Turning back the tide

August 20, 2007

Congress' failure to overhaul immigration policy this year has given new impetus to state and local efforts to discourage or drive out undocumented workers.

The efficacy of such efforts is highly doubtful, as a patchwork of laws makes enforcement very difficult. Most troubling, though, is that this emotional campaign plays into an all-too-common fear that immigrants, legal or not, pose a threat to native-born Americans - a sentiment likely to result in hostility to all Hispanics, who are by far the fastest-growing segment of newcomers.

Few would argue that a regulatory and economic structure that encourages people to risk death by asphyxiation in a truck stuffed with human cargo, or by heat stroke crawling through the desert Southwest, isn't badly in need of repair. But the only way to fix it is at the national level, where President Bush's sensible and humane approach to bringing about 12 million illegal visitors out of the shadows has been thwarted by his fellow Republicans.

State legislatures have rushed into the vacuum, enacting 170 immigration-related measures this year dealing with employment, health care, schools and driver's licenses - many aimed at making life tougher for those in the country illegally, some offering protections and sanctuary.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, who had earlier cut county funds to a nonprofit group that provides services to immigrants, some of them illegal, last week ordered county contractors to sign affidavits swearing that they do not hire undocumented workers, though the practice is already prohibited under federal law - and, thus, by county contracts. Mr. Leopold plans no new enforcement measures.

Pressure to act has often coincided with the greatest surges in immigrant population, such as in Arkansas, with the fourth-fastest-growing influx of newcomers, and several communities in Northern Virginia, where the migrant population rose along with a building boom.

An argument often used to bar undocumented migrants from jobs or housing is that they are costly freeloaders. But a 2006 Texas study revealed that the state's estimated 1.4 million undocumented workers paid more in taxes than they received in government services, most of which are denied them throughout the country.

Further, complaints about immigrants often target legal and as well as nonlegal newcomers as a protest against the change in demographics and community culture they bring.

NumbersUSA, one of many groups active in the fight against Mr. Bush's proposal to allow undocumented workers a path to citizenship, declares that its fight is not only against "amnesty" for illegals but also to cut the rate of legal immigration because the "numbers are far too high and threaten the quality of life" for all Americans.

The criteria for granting residential entry into the United States may well need to be tightened, as it would have been in the Bush proposal. At the same time, temporary-worker visas ought to be expanded to make it easier for seasonal migrants to come and go.

But making life so miserable for migrants that they will voluntarily "deport" themselves is a cruel goal unworthy of this nation's better nature. Mr. Bush and his allies in Congress should summon their energies to give humanity another try.

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