Make-believe policy on immigration

July 11, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Like any big-city mayor, New York's Michael R. Bloomberg wants to crack down on lawbreakers, but it depends on which laws they break.

In that spirit, Mr. Bloomberg gave a big Bronx cheer to an amendment recently passed by the U.S. House to take away millions in federal law enforcement funds from local authorities who fail to step up their enforcement of immigration laws.

The Big Apple would fall out of its economic tree, Mr. Bloomberg announced at a recent Senate hearing on immigration in Philadelphia, were it not for the estimated half-million illegal immigrants among the city's 3 million immigrants. "Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders ... our city's economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported," he testified. "The same holds true for the nation."

If experts on both sides of the immigration divide agree on anything, it is that illegal immigrants provide a pool of cheap and eager labor, one that employers - and the politicians whose campaign coffers those employers support - cherish.

What happens to the unemployed and underemployed Americans who are here?

President Bush used to proclaim that illegal immigrants were taking "jobs Americans don't want." He more recently adjusted his rhetoric to refer more accurately to "jobs Americans are not taking." If the jobs paid more, more Americans probably would take them. But that would run the risk of reducing profits for employers or raising prices for consumers. Rather than risk a price increase for lettuce, many Americans prefer to look the other way. The result is what I call a make-believe immigration policy of laws that few people feel bound to respect.

The issue is one that Mr. Bush cares passionately about, yet it is dividing his base. A Senate bill that the president prefers would allow a majority of illegal immigrants to take a path to permanent residency and citizenship after paying fines, fees and back taxes and learning English. The harsh House bill emphasizes enforcement and offers no provision for illegal immigrants or future guest workers.

That the hearings are being held around the country is a signal that we are probably not going to see any reconciliation of the two bills into something Mr. Bush can sign this year. By the time the hearings are over, it will be fall and midterm election campaigns will be under way, which is a time when nothing of consequence happens in Congress.

The burdens that our make-believe immigration policy imposes on low-wage earners, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, continue. Their labors are devalued in a crowded labor market. The gap between highest and lowest earners continues to grow as the real income of low-wage earners continues to stagnate.

Raising the minimum wage would help, just for starters. Raising the earned-income tax credit would help more.

If reasonableness were to set in, Congress would come up with a compromise. Lawmakers would strengthen border enforcement and restore some more order to our immigration laws. Then Congress could work on helping workers who already are here, legal and illegal, to get a decent wage and better working conditions.

At least Mr. Bloomberg is speaking with candor. He knows when our immigration laws are a joke. The rest of us are still figuring it out.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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