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Illegal Immigration: One Issue That Deserves Light, Not Heat

March 07, 1993

Lately there has been too much overblown political rhetoric about immigration to the United States. So it's encouraging when someone comes up with a thoughtful, specific plan to actually do something besides complain.

One solid proposal surfaced recently before the Commission on Immigration Reform, the body that periodically reports to Congress on the impact and implementation of U.S. immigration policy. There experts on child and elderly care proposed creating temporary visas for immigrants who want to work in the United States as nannies or home-care providers.

Currently the demand for such services outpaces the supply because, it seems, few Americans--even unemployed ones--relish the long hours and low pay of those jobs. That's one reason many otherwise law-abiding Americans disobey the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) by knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

A CANADIAN MODEL: Meeting last week in Washington, experts told the immigration commission, which was created under IRCA, that the United States could model the proposed temporary visas on Canadian documents that allow immigrants to enter that country to work at home-care jobs for up to three years. That's a constructive proposal Congress should take up immediately if it truly wants to avoid future controversies like those that dogged Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, onetime candidates for U.S. attorney general.

Sadly, other proposals that periodically surface to "solve" the illegal immigrant "problem" aren't nearly as constructive. Most are based on myths about illegal immigration, like the simplistic notion that every job filled by an immigrant would otherwise go to a U.S. citizen.

Another myth about immigration being repeated these days is the notion that there are more illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border than ever before--the conventional wisdom being that "our borders are out of control." A careful look reveals that is not the case.

Migration across our southern border has always fluctuated seasonally. Mexican migrants usually return home for the year-end holidays. Come February or March, many try to recross the line to work in the late winter and spring harvests on the farms of the Southwest. That migratory pattern has changed little since it was established in the 1940s, during the bracero program. So when someone claims, as a member of Congress recently did, that we are seeing an unprecedented surge in illegal border crossings, it may not be a crisis but instead a routine seasonal pattern. Indeed, recent reports even suggest that the depressed U.S. economy may be weakening the latest wave of immigration from abroad.

MISLEADING STATISTICS: Members of Congress have also cited a recent upsurge in arrests at the U.S. Border Patrol sector in San Ysidro, south of San Diego, as evidence that things are out of control there. Again, a closer look indicates things have never been under better control. In recent months the Border Patrol, aided by the Army Corps of Engineers and the California National Guard, has constructed a border fence made of government-surplus steel slats, the kind of heavy material used for temporary landing fields.

That effective new fence has contributed to an increase in Border Patrol arrests. In the old days, the chain-link fence that used to mark the border was so easily breached that many illegal border crossers, when spotted by the Border Patrol, would run back across the line. Nowadays when immigrants get over or under the new fence and are spotted, running back is almost impossible. So the migrant is arrested and returned to Mexico--adding to Border Patrol statistics and the mistaken impression that the higher number of border arrests is indicative of an out-of-control situation.

We go on at such length about the logistics of border fences and Border Patrol tactics simply to underscore that the facts of illegal immigration, when studied closely, are not nearly so scary or troubling as the myths.

Sadly, too many Americans, including more than a few in Congress, would prefer to rely on such myths rather than to try to come up with a constructive and humane immigration policy. Unfortunately, repeating myths only further confuses a complex issue that is not going to be easily or quickly resolved.

REALITIES, NOT MYTHS: What is most needed in discussions of immigration are solid facts and cool heads. The issue must be studied methodically and carefully--almost region by region, industry by industry and migrant-sending country by migrant-sending country--so a sound policy can be patiently constructed on realities. The proposal for temporary work visas for nannies is just such a step.

We may yet decide that similar visas for other kinds of immigrant workers, like the Mexican migrants who routinely move back and forth across our southern border, are also something we will have to accept in order to better regulate the movement of people in and out of this country and to meet U.S. labor needs. This does not mean a return to the bracero program, which was riddled with abuses and corruption and stands discredited in both the United States and Mexico.

What should be considered instead is a sophisticated guest-worker program, attuned to the ongoing process of economic integration that is already taking place along the border--a process reflected in the historic North American Free Trade Agreement. Such a guest-worker program has recently been suggested to U.S. diplomats by Mexican officials, who don't want an uncontrolled situation along the border, either. The Mexican proposal should be taken up by the Clinton Administration as a logical and necessary follow-up to NAFTA.

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