They clean the office buildings in which we work and bus the tables in the restaurants where we eat. They take care of our babies, clean our homes, mow our lawns, repair our roofs and build our houses. Without them, modern American life would be more difficult and more expensive. Yet most of them live in fear that they will one day be whisked away by government agents, even though, for the most part, they live law-abiding, productive lives. Isn't it time we put aside our prejudices and hypocrisies, and grant them legal status?
Of course, I'm talking about illegal aliens. Estimates on the number of such persons living in the United States vary from about 4 million to as many 9 million. Now the Bush administration is considering giving legal status to the roughly 3 million Mexican illegal aliens living here, by far the largest single national origin group. A high-level government task force, made up of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell and their Mexican counterparts, is about to make its recommendations to the White House. In addition to granting legal status to the Mexican nationals already in the United States, the administration is also considering creating a new guest worker program to allow more immigrants to come here to work.
The plan is likely to elicit strong opposition. The anti-immigration group Federation for American Immigration Reform has already spent half a million dollars on radio and TV ads blaming immigrants for everything from traffic jams in major cities to the loss of rural farm land to housing development. FAIR will certainly fight, tooth and nail, any measure to increase the number of temporary workers coming into the United States. But even some pro-guest worker politicians have vowed to oppose an effort to legalize those illegal aliens already living here. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), an immigration-friendly politician, says an amnesty bill would have to pass "over my cold, dead political body."
This is silly. What sense does it make to create a new program to admit guest workers while ignoring the millions of people already here and working? It would cause untold havoc if employers fired their existing employees to replace them with new, untrained workers -- if you could force employers to do so, an unlikely scenario.
Since 1986, when Congress passed the amazingly ineffective Immigration Reform and Control Act, illegal immigration has actually gone up, not down. The only thing IRCA has succeeded in doing is making law-breakers out of millions of American citizens who want nothing more than to hire employees for jobs that otherwise would go wanting. Congress should repeal the employer-sanctions provision of the law, which may be the most widely flouted law since Prohibition.
Sure, it would be better for everyone if all immigrants came here legally. But the fact is, the demand for labor in this country exceeds the supply of U.S.-born and legal immigrants, which is why so many illegal aliens come here to fill the gap. Illegal immigration is a demand-driven phenomenon. And every one of us -- not just the wealthy, two-earner couples who hire illegal nannies and gardeners -- benefits from the availability of this ready work force in the lower prices we pay for everything, including our food, clothing and housing.
The huge, subterranean population of illegal immigrants in our midst presents us with only three alternatives: One, we can invoke police-state tactics and start rounding up millions of people and deporting them; two, we can continue to ignore the problem; or three, we can begin a process to grant legal status to those here and arrange for a better, market-driven system to provide us with needed future workers.
I doubt even the most hardhearted xenophobe would much like to live in an America capable of the first alternative -- even if the courts would allow it, which they probably would not. And with as many as 9 million illegal aliens and millions more of their employers now breaking the law, we can't afford to ignore the problem much longer. So why not do the sensible -- and moral -- thing and grant legal status to the millions of workers whom we depend on every day?