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JAMES FLANIGAN

New Bill on Immigration Is Borderline at Best

September 29, 1996|JAMES FLANIGAN

Despite tough talk from politicians, including President Clinton, new legislation about to get approval in Congress won't do diddly about illegal immigration.

In fact, the new immigration bill tacitly encourages workers to enter the U.S. illegally and employers to hire them because it sends a signal that enforcement at the workplace will be lax and penalties will be light.

It's a sham, says Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City), who voted against the bill. "The problem with this bill is that it cons the American people into thinking major new steps are going to be done," he says.

At one point, the proposed legislation would have added 750 workplace inspectors to see that workers were legal U.S. residents. But that addition was eliminated because Congress decided not to focus on places of employment, even though the overwhelming reason illegal immigrants come here is to get jobs.

Indeed, a new study by the Public Policy Institute of California shows illegal immigration swelling and declining directly in line with the state's economy.

The new legislation, instead, is beefing up U.S. border patrols by doubling the number of guards to 10,000. That's not a bad idea, but it's less than effective considering that 50% of all illegal immigrants enter with legal tourist and student visas and simply overstay them.

Further, the proposed legislation ignores the Immigration Reform Commission, created by law in 1990, which recommended that legal immigration be cut by 30% from today's 750,000 entrants a year to roughly 550,000.

The new legislation doesn't address the numbers of legal immigrants but aims to deny public benefits if the newcomers apply for them.

The reform commission, chaired originally by the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and now by former Judge Shirley Hufstedler, also recommended a work identification card so that employers could easily check the legality of employees.

That's a good idea. Today, as many as 29 documents, including easily forged birth certificates, can serve as proof of legal U.S. residence.

But members of Congress, both right and left in the political spectrum, voted down the work card idea out of fear of a police state. The new legislation only leaves in place an experimental program in Orange County whereby employers can check document validity on a national computer system.

Beyond the details, the underlying intent of the new legislation--whatever the rhetoric about stopping illegal immigration--is to give the United States a continuing supply of cheap labor.

Illegal immigration will continue at about 300,000 people a year coming and staying. Many come for temporary work and do not stay. Along with legal immigrants and refugees admitted under various programs, total immigration now totals 1.1 million newcomers a year--including roughly 360,000 to California.

That may equal immigration's previous numerical high mark in the decade 1900-10, but in percentage terms of population, today's 0.4% total is only one-third that of 1910.

The U.S. economy derives enormous benefits from immigration. Energetic people come here to work and to start businesses. Also, continuing immigration has kept the average age of the U.S. population younger, thus helping to support Social Security, Medicare and other old-age pension schemes.

There is even a benefit from cheap labor, which holds down certain living costs in states where illegals are most prevalent: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

But there is a cost. "Illegal immigrants hold down wages for the poorest in our society," notes Kevin McCarthy, an expert on immigration at Rand Corp., the research firm. "And cheap labor from uneducated people is not what the U.S. economy needs today."

We can understand the situation better if we differentiate among today's immigrants. About 10% come from Europe. Another 250,000 come from Asia, aside from Indochina, which sends refugees from Vietnam and other countries.

That leaves roughly 50% of U.S. immigration coming from Latin America.

Most of the Asians and Europeans have education and get good-paying jobs or open their own businesses, giving the U.S. economy a decided entrepreneurial boost--and valuable links to fast-growing economies elsewhere.

Immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean, on the other hand, resemble the poor Italian and Irish immigrant laborers of 19th and early 20th century America.

But there is less blue-collar work in today's U.S. economy than there was 100 years ago. And illegal immigration is undercutting the wages Latino and other poor immigrants do make. "Mexican laborers used to make 70% of the average U.S. wage, but now they make only 50%," McCarthy reports.

That's a problem, which is why there was such a push for legislation to stop illegal immigration. Unfortunately, the bill at hand doesn't come close to addressing the problems.

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