Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Daily Herald, Provo Utah - The law of adverse possession

In Our View: sdfhsdjklfhvkljdsfhgfb :: The Daily Herald, Provo Utah

Sunday, June 20, 2004 - 12:00 AM |

The Daily Herald
Funny how the use of a single word can derail civil discussion about illegal immigration. The word is amnesty, and it is infused with so much emotion that it's hard to have an intelligent discussion anymore.

Radical groups such as Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, led by congressional candidate Matt Throckmorton, object to any suggestion that migrants deserve a path to legitimacy without first leaving the country. His reasoning starts with the "crime" of sneaking into the United States, and his solution is essentially one of law enforcement.

Throckmorton asserts that migrants should be denied the benefits of their "crime" -- that is, a job. He says undocumented migrants should be deported at every opportunity, and America's borders must be made airtight at any cost. The primary vehicle for halting the flow of new immigrants, Throckmorton says, is heavy fines on the U.S. employers who provide them jobs.

On the other side, U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, President Bush and others are more realistic. They recognize the immense economic contribution of migrant labor to the U.S. economy and the moral and legal dilemma posed by immigrant families who have been in the country for two or three generations, working, paying taxes, contributing to health insurance plans, buying goods and raising children who, by virtue of their birth on American soil, happen to be American citizens.

Such people are as solid as any migrant ever to enter this country, starting back in the earliest days when all you had to do was show up to be accepted for citizenship. They are certainly not criminals in the ordinary sense of the word. Their only "crime" was to respond to the demand of the U.S. economy, whose growth required a growing labor force. It is both immoral and economically suicidal to suggest running migrants out of the country, either directly through law enforcement or indirectly by denying them jobs.

The folly of Throckmorton's perspective is that the very jobs he would deny to immigrants are essential to the economic well-being of the country. With the U.S. population flat and declining since 1970, no American labor pool exists to pick up the slack. The economic shock of job denials would be ruinous, starting in California, whose GDP is fifth-largest in the world and whose agriculture, food service and tourism industries are dependent upon migrant labor. But every state in the nation would suffer.

Recognizing such economic realities while seeking better documentation of workers in the post-9/11 world, Cannon has advanced a common-sense proposal that would allow a migrant worker to obtain temporary worker status by registering with the government and meeting certain criteria. That's too much for Throckmorton's UFIRE and other radical anti-immigrant groups, who call it amnesty. Similarly, they attack President Bush's guest worker proposal as amnesty because it doesn't require a migrant to leave the country first.

It's time to cut through all this unhelpful rhetoric and talk about basic principles.

The important thing is not whether a program constitutes amnesty. The fundamental question is whether migrant workers who have contributed to the American economy as well as any American, and whose labor is needed by American industry, deserve a path toward legal status.

Clearly they do. It's the right thing both economically and morally.

It might be different if migrants were somehow stealing jobs from Americans. But that is simply not the case. The needs of the American economy are what have fueled illegal immigration for decades in a classic example of supply and demand. If a demand for labor had not been present in America for the last 30 or 40 years -- that is, if an ample labor force had been generated from within this country -- no market would have existed into which an illegal immigrant could successfully move.

Groups such as UFIRE badly miss the point by failing to recognize that the demand for labor existed in the first place because no Americans stepped up. Natural market forces drove willing workers north across the border.

But there's another reason that many migrant workers and their families deserve a route to legitimacy and citizenship. It runs parallel to a little-known principle of property law known as adverse possession.

The law of adverse possession says that one may obtain title to property when the owner of that property fails to invoke his rights to prevent another's use of it.

Adverse possession can occur when one makes us of another's property for a time prescribed by law, usually a number of years. For example, if you move a fence and plant a garden on your neighbor's property, and if the neighbor knows about it and does nothing, you can acquire title to his property by adverse possession.

The same principle applies to a migrant worker who has been in the United States for years, working and paying taxes.

His employers, good Americans all, have invited his presence, taking advantage of his labor and paying wages.

Retail stores, entertainment establishments, public utilities and other commercial and professional entities have welcomed him by taking his money for goods and services.

The schools have acquiesced to the presence of his children, educating them along with other kids, no questions asked.

Government agencies, both federal and local, have been aware of his presence but have looked the other way, making excuses and finally taking no action.

It may be argued in such cases that the migrant has acquired de facto citizenship, or at least legal residency, by virtue of adverse possession. He contributes as much to the economy as anyone else employed in a similar job -- even more, perhaps, because of payroll deductions for Social Security. Migrants deposit $30 billion to $35 billion into Social Security every year but often do not claim benefits. It's fair to say they carry some 271,000 retired Americans annually on their backs.

Not only has America acquiesced to the presence of migrant laborers, it has actively encouraged them to come -- first by creating jobs, and second by failing to strictly enforce its own immigration laws. Those factors add up to a welcome mat. The invitation was offered and accepted.

Now it's time to remove the stigma and secrecy by giving established workers a path to legitimacy.

An editorial in The Wall Street Journal shows how anti-immigration groups have made inroads into the Republican Party. On the Web at

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A8.
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