When Bill Clinton was running for President he candidly admitted that he knew little about the immigration issues that stir up such political passion in states like California--but he said he would look to Californians to help him focus his thinking on the subject.
Last week, in an interview with The Times, the President addressed immigration issues head-on and not only displayed a good learning curve on that complex topic but showed that he is listening to the right people about it.
Rather than echoing the restrictionist position unfortunately espoused earlier in the week by California Gov. Pete Wilson, Clinton said he wants to strike a balance--looking for ways to deter illegal immigration while leaving the door open to legal immigrants. But, unless the federal government gets better control of our borders and otherwise deals with the negative effects of illegal immigration, Clinton rightly warns that "the genie out of the bottle will be passion to shut off legal immigration."
It was also encouraging to note that some of the specific policy proposals the Clinton Administration is considering represent the middle ground in the immigration debate. Clinton said he will consider having the government issue counterfeit-proof identity cards to U.S. workers; would not deny emergency medical care to illegal immigrants or citizenship to their U.S.-born children; will seek better enforcement of existing laws against illegal immigration before trying to reinvent the immigration-reform wheel.
But the most encouraging sign that Clinton is thinking about the long term on immigration issues--as opposed to short-term concerns like getting reelected, which seems to have motivated Gov. Wilson's outburst--was his mention of the impending North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada as a solution to immigration problems along the U.S.-Mexico border. With last Friday's announced completion of the so-called "side agreements" on environmental and labor issues, the final hurdle to ratification of NAFTA is Congressional approval. Though the new agreements may help smooth the way, Clinton will also have to put visible White House weight behind the proposal.
There is consensus that the only lasting solution to immigration frictions is economic development in the "sending" countries from which poor workers migrate, such as Mexico and Haiti. And there is no proposal on Clinton's or Congress' agenda that will help Mexico prosper better than NAFTA, which would create a three-nation free-trade zone with annual production worth $6.4 trillion.
So, while it is reassuring to hear Clinton talking the right talk about immigration, it would be even better if he started walking the right walk--by using all the clout his Administration can muster to get NAFTA approved.