offer economic incentives to those governments that make meaningful reform. We can also finally take responsibility for the meddling past U.S. officials and agencies did in various South American countries that contributed in various ways, large and small, to their current problems. I'm not saying "It's all our fault!" but we don't get out of this squeaky clean, either.
What a lot of this comes down to is misplaced fear. There are legitimate concerns to do with crime, safety, and jobs, but placing all or even most of the blame on immigrants is wrong-headed. They may seem like a convenient scapegoat to some, but ultimately such a policy will only lead to new problems without ever solving the original issue.
Turning against each other is not the solution. We need to listen to the concerns of the effected communities and work to find a middle way, one that creates and enforces fair and effective laws while still respecting the rights of our fellow human beings.