Ignoring the easy solution on immigration

July 10, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss - then a congressman - was annoyed at the old Immigration and Naturalization Service for trying to enforce the nation's laws. In 1998, when INS agents rounded up illegal workers at the Vidalia onion fields in southeast Georgia, Mr. Chambliss and a handful of other Georgia congressmen denounced the agency. He accused INS of using "bullying tactics."

These days, Mr. Chambliss is better known for his tough stance against illegal workers. A member of a hard-core group of Republicans who have rebelled against President Bush's sensible call for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, he has said that such an approach "sends the message to the American people that we are more eager to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship than we are to secure our borders from further illegal immigration and the smuggling of illegal drugs and weapons."

He stands on the same side he's always stood on - the side of big business, which wants to exploit illegal workers without giving them the benefits of legal status.

When Mr. Chambliss criticized INS eight years ago, he did so because farmers were upset about losing their workers at harvest time, not out of any concern for exploited migrants.

Of course, this unsubtle hypocrisy - targeting illegal workers while protecting illegal hiring - is aided and abetted by constituents who find it easier to blame Latinos than white business owners. While the Minutemen have stood guard at the border and various factions have organized protests, those groups have not targeted onion growers or homebuilders.

If we really wanted to stanch the flow of undocumented workers, that would be easy enough to do. We wouldn't have to build a single mile of fence or hire even one more Border Patrol agent. If Congress cracked down on illegal hiring - passing a tough law that sent a few criminal employers to jail - the practice would end. The waves of illegal immigrants would dry up. If they couldn't get work, they wouldn't come.

But when Mr. Chambliss had the opportunity to vote for a proposal to crack down on illegal hiring, he refused to do so. In May, the Senate adopted an amendment to its immigration bill that would require employers to use a federal database to verify the immigration status of any job applicant; the amendment included stiff fines for employers who hire undocumented workers. But Mr. Chambliss voted against it.

Opponents of the Senate bill claim they won't sanction any "amnesty" for workers who entered the country illegally. But they don't seem to have any problem with amnesty for business executives who hire illegally. The simple fact is that the status quo works - not just for business, but also for more than a few middle-class Americans who benefit from cheap labor.

Here's the secret: Mr. Chambliss and his ilk know they can gain a few points with their ultraconservative base by playing to its nativism. But they also know that there is no way to round up and deport 11 million illegal immigrants. Many will remain here, desperate for any work they can get. They won't be in a position to protest low wages or unsafe working conditions. They'll remain available to farmers and construction contractors. And to upper-middle-class couples who need nannies and cooks and lawn care.

This political season presents some extraordinary difficulties without clear solutions: a nuclear-armed North Korea, an aggressive Iran, a chaotic Iraq, a health care crisis. By contrast, illegal immigration is rather easily fixed. All Congress need do is pass a rational law that offers a path to citizenship for settled illegal immigrants while also cracking down on illegal hiring.

But that won't happen. The powers that be prefer to make angry demands for change while leaving things just as they are.

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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