Of course America needs immigrants. This is a country founded by immigrants and made richer by the imprint of newcomers in search of a land that rewards their hard work and determination to make a better life for their families.
The problem is that no country -- certainly, no country with a social safety net -- can afford to accommodate everyone who wants in. (Or as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., put it, "We cannot be the HMO to the world.") That's why there are immigration policies that limit the number of people who can immigrate here legally.
The lack of an open-door policy has spawned this week's victim class, illegal or "undocumented" immigrants, who have flouted American law and apparently believe they should not have to pay the consequences of that choice. Hence Sunday's huge demonstration in Los Angeles, where activists carried signs that called for "Amnistia, Full Rights for All Immigrants."
The Los Angeles Times duly reported, "Some Republicans fear that pushing too hard against illegal immigrants could backfire nationally, as with Proposition 187 (the 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny benefits for illegal immigrants that) helped spur record numbers of California Latinos to become U.S. citizens and register to vote. Those voters subsequently helped Democrats regain political control in the state."
Call that the Backlash Myth. In fact, Prop. 187 passed with 59 percent of the vote, and GOP Gov. Pete Wilson, who championed the measure, was re-elected in 1994. In 2003, when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, he so enraged voters that he sealed his political demise. After Davis was recalled from office, the heavily Democratic California Legislature repealed the bill.
That's your backlash.
Don't blame racism. While some in the media may think all Latinos vote alike, the Los Angeles Times poll found that 38 percent of Latino voters in California strongly opposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
If there is a backlash, it probably will be against the demonstrators. Even before students began blocking the Los Angeles streets to protest legislation in Congress to toughen penalties for illegal immigrants and smugglers, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies told me over the telephone, "I hope they keep doing it. It just makes it less and less likely the Senate's going to pass any amnesty."
A bill passed by the House would make it a felony for illegal immigrants to stay in the United States. Jeff Lungren of the House Judiciary Committee explained that, while it is a crime to cross the border illegally, staying here after sneaking in or after your visa expires has been only a civil offense. The House wanted to make it an actual crime.
When members of Congress complained that a felony was too harsh, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner put forward an amendment in December to reduce the proposed penalty to a misdemeanor.
This shows what a setup the felony issue was: Only eight Dems voted to reduce the penalty, and the amendment failed by a 257-164 vote. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., announced that she opposed the misdemeanor amendment because: "In one stroke, it would subject the entire undocumented population, estimated by some to be 11 million people, to criminal liability." So the Dems stuck with the felony language.
Rohrabacher stresses that 90 percent of illegal immigrants -- if not more -- are "wonderful human beings." He notes that no one expects the government to deport all 11 million or 12 million illegal immigrants in America.
The answer is for Washington to toughen enforcement, penalize employers who hired undocumented workers and make border crossing more costly. Then fewer people will move illegally to America.
Instead, on Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill with a guest-worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship. Big mistake. If Washington passes an immigration bill that grants citizenship to illegal immigrants and includes a phony temporary guest-worker program -- phony, because there is no way the government can or would remove workers after six years, as one scheme promises -- then the deception will be official. The message Washington will send will resound louder than ever: Forget immigration laws. Legal, illegal, no dif.