Jewish World Review August 2, 2001 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Immigration timing
couldn't be better -- IF you have just awakened from a seven-year snooze in a time capsule, you might look at today's immigration debate and think you are on another planet.

Remember when California passed Proposition 187 back in 1994? It sought to bar illegal immigrants from all welfare, health programs and public schools. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson angered many, but his endorsement of the measure helped launch his presidential ambitions.

Commentator Pat Buchanan similarly campaigned for president by promising to build a "Buchanan Fence," a Berlin-style wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to keep those pesky illegals out.

A conservative Congress picked up the hint and passed a toughened immigration law in 1996 that included beefed-up border patrols.

Then that immigrant-bashing rock rolled back down the hill. Courts overruled Proposition 187, Californians elected Democrats to all of their state's top political offices, including a new governor who dropped the state's defense of 187.

Politically, Wilson and Buchanan are, as California kids might say, so totally over.

What's totally happening now is the Bush administration's new twist on policy and the English language: They are looking for ways to "regularize" illegal immigrants, particularly those from Mexico.

"Regularization" has nothing to do with your digestive system. It is a euphemism for a more conventional and controversial word, "amnesty," which has emerged out of broader talks that Bush and Mexico's president,Vicente Fox, began in February to relax legal and economic barriers between our two countries.

The talks led to a White House task force on immigration, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, which recently proposed granting legal status to some of the estimated 3 million illegal residents from Mexico based on their job history and length of time here.

Bush, eager to reach out to Hispanic voters, responded favorably, although talks have only begun.

That's one small step for Bush and one giant leap for Fox's espoused dream of open borders.

Of course, if Bush takes any action as sweeping as an amnesty or a new "guest-worker" program, political pressures probably will force him to include at least some other countries, too.

"I don't think any constituency--not even Mexican-Americans--is arguing to apply it only to Americans from Mexico," Cecilia Munoz, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino advocacy group, told me. "Rather, this is a tremendous opportunity to bring some rationality to the entire immigration debate."

Either way, the gloomy days of immigrant-bashing politics appear to have passed--for now, at least. Ah, what a difference a few years--and a healthy economy--can make.

Skeptics like Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) denounce the amnesty idea as sending the "wrong message" to lawbreakers. But you also can look at illegal immigrants, not as lawbreakers, but as big contributors to America's economic growth. Legalize them and they can receive benefits, join labor unions and participate more fully in the American mainstream. They can even return home more easily, without worrying about how to get back here.

Contrary to the way some demonize illegal immigrants as lazy mooches who flow into this country to sponge off the welfare system, there is just as much evidence that most immigrants come here to work. They pay taxes, buy homes, buy cars, send their kids to colleges and technical schools and pretty much behave as earlier generations of immigrants did.

Illegal immigrants do take jobs, but arguably, jobs that others don't want. Even in an era in which welfare reform has compelled able-bodied welfare recipients to find jobs in order to receive benefits, demand remains high in low-status jobs like nannies, farm labor, "bus boy," cleaning services and nursing home attendants, among others.

While better pay would persuade more people to take these jobs, even money has its limits. How much would you want to be paid, for example, to drive a taxi in New York, Chicago, Miami or Los Angeles? At night?

Besides, the cost of higher-priced labor is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, which consumers don't want, either. Regularized immigrants at least can demand the same fair wages and benefits others receive, which is one reason why many unions support amnesty.

Such are the tough choices that always have defined the love-hate relationship Americans have with newcomers, legal and otherwise. Our passions toward immigrants warm and chill with the temperature of our nation's economy. In good times, we say to the world, "Y'all come!" In bad times, we beef up the border patrols.

President Fox could hardly have picked a better time to float his open-border dream with Americans. We're nowhere near ready to open the gates now. But who knows? Someday, the enormous gap between our two economies could shrink. When the migration pressures relax, so can our border patrols.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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