Immigration Demystified: Despite All the Heat from the Right, a Consensus Is Developing, for Workable Solutions to the Immigration Mess. but We're Not There Yet

By Sharry, Frank | The American Prospect, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Immigration Demystified: Despite All the Heat from the Right, a Consensus Is Developing, for Workable Solutions to the Immigration Mess. but We're Not There Yet


Sharry, Frank, The American Prospect


"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald

PITY THE POOR LAWMAKER. REgardless of party or region, most members of Congress are now confronted with the demand to "do something" about illegal immigration. You have to feel for them. When the typical senator or congressional representative undertakes a typical swing through the district or state, it's the issue that just won't quit.

In town-hall meetings, the issue gets raised, as do tempers in the room. Inevitably, an exercised constituent grabs the mike, points his or her finger, and asks, "With terrorists trying to figure out how to get into the country to attack us, what axe you doing to secure our borders?"

Then the local newspaper calls about a girl, a high-school valedictorian, on the verge of being deported because of rigid policies and bad legal advice. Her church and school are rallying to her defense. "Do you intend," the reporter asks, "to intervene with federal immigration authorities to keep this model student and her family together so they can pursue the American dream?"

During a meeting with local employers, a local business owner remarks offhandedly to our solon that his enterprise would not be able to survive, much less grow, if not for his immigrant workers. A sensitive subject is broached; the lid comes off; other employers get worked up. "We can't find anyone else to fill the positions we have opening up," the business owner says. "They show us a document when hired; who knows if it's legit? We suspect most are not, but we have to accept them or we can get accused of discrimination. Besides, it's the only way we can find the workers we need."

And on it goes. Church officials and ethnic leaders weigh in to ask that immigrants' work be rewarded and that families be reunited. A union member complains that subcontractors are undercutting wages and working conditions by hiring vulnerable immigrant workers too scared to speak up. A hospital official points to uncompensated care costs and the need for medical translators. An unemployed worker growls that immigrants are getting all the jobs. Local elected officials shake their heads about the emotions stirred by a controversy over whether the county should provide funding for a proposed day-labor site.

Yikes! Our typical lawmaker frets. Staffers! I need a briefing! Get somebody in here who knows something! Will you please explain to me what's going on?

"Thank you for inviting me in to speak with you and your staff. I hope you don't mind if I'm blunt."

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, SUCcessive Congresses and administrations have made a concerted effort to curtail illegal immigration at the Mexican border. It has failed miserably. According to a recent report by Princeton professor Douglas S. Massey, the U.S. Border Patrol's budget has increased tenfold since 1986. And yet this unprecedented increase in enforcement has coincided with an unprecedented increase in illegal immigration. The population of undocumented immigrants in the United States has risen to 11 million, and about 500,000 new migrants settle here each year.

We have an integrated labor market with Latin America, but we've failed to account for this fact in our policies. The movement of migrants from Latin America to the United States has been going on for decades, and this migration from south to north is not the problem. On balance, it's a good thing: Our economy depends on the immigrant workers, the workers and their families depend on the wages they earn, and the "sending countries" depend on the remittances sent home by the workers.

SO, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

The problem is we have no workable regulatory regime. In the absence of legal channels, workers have nowhere to go but into the clutches of a black market dominated by smugglers, fake-document merchants, and unscrupulous employers. …

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