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PERSPECTIVE ON IMMIGRATION

Human Nature Always Wins Out

People will try to better their lives wherever they can; the latest reforms will fail as hace others in trying to stop them.

September 29, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Conventional wisdom has it that the major immigration reform bill approved last week in the House of Representatives was a political inevitability. This is an election year, and Congress was determined to "do something" about illegal immigration, one of the year's hot-button political issues, before returning home to campaign. That is why the Senate also is likely to approve the measure and why President Clinton will sign it.

But while some kind of immigration reform was inevitable in 1996, I prefer to take the longer view in explaining why. It has been 10 years since Congress last tried to "do something" about immigration, and our political system was due for another one of its periodic spasms over the issue.

Unfortunately, when you take the longer view, you can't help but conclude that what Congress has done in 1996 will be no more effective in solving this nation's immigration problems than the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was.

Or than a Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy was in 1978.

Or than a major revision of the Immigration and Nationality Act was in 1965.

Or than a massive deportation campaign, with the ugly name Operation Wetback, was in 1954.

Or than a series of "repatriation" drives against Mexican immigrants was in the 1930s.

Or than the founding of the U.S. Border Patrol was in 1924.

The pattern here is obvious. About once a decade (as far back as the late 18th Century), Americans get themselves worked up about foreigners coming to this country, and Congress tries to put a stop to it.

More often than not, these political spasms are caused by something other than immigrants themselves--usually some great social upheaval like the Industrial Revolution or a financial crisis like the Great Depression. I trace our latest surge of concern over immigration to the economic dislocations caused in states like California by the end of the Cold War.

But somehow, no matter what Congress--or presidents from John Adams to Ronald Reagan--have done to try to stop the flow of immigrants here, people keep arriving, legally or illegally. And most of them prosper in spite of the social and legal obstacles, whether ethnic prejudice or mean-spirited immigration laws.

That's because there are other laws at work here, the fundamental laws of human nature that underlie a complex and ever-changing phenomenon like immigration. Like the human imperative that leads people to pursue their economic betterment wherever they can find it.

No legislature in the world has ever found a way to overrule or repeal these laws. That's why I am dubious that Congress' latest effort at immigration reform--dubbed by its sponsors, with almost humorous pretense, the Immigration in the National Interest Act of 1996--will make much of a difference in the long run.

To be sure, this new law will make life harder for immigrants who arrive here in the next few years--and not just those who do so illegally. Even model immigrants who play by the rules and pay all their taxes will suffer as a result of some of the more draconian provisions of the 1996 immigration act. Legal immigrants now won't even be able to qualify for some of this nation's most minimal social safety-net programs, like food stamps. And with less recourse to the courts, immigrants will be even more at the mercy of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, one of the most notoriously inefficient and insensitive bureaucracies in the federal government.

Congress made the 1996 immigration reform bill so harsh in the hopes that it would convince some immigrants who are already here to return to their homelands, and maybe discourage would-be immigrants from trying to get here in the first place. But what will likely happen instead is that immigrants will keep coming, having resigned themselves to the fact that life here will be even tougher than they expected it to be.

But they'll hunker down, work even harder and accept the harshness of their present life as a temporary price to pay for greater security and freedom in the future, if only for the generation that follows them. If there's one thing I've learned in writing about immigrants for almost a quarter of a century, it's that they are better at taking the long view than most native-born Americans.

I've also come to the conclusion that trying to stop people from pursuing economic well-being is a akin to trying to stop water from flowing downhill. You can slow it down for a while, divert it here or there and even use it for other purposes. But in the end, you can't keep it from following its inexorable course.

We should have learned that same lesson about human migration. It is simply not fixable by human laws, because it responds instead to even more powerful laws of economics and human nature.

If the historic pattern holds, Congress will again face that reality about the year 2006.

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