Tough talk fans immigration fears


ATLANTA -- In every time and in every place, there are demagogues who ride to power by whipping up the fears and resentments of an anxious populace. Our current Joseph McCarthys are the contentious cranks and nativists who want to drive every illegal immigrant - especially Mexicans, Hondurans and Guatemalans - out of the country.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican from Colorado, wants to overturn a century of constitutional consensus that grants citizenship to all who are born in the United States, regardless of their parents' immigration status. He and his ilk have already pushed through a provision that makes it virtually impossible for states to issue drivers' licenses to undocumented workers.

If Mr. Tancredo and his coalition were genuinely interested in restricting illegal immigration, they would target businesses - construction companies, agricultural companies, poultry plants, janitorial companies - that hire undocumented workers. The vast majority of Latinos who risk life and limb to get into this country are looking for better jobs. If employers risked jail, they'd stop offering jobs to undocumented workers. If the jobs were cut off, illegal border crossings would drop sharply.

But the demagogues who whip up the anti-immigrant frenzy rarely say a word about companies that hire illegally. Why not? Could it be that business bashing doesn't go over on the stump nearly as well as foreigner-bashing? Might it be that Republicans like Mr. Tancredo don't want to take on one of the GOP's most loyal constituencies - business? (Proposals in Congress to stiffen penalties for employers who hire illegally have languished.)

Illegal immigration is one of those complex problems - like crime, poverty and terrorism - that demand thoughtful and courageous leaders, not demagogues who pander to our basest instincts. No one (other than the author of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty) advocates taking in every poor and struggling soul who wants to call America home. This country would be overwhelmed if we adopted a policy of open borders. Indeed, many taxpayers around the country have rightly complained that their schools, hospitals and other social services are drained by the needs of poor, uneducated immigrants.

But a steady flow of immigrants has also produced benefits. Newcomers - with and without papers - have harvested crops, built subdivisions and cleaned office buildings, keeping costs low. Many have assimilated and started small businesses of their own - restaurants, landscaping services, construction companies.

Another boost that immigrants have given this country has gone largely unnoticed: youth. The United States, like much of the industrialized world, is aging quickly. But we have fared better than, say, Japan, whose elderly are likely to so dominate its demographics in a few decades that its economy will slump. But the aging baby boomers in this country will be helped by the children of immigrants, who will enter the work force and help to pay for our Social Security and Medicare.

Despite Mr. Tancredo's rhetoric, no serious policymaker proposes rounding up all illegal immigrants and deporting them. Not only would it pose all sorts of questions about our commitment to human rights, but it would also cost billions of dollars. How many Americans would support such an expensive and abusive undertaking?

Of course, the complexities of immigration - the pros, the cons, the trade-offs - don't translate into a rousing stump speech.

It's so much easier to launch a few broadsides against the border crossers who broke the law to get here. That emotional appeal won't solve the problem, but it will probably get a few politicians re-elected.

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

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