A rational approach to immigration

April 18, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - If you pay attention to the spew on immigration coming from conservative talk radio and Web logs, you can easily get the impression that most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Mexico.

Verbal broadsides against Muslim terrorists mix easily with derisive comments about Latinos who sneak across the border seeking work. The growing backlash against immigrants doesn't distinguish between jihadists and would-be janitors.

So it doesn't matter much that House Republicans, who passed a bill last month that effectively bans driver's licenses for illegal workers, keep proclaiming that their legislation is not anti-immigrant. "This is not an immigration issue; it's a national security issue," said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, one of the bill's major supporters. But because the legislation lacks any provisions for giving immigrants the opportunity to work legally, it seems to be aimed not at protecting our borders but preventing immigration.

The backlash is getting ugly. In Arizona, dozens of untrained citizens are raising the level of risk in an already dangerous area by taking it upon themselves to patrol the border.

The growing resentment is not restricted to the Southwest, long a magnet for Latinos migrating in search of economic opportunity. It is also roiling the Deep South and Midwest, which have seen dramatic increases in their immigrant populations over the past decade.

It's time for President Bush to put aside his Social Security road show (which isn't gaining any support anyway) so he can push for immigration reform. After all, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. has called immigration a bigger immediate problem than the prospect of baby boomers' retirement, according to The Washington Post.

For decades, the United States has pursued a de facto policy of exploiting and abusing immigrant labor, mostly from Mexico. It is hypocritical and un-American.

While many of us (especially those of us who are middle-class or wealthy) enjoy the benefits of low-cost labor, we have been unwilling to pass laws that make it easier for those laborers to get green cards or guest-worker visas. (If they achieved legal status, they might be unwilling to do unpleasant work for substandard wages.)

Nor have elected officials been willing to crack down on the businesses that hire illegal labor. Indeed, one of the reasons for our bipolar policy is that business interests pressure politicians to look the other way so they can continue to exploit cheap labor.

Mr. Bush's instincts on immigration tend to be progressive and forward-thinking. He told the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Thursday that he supports a policy that would put together "willing workers" and "willing employers." He also acknowledged that the backlash against immigration "encourages nativism and behavior that doesn't represent the way America should view the world."

But the president hasn't pulled out all the stops to get immigration reform - as he did to invade Iraq or to cut taxes. He ought to use his bully pulpit to remind Americans of the benefits of immigration.

Mr. Bush should also insist on harsh penalties, including jail time, for business executives who hire illegal workers. If business owners weren't so eager to hire undocumented workers, the workers would be less likely to run the risk of crossing the border illegally.

After his re-election, Mr. Bush confidently proclaimed that he had "earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." One of his best investments would be a rational immigration policy.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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