UPDATED: Added a picture and paragraph below the fold about why Chap chose to post on this topic now.

Being a politician means having to take public positions on a variety of issues, many of them controversial, and being prepared to defend them. That’s why I think blogging can both a blessing and curse for politicians. It allows them to get out their positions in a way which permits them to think about exactly what they are saying, but it also produces a written record which they make later wish to run away from.

Chap Petersen ’90 is Democratic state Senator in Virginia whom many have speculated might have state-wide ambitions (see, here, here, here, and here, for example). As in many states, the subject of illegal immigration and illegal immigrants is a hot topic in Virginia, with many immigration-related bills being considered this past legislative session. In general, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed many bills aimed at making the lives of illegal immigrants more difficult, while the (barely) Democratic-controlled Senate killed most of them. But although there is rough partisan divide on illegal immigrants (almost no one is in favor of illegal immigration) between Republicans and Democrats, on the whole it is not a subject which breaks down cleanly along party lines.

On his blog OxRoad South, Chap recently authored a post commenting on a recently passed Maryland law which authorized illegal immigrants in Maryland to pay in-state tuition rates at Maryland state colleges and universities under certain circumstances. I thought Chap’s position was interesting, as it was quite critical of the Maryland law, which I think is consistent with the views of many/most Virginia voters, but seemingly runs contrary to the perceived “Democratic” position on this issue:

Unrelatedly (of course), the Maryland Governor recently signed a bill which extends in-state tuition rates to all persons living in Maryland, legally or illegally, who attend a state college or university. There is an important caveat: the beneficiaries must show that they (or their parents) have paid taxes and they finished high school or served in the military.

Due to its controversial nature, the measure may well end up going to statewide referendum.

I am very aware of the “broke-down” nature of the U.S. immigration system which takes years to process citizenship or green card applications. It’s got to get better. I’m also aware that hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens (using the un-P.C. term) live peacefully in the D.C. area, where they work and attend public K-12 schools. There should be a process for having long-time residents eventually reach legal status.

Having said all that, this law is still a bad idea.

The American legal system is based on certainty. You are married or you are not. You are guilty or you are not. You own property or you do not. You are here legally or you are not.

Any system which erodes that legal certainty is usually a bad idea, even if it is done with the best of intentions.

This is not an attack against any group. The reality is that legal and illegal immigrants are woven together in our community. But the second reality is that if you erase the distinction between “legal” or “illegal” — especially in terms of government benefits — then you are advertising for more unlawful immigration. You’re also devaluing the actions of those immigrants that played by the rules and applied for citizenship through legal processes, often by waiting for years in their home country.

The fiscal effects of this policy is not trivial. It is not an accident, in my opinion, that the two major states (New York and California) that offer in-state tuition regardless of legal citizenship are awash in red ink. In our mobile era, these laws create their own constituencies.

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In closing, I noted that one of this law’s supporters said “we had guts” to pass this bill. Sure, they did. But it also takes guts to listen to one person’s inspiring story — and realize that it’s not a basis to eviscerate key distinctions in the legal Code.

While this is probably an unfair question to ask, I wonder whether the positions articulated in Chap’s piece are his true views, or the ones he feels he needs to articulate for political purposes. My instinct is that Chap generally says what he thinks, but its hard to know for sure. I think its likely that this really represents Chap’s views, because why would he post it otherwise? He hasn’t recently voted on any legislation relating to immigration issues (the law he is commenting on was passed in Maryland). He is up for re-election this fall, and it wouldn’t surprise me if immigration becomes a topic of concern, so perhaps he felt like he wanted to get on the record now.

What role do we think that state and local governments should play in enforcing our immigration laws and/or dealing with illegal immigrants? Is this an issue which ever comes up in Williamstown or the Berkshires, or are the (perceived) numbers of illegal immigrants too low to generate much discussion?

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