Wisdom from the arch-fiend

March 17, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - ''Hey, hey, ho, ho!'' The all-purpose protesters' refrain echoed through the snowy streets outside Harvard University's Institute of Politics, a sure indication that someone with arch-fiend status was about to arrive and be heckled. A Republican, probably. But who?

''Immigrant bashing has got to go!'' Ah, it must be Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, here to talk about immigration policy. And so it was.

Reasoned discourse about the volatile issue of immigration isn't easy, especially on college campuses where chanted slogans are a way of intellectual life. Groups on both the left and the right have attacked Senator Simpson, the leading sponsor of pending legislation that would reduce legal and illegal immigration.

But the senator, six-foot-seven and stooped, with the awkward dignity and the beady intimidating gaze of a great blue heron surveying a tide pool, keeps on trying. While aspects of his complex bill are open to challenge, his lucid explanatory efforts are admirable, the more so because he has nothing to gain from them politically. He is retiring from the Senate when his term ends in January.

His audience is mostly academic and skeptical, but not uniformly hostile. When he first rises to speak, a couple of dozen students ostentatiously walk out. But the room is crowded, and standers gratefully fill the empty seats. Apparently not everybody in Cambridge thinks that this is such an easy issue to decide that there's no point discussing it.

Senator Simpson makes several points. He does not favor the draconian Pat Buchanan proposal to halt all immigration for five years. He does favor reducing it by about 20 percent for a five-year period, bringing it back to about 540,000 immigrants a year, about what it was in 1990.

Such a limit, he says, would provide ''breathing space'' a period to absorb immigrants already here. The plan would also give preferences to the spouses and minor children of such immigrants, but not adult members of their extended families. This would benefit nuclear families, but discourage the process of ''chain migration,'' in which a single immigrant can bring in as many as 70 or 80 relatives.

The Simpson bill is to be marked up in the Senate next month. If it or something like it does not pass, he says, there could be some nasty consequences, including a flurry of state laws like California's proposed Proposition 187, which would deny many social services to illegal immigrants and their children.

That's a very bad idea, says the Wyoming senator, startling some of the college students in his audience who had thought that as an arch-fiend he'd be for it. First, immigration ought to be a federal responsibility. Second, we ought to stop the rampant fraud in our safety-net social-service systems, not deny the services to those entitled to them.

National identity card

That leads him to the question of verification of identity, and closer to the dreaded subject of a national identity card for Americans. Of course, he says, we already have something like that. ''Most of you have had to show a picture I.D. before you got on an airplane, and you didn't complain about that. Why? Because you didn't want to get your fannies blown out of the air.'' Nobody argues that.

''Immigration is a wonderful blessing for this country,'' he concludes, but there is ''nothing wrong with adjusting immigration numbers downward when needed.''

Naturally, not everybody shares that view. One young Asian woman tells the senator his bill, which he co-sponsors with Sen. Edward Kennedy, is the modern equivalent of the Chinese-exclusion laws of the early 20th century. There is mild applause.

At the same time, as one anxious questioner makes clear, there is considerable interest in the academic community in adjusting down the number of admitted immigrants with doctoral degrees. These are people who work at competitive rates in the laboratories of large corporations and universities, and American Ph.D.s who have found themselves underbid for jobs can sound as xenophobic as textile workers at a Buchanan rally.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing a fenced-off America and 10 representing absolutely open borders, I would probably have favored a 9, with my heart pushing my brain toward a 10. But Senator Simpson, whose position is a solid, sensible, middle-of-the-road 5 or 6, makes an enormous amount of sense.

''It's a ghastly issue,'' he says, quite frankly. But it has to be addressed. That's why he came here to be chanted at.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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