Immigration Reform:

Safe, Not Silly

Imagine if you will the picture of 11 million men, women, and children, all illegal immigrants, being rounded up by United States law officers, charged with felonies, and transported by buses, trains, and planes back to their country of origin. Imagine the grandparents forced from their homes, separated from their children. Imagine the untrimmed lawns, the unwashed cars, the strawberries rotting in the fields. Now imagine $8 billion spent on building a 700-mile wall along our shared border with Mexico. Do any of these pictures make you feel safer? No? And yet this is the substance of a bill that has already passed the House of Representatives and of the proposals presently being pushed by Senate majority leader Bill Frist.

For months now Congress has been struggling to agree on a law that would secure our borders and stop illegal immigration. Why then are we still such a long way from any reasonable solutions? Because most members of Congress are tripping all over themselves trying to sound tough. But sounding tough and passing unenforceable legislation will not make our country any safer — only sillier.

Fortunately, a bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 12-6 vote last week offers real reform and a chance to get control of our borders. It has been endorsed by both the National Council of Agricultural Employers and by the United Farm Workers Union. It addresses the problems practically, and spends money sensibly. Illegal immigrants would have to pay $2,000 in fines and any back taxes, and would need to pass background checks before they could enter the line behind those aliens already seeking green cards. To become a citizen would take 11 years, a continuing clean record, and knowledge of English and civics. Just as importantly, the bill would double the number of Border Patrol agents, provide resources to verify worker identities, enforce the law in the work place, and impose tougher punishments for employers.

Wouldn’t it be smarter to spend $8 billion buying devices to detect nuclear material in all cargo containers entering our ports rather than on a wall that will only barricade part of the border? Or should we try to deport a population the size of Indianapolis when our government couldn’t even evacuate the smaller city of New Orleans?

In truth, nothing will stop impoverished peoples from trying to better their lives. To really secure our borders we need to protect all workers — citizens and immigrants — from exploitation. Since illegal immigrants are most vulnerable to the worst abuses, we need a legal workforce and government regulation of our borders and work places. In the last six years, we’ve seen precious little regulation of any kind — any action against businesses employing illegal immigrants has virtually stopped. The number of firms warned they would be fined for hiring illegals declined from 417 in 1999 to three in 2004. Is it any wonder more illegal immigrants are being hired?

When the rule of law returns to the workplace and the minimum wage is raised above the poverty line, more Americans will take jobs now going to undocumented workers. Unfortunately, the majority of the present Congress act as if any attempt to help workers is akin to torpedoing the economy. Congress seems to believe, as Karl Marx did, that capitalism can’t succeed without vicious exploitation. Perhaps they are right, but what would happen if farm wages, for example, were raised? One study by UC Davis suggests that if wages grew even as much as 40 percent, from almost $9 per hour to $14, the price to the consumer would only increase by 2 or 3 cents per dollar.

But this Congress has so far resisted any attempt to help American middle class workers, let alone those in the unskilled labor force. Bizarrely, now Congress also refuses to help the businesses who need this labor force to survive, by refusing to allow a guest worker program. As of press time, Senator John McCain said he does not think he has the 60 votes necessary to get a guest worker program passed. Too many confused conservatives still insist on trying to stop the flow across our border by turning everyone into a felon.

We can only hope that reason prevails. That the Senate passes the bill approved by its own judiciary committee, and that the House abandons its vindictive, expensive plan to turn the whole country into an armed camp.

Who will work in the fields, gardens, kitchens, construction sites, and households? One congresswoman from Huntington Beach seriously suggested that prisoners take the jobs now held by illegal immigrants. Imagine driving along East Valley Road watching orange-garbed convicts clipping the hedges of Montecito estates.

Imagine the well-armed guards protecting residents from their new gardeners. Imagine the costs of such a program. Imagine the picture. — Marianne Partridge, Editor-in-Chief

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