Policy Today magazine cover showing people hoeing in a field
April 5, 2006

The immigration debate is reaching fever pitch, but is the political discussion touching the most important issues?

When it comes to immigration policy, everyone has an opinion. Consensus—especially among lawmakers—is a much taller order. At any given time, the discussion may shift to increasing border patrols, guest worker programs, homeland security concerns, the drain on taxpayer-funded social services and dwindling American jobs. But the basic facts are incontrovertible: Mexico, India, and ChinaUnited States has jobs that its people don't want or are increasingly ill-prepared to handle. Today, those jobs range from harvesting grapes, to sweeping the shop floor, to developing high-end software. have populations that their economies cannot support and the

The concept is very simple: We've built it—the world's most dynamic, productive economy—and immigrants are going to come, whether legally or illegally. The real policy issues are broad-based, however. How do we integrate these new arrivals into a society dedicated to preserving fundamental equality among its inhabitants while protecting the individual liberties and rights of the citizenry? This fundamental debate has never taken place. That there is no real policy in place, then, should come as no great surprise.

"It seems to me that our federal government has a head-in-the-sand attitude about immigration policy," says CA State Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny, (D-San Diego), chair of the California-Mexico Cooperation select committee in the senate. "The current federal policy just doesn't recognize reality."

By that, the senator means that current federal policy doesn't reflect the numbers of illegal immigrants that are already here (estimated at 11 to 12 million), where they're coming from (half of them from Mexico), and why they're coming (jobs, jobs, jobs). While the number of immigrants streaming in from countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe continues to have an impact, California's migrant population remains overwhelmingly Mexican.

That has resulted in some tenuous political balancing acts. A recent congressional proposal from Senator Bill Frist, (R-TN), included a 2,000-mile wall with fences and high-tech sensors along every inch of the United States-Mexico border. That's right, an actual wall. Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently finished a contentious debate on a tough immigration reform bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, (R-WI), which would make the presence of illegal immigrants in the United States a felony rather than a misdemeanor. The bill was already approved by the House in December, and has clashed with a guest worker program bill favored by senators John McCain, (R-AZ), and Edward Kennedy, (D-MA).

Despite lawmakers' various efforts to reform the status quo, the people aren't happy. More than 500,000 people took to the streets in Los Angeles last month to protest the proposed reforms, while the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps generated headlines late last year for its do-it-yourself approach to immigration reform. The latter is planning a return engagement to the Arizona border in early April.

"If the Senate does not pass a border security bill soon, you are going to see our numbers double probably by the end of the summer," Minuteman President Chris Simcox told the Associated Press. "People are frustrated. I think this political process of coming to the border and setting up a lawn chair and saying, 'We have the will to do it,' sends a strong message to Washington, D.C."

The Minuteman Corps is having an effect, even informing the April 11 congressional race for disgraced California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's empty seat. One of the candidates, State Senator Bill Morrow, (R-Carlsbad), is endorsed by the Minuteman Corps, but preaches a "compassionate" philosophy regarding immigration, says chief of staff Wade Teasdale. Morrow favors targeted guest worker programs where incoming workers are matched up to specific needs, Teasdale says, but the conservative senator also wants restrictions over such a program and says illegal immigrants should not have access to amnesty. "We should just not generally reward illegal behavior," says Teasdale.

For her part, Ducheny says special labor relationships with Canada and Mexico should extend to its border-crossing citizens. "For many of us representing a large immigrant community…we think the federal policy ought to be more realistic." That's not to say the border patrol shouldn't be beefed up, she adds, just that walling ourselves in like pre-industrial China isn't the best idea. Rather, more energy needs to be expended on economic development and checkpoint reforms to lessen the bureaucratic headaches faced by those trying to cross over honestly.

The Mexican government agrees, at least if recent full-page ads in The New York Times, Washington Post and other newspapers are any indication. The public relations blitz is intended to portray Mexico as an important international partner that wants to help the United States address its immigration concerns.

While the ads urge the United States to come up with a workable guest worker plan, they also articulate Mexico's responsibilities to better enforce it migration laws, crack down on people trafficking, secure its southern border and solicit the return of departed citizens. "There's no reason in the world that we should have porous borders and porous ports when you're fighting a global war on terror," says Teasdale. "The people of Mexico are not our enemies, but there are people from other countries that may be our enemies."

In a post-9/11 climate, "homeland security" has become the rallying cry for those advocating tougher immigration reform policies. But it's not just conservatives building their arguments on the back of national security. State Senator Gilbert Cedillo, (D-Los Angeles), has cited homeland security as a prime reason for adopting the California Real ID Act, which would allow citizens and non citizens, both legal and undocumented, to obtain a driver's license.

"Like it or not, undocumented workers are central to the United States' economy and California's future," says Cedillo, chair of the Immigration and the Economy Select Committee. "They have tremendous economic impact and are the workforce and foundation of much of our state's economy."

Morrow agrees, says Teasdale. "They [immigrants] have contributed so much here," he says. "It complicates the politics." But the widespread notion that the American consumer benefits from the exploitation of undocumented workers is something of a myth, he adds.

Ninety percent of U.S. crop workers are foreign born, he says, with 1.5 million in California alone. Approximately 50% of those workers are in the country illegally, with wages paid either under the table or using fraudulent Social Security numbers and identification cards. Replacing these workers with a legal workforce, even if it means increasing wages by 50%, wouldn't run anyone out of business, Morrow contends.

"They [Americans] will do the jobs," says Teasdale. "They just won't do them for the wages."

The cost vs. benefit numbers on immigration differ depending on whom you talk to. Morrow argues that the cost placed on infrastructure and social benefits outweigh whatever savings consumers are finding in the checkout aisle. Cedillo counters that undocumented workers in the United States account for $800 billion in consumer activity and contribute $6.4 billion annually into Social Security.

"Immigrants should be fully integrated, not just as a foundation of our economy, but as part of our social and moral fabric," he says, citing the need for a state Office of Immigration Affairs similar to the one established in Los Angeles.

"It's a very complex problem and a lot of people are not honest about it because of a lot of different agendas," says Teasdale. "The federal government has really not addressed this. That's just a fact." At least California legislators have that to agree on. But there may be something else. Ducheny stresses that more energy needs to be expended on economic development in countries like Mexico.

"If you build the economy on both sides of the border, people will have less reason to cross over illegally," she says. "The best option is to encourage a nation like Mexico to reform itself politically and economically," seconds Teasdale. With its population numbers and natural resources, he says, Mexico "has the economic potential to become a major player on the world stage."

The question may then become whether the United States wants Mexico to follow in the footsteps of China and India. That discussion is at least three decades away, says Teasdale. Right now it's about Minutemen, guest worker programs, driver's licenses, yielding port security to foreign operators and whether a certain Austrian-born governor should be able to run for president someday. Taking a principled approach to what is an undoubtedly complex issue, however, would represent an important first step.

About Raheem F. Hosseini

Raheem F. Hosseini is a reporter and columnist living in Folsom, California.