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O'Malley takes on another 'pop' issue [Commentary]

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a presidential hopeful, has taken on yet another "pop issue," proposing that we provide foster care to several thousand unaccompanied Central American minors, lest they be sent to "certain death." He has also championed abolition of capital punishment and the establishment of gay marriage, the Dream Act, and tax credits and fueling stations for electric vehicles whose technology is not ready for prime time.

Is this latest pronouncement that of an instinctive demagogue or of a thoughtful statesman? Let us see.

First, as to "certain death." The annual homicide rate in Honduras, highest in the world, is 90.4 per 100,000 people. In San Pedro Sula, the most dangerous city in the world, it is 169 per 100,000. Appalling figures, yes, but not "certain death." The inner-city section of Baltimore over which one-time mayor and current Governor O'Malley has presided for 10 years, has a population of about 200,000 when neighborhoods inhabited by the middle class are omitted. Baltimore's 200-plus homicides per year are overwhelmingly concentrated there. You do the math. Is life in Governor O'Malley's "Little Honduras" describable as "certain death?" If so, he has displayed little concern, resisting proposals for reform of the drug and crime laws and ignoring youth unemployment.

Serious policy concerns lurk in Governor O'Malley's proposal.

For one, the foster care system is over-burdened. Foster parenting is not a permanent one-on-one relationship but a revolving door. Some foster parents look after multiple children, for brief periods, for the sake of the income. A policy which encourages children to leave parental control in favor of life with remote relatives or in foster care is not self-evidently wise.

One question we should ask is whether any society is rich enough to afford benefit migrants. The "huddled masses yearning to be free" celebrated by Emma Lazarus came at a time when there was no public welfare, no food stamps, no unemployment insurance, no Medicaid and Medicare. Their ability to support themselves was a test of their fitness. That is still largely true in Texas, with its stingy public programs, but not in California and certainly not in Maryland.

Another question relates to the magnitude of migration, and its effects on a democratic polity, where the migrants are enfranchised. The massive Irish and German migrations of the 1840s gave rise to the anti-immigration Know Nothing Party. The migrations from Eastern and Southern Europe before 1914 produced a revival of and push back from the Ku Klux Klan, which quickly gained political influence.

And then there's the question of what we're willing to do treat the problem, rather than just the symptom. Economic aid to Central America diminished in the 1990s, after the region stopped being a foreign policy popular issue.

In Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, secondary school systems enroll less than two thirds of possible entrants — less than half in Guatemala's case — according to The World Bank. Public health services are feeble, and there is an astronomical birth rate. Compare that with Mexico, where large investments in rural public health clinics have produced a sharp fall in the birth rate. The lessons in this are clear: Governor O'Malley's clients should be educated, with American assistance, in their own countries, in close proximity to their own families. But fostering such a change and the necessary appropriations for it is not a "pop issue."

Instead, the governor and his journalistic supporters seek to prove their case by reference to the enemies they have made. Hence there have been repeated republications of illiterate anti-immigrant graffiti. But this sort of reaction is not a good guide to wise public policy.

George W. Liebmann is the volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research. He can be reached at info@calvertinstitute.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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