Spend on education, not sealed borders

March 06, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- It's not the Mexicans we should worry about. Or the Guatemalans, Colombians or Salvadorans. Waves of laborers - legal and illegal - from south of the border don't constitute the grave threat to national security or economic stability that the anti-immigrant hysteria would suggest.

If you want to worry about the future, look to China. Or to India. Those countries are producing millions of well-educated young people who are already taking jobs from American workers - and are poised to take more. While Congress and state legislatures are busying themselves with meaningless bills aimed at undocumented workers pouring over our southern borders, the real threat to U.S. economic hegemony lies elsewhere.

It's not gardeners from Guerrero who are likely to replace American accountants, engineers and graphic designers. It's eager students from Bangalore who master mathematics and engineering, speak English and work for less - at least for now. Multinational corporations are transferring scores of job categories to workers outside the country. Those aren't limited to customer service reps in call centers but include Indian computer geeks who can design video games.

You'd think members of Congress, who are supposed to be smart people, would have noticed. You'd think they'd be making speeches, appointing task forces and appropriating funds - all aimed at preparing American students to meet the challenges of a global economy. You'd think President Bush would back a broad national program to jump-start education in math and science, starting in elementary school.

Instead, the Bush administration has engaged in wholesale warfare against science, censoring reports, rewriting documents and muzzling scientists whenever their conclusions contradict the religious views of a narrow constituency. Congress, meanwhile, is bogged down with controversial legislative efforts to seal off the borders and punish illegal workers.

It's not as if Mexicans are suicide bombers. With all the inflammatory rhetoric bandied about on talk radio and cable TV, you might get the impression the United States had the same problem with its Latino immigrants that Western Europe has with restive Muslims, some of whom have cozied up to the jihadist strain of Islam that despises the West and scorns modernity. By contrast, Latinos, including those who crossed the border illegally, want nothing more than to assimilate.

It's true that some regions of the country have been burdened by a huge influx of illegal workers; they are often minimum-wage earners who speak little English and need social services. But the rapid influx of undocumented workers has a fairly simple solution: Impose harsh penalties - prison time - for the business executives who employ them, and fewer companies will take the risk. If fewer jobs are available, fewer workers will cross the borders. It's as simple as that.

The challenge of a global work force cannot be met as simply. It will require politicians who are open-minded and forward-looking, with the political courage to resist the easy call for closed borders and restrictions on free trade. They will have to resist, as well, a growing xenophobia that would see in a rising China a new "yellow peril." Instead, President Bush and Congress should be pouring billions of dollars into a new science and math initiative, modeled after the program that followed the Soviets' successful launch of Sputnik in 1957.

With national defense as the battle cry, it was easy enough to get Americans behind a plan that churned out mathematicians, scientists and engineers. Now that those baby boomers have started retiring, the nation needs another plan to groom biologists, physicists and computer engineers.

That makes more sense than spending millions more to seal off the border with Mexico. Some of those young illegal immigrants - the children of today's poultry workers or landscapers - could be tomorrow's American scientists.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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