Confused gatekeeping

October 18, 2004

UNTIL LAST week, one would have thought the 8 million undocumented immigrants living in this country were mere figments of our imagination, ghosts posing as nannies and gardeners, busboys and maids, farm workers and construction workers, parking attendants and taxi drivers.

Though the subject got short shrift in last week's debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, it was good to hear them finally address one of the most vexing issues facing this country: what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants living here and how to stanch the daily flow of thousands more.

The candidates' spirited exchange on a polarizing subject brought into sharp relief the sensitive political, social, economic and racial considerations that they must negotiate. Mention a legalization program (which Kerry supports)and conservatives are up in arms. Advocate immigrant worker programs (which Bush backs) and liberals cry foul.

Depending on your perspective, the options either reward illegal immigrants and prompt more of them to come, or create a system of indentured servitude that places immigrants desperate for work at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants continue to straddle both the best (opportunity) and worst (exploitation) of America, stuck in limbo while policy-makers argue whether their presence hurts or benefits the economy.

Immigrants are a necessary part of the work force and vital to certain industries, yet their illegal status keeps them on the social and economic fringes. U.S. policy sends them mixed messages, blithely ignoring them when the labor market needs them and deporting them when it doesn't.

Nowadays, they are stuck on the wrong side of the fence, their image undifferentiated from that of terrorists. The welcome mat, rolled out when the unemployment rate was at record lows and 9/11 was unimaginable, has been rolled up and put away. Americans, more wary of foreigners in their midst since the attacks, aren't likely to vote on their behalf.

In January, President Bush proposed a temporary immigrant-worker program to fill jobs not held by Americans. The plan was not adopted by Congress and the president didn't push it, largely because his base didn't support it.

But avoiding the topic during election season doesn't make the issue less pressing. Kerry and Bush should be leading a national conversation on immigration.

A system carefully controlled to let immigrant workers in when we need them (the Bush plan) and give some who want to stay a chance at citizenship (the Kerry plan) is well worth consideration. Such a plan would not create thousands of desperate lawbreakers each year, as skeptics contend. It would make it easier to identify the real criminals - single-minded terrorists intent on destroying everything that makes America so alluring to "real immigrants" in the first place.

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