Halfway to reality

January 08, 2004

AT LEAST 8 million and maybe as many as 14 million people are living illegally in the United States at this moment. Critics of immigration reform seem to harbor a fantasy that, with enough resources and effort, some day all those people could be rounded up and tossed back over the border, thus restoring America to its intended state.

This is just plain unrealistic; foreign workers are always going to be among us. The question is: Does it make more sense to keep them in the shadows, as illegals, or to give them a recognized status that would allow them to live openly, and allow the government to have a better idea of who's here, and where? Should America continue with what Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum calls a "black market in migration," or should it try to come to grips with the reality that the U.S. economy depends on foreign labor?

President Bush yesterday outlined his ideas for immigration reform, and as far as they went they were right on the money. What amounts to amnesty would be granted to those already here; visas that would allow free travel in and out of the country for visits home would be issued; willing workers, as the president puts it, would be matched to willing employers. Mr. Bush has finally come forward on a promise he made early in his tenure, and challenged the hidebound nativists among his supporters.

The problem, though, is that his proposal doesn't go far enough. American businesses need foreign workers, and his plan would provide them. But there is another side to that coin - and that is to be sure those same workers are shielded from exploitation. Low pay and abominable working conditions have a long and sad history in this country, especially for foreign workers who have no alternative to the jobs they're trapped in. Exploitation of immigrants is a moral wrong. But let's be hard-nosed about it - it also hurts American workers, because it exerts downward pressure on wages throughout the economy.

Foreigners allowed into the United States on the kinds of work visas the president has in mind must be able to shift employers if they choose to do so - otherwise, they're in virtual servitude. Moreover, government enforcement of wage and occupational safety laws must be stepped up. Again, this is not so much out of soft-hearted concern for immigrants as it is out of a fear that unscrupulous employers who take advantage of immigrants will gain an unfair advantage over firms that hire Americans.

Disappointingly, Mr. Bush did not present an actual piece of legislation yesterday. Instead, he seems to want to take credit for having his heart in the right place, while leaving the hard detail work to Congress. That puts the burden on the House and Senate leadership to do this right.

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