I made the caller whoop with joy, but I soon felt cheap. He'd asked, in the exasperated tone of someone who'd long given up on getting the right answer from a Los Angeles Times editor, whether illegal immigrants are criminals. And I, oh so eager to show that I don't inhabit a different universe from these talk-radio listeners who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore, conceded that they'd committed "a crime." Hence the celebratory outburst.
So far, so good. What still bothers me nearly a week after this exchange on John Ziegler's show on KFI is that I didn't address the other half of the equation. I wasn't quick enough to ask the caller whether our neighbors who hire these illegals are also criminals. He might have paused, as I did, and measured his words carefully, as I had, before grudgingly conceding that they'd committed "a crime."
And what about the rest of society? The United States claims it doesn't want people crossing the border illegally, but relies heavily on the cheap labor of those who do make it across. Consider that desert gantlet the equivalent of a tough job interview. We are all in denial about the nature of our dysfunctional but flirtatious relationship with Mexicans considering a move across the border.
Polls in this country don't usually place illegal immigration atop the list of our most pressing problems, but there is undoubtedly a high cost to local law enforcement agencies, schools and hospitals that flows from our denial, regardless of whatever benefits this pool of labor provides the overall U.S. economy. And for the considerable number of people who do feel that the presence of so many undocumented workers in our midst is a major problem, it's a visceral, worldview-shaping thing.
Ziegler, for one, thinks this newspaper's circulation woes are partly attributable to what he considers overly restrained coverage of illegal immigration. He also said he believed the election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor would only encourage more illegal immigration into the area, as if the flow of workers were driven by a political conspiracy as much as economic reality.
The Mexican government gives people like Ziegler plenty of ammunition. President Vicente Fox champions the cause of his citizens in this country. He has every right to be concerned about the treatment of Mexicans here and to vigorously protect their interests at the consular level. But the Fox administration's shrill and clumsy meddling in our broader domestic policy debate hurts the very people he is trying to help.
Last week, Fox crudely told a group of Texas businesspeople that Mexican men and women "full of dignity, willpower and the capacity for work" are doing the work that "not even blacks want to do" in the United States. Fox has since backed off from those comments -- which predictably have earned Jesse Jackson an invite to Mexico City -- but his gaffe was no more counterproductive than his government's routine complaints about U.S. immigration policy.
Fox called the recent passage of the "Real ID" legislation, which makes it harder for undocumented workers to obtain driver's licenses and authorizes the extension of a fence along the California border, "a step backward" in the bilateral relationship between the two countries. Meanwhile, high-ranking Mexican officials hysterically talk of taking the U.S. to some multilateral forum for human rights violations.
I don't agree with the legislation either, but Mexico's meddling frames the immigration issue in an unfortunate manner -- as if it involves a choice between pleasing a foreign government or protecting American interests. The arguments for accepting more temporary legal workers and against making our driver's licenses the functional equivalent of a residence permit or citizenship ID should have nothing to do with the desires of the Mexican government.
Unfortunately, President Bush is partly to blame here. He has wrongly dealt with immigration as a foreign policy matter, and his passivity in pushing his own plan helps create a vacuum that Mexican officials are happy to fill. For them, making noises about gringo abuses of fellow Mexicans is a political winner at home.
Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy have introduced a bill that would set up a new temporary worker program. Their proposal would allow the millions of undocumented workers already here to come out of the shadows, obtain legitimate short-term visas after paying a fine and go to the end of the line of those seeking permanent residency. It's legislation that seems to advance the president's agenda, yet the White House appears less than thrilled that anyone is actually trying to advance its avowed principles.
The status quo is unsustainable. On that I can agree with Ziegler's most impassioned listeners.
Relying on millions of illegal workers who are officially nonpersons is corrosive to our nation's rule of law and to our democracy. American society needs to decide -- for itself, thank you, President Fox -- whether these illegal immigrants are needed or not, and whether we need a wall or not, and whether to keep the "Help Wanted" or the "Don't Trespass" sign posted at the border.
The longer we put off resolving these questions, the longer our society as a whole will be the perpetrator of the real crime.