Washington's unwillingness to deal with illegal immigration has
emboldened several Latin American governments to come up with their own
solutions. An estimated 9 million illegal aliens from Latin America live in
the United States, so Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have
recently begun issuing identification cards to illegal aliens through their
consular offices in the U.S. These IDs allow illegal aliens living here to
open bank accounts, obtain drivers' licenses and library cards, and fly on
U.S. domestic airlines.
While many Americans may find the practice objectionable, a
number of local and state governments have been quick to embrace these new
"matricula consular" IDs as a way to bring illegal aliens in their
communities out of the shadows, where they are easy prey to criminals and
scam artists. So far, several jurisdictions in California, Texas, Arizona,
Illinois, Georgia and elsewhere have decided to accept these identification
cards where official government IDs are required.
Now, El Salvador has gone a step further in driving U.S.
immigration policy by actually lobbying its nationals to stay in the United
States -- even though they came here illegally in the first place.
Salvadoran President Francisco Flores recently sent recorded messages to
Salvadorans living in the U.S., reminding them to re-apply for the limited
amnesty they were granted two years ago in the wake of two devastating
earthquakes in their home country. The emergency measure permitted
Salvadorans who entered the U.S. illegally prior to February 2001 to apply
for temporary work permits, which expired in September 2002. The message
from the Salvadoran president was delivered via Americatel, a long-distance
carrier, to some 750,000 persons in the United States who had placed calls
to El Salvador previously.
Mexico, El Salvador and other Latin American countries are
taking these unorthodox steps because illegal immigration has become a
safety valve for their own struggling economies. Those unable to find jobs
in their own countries simply sneak across the border to the United States,
where work is relatively plentiful and wages are substantially higher than
at home. What's more, these illegal aliens send literally billions of
dollars home to support family members left behind. Throughout Latin
America, these remittances from illegal aliens living in the United States
have boosted local economies, even providing needed infrastructure in some
communities -- roads, schools and even sewers for remote villages. Experts
estimate that remittances from family members living in the U.S. are now the
chief source of foreign aid to Latin America.
But can the United States afford to have other countries
encouraging their nationals to disobey U.S. immigration law? The fact is,
these countries are simply taking advantage of the vacuum that exists in
American immigration policy. Despite a lot of bombastic political rhetoric
over illegal immigration, most politicians -- from both parties -- are
unwilling to take the bull by the horns and come up with a sensible
Like it or not, it's not possible simply to round up all the
illegal aliens in the country and ship them home. Nor would it be desirable
to do so. Our economy is simply too dependent on their labor to withstand a
round up of illegals like the one the U.S. engaged in during the Great
Depression. Most illegal aliens are gainfully employed doing dirty, often
dangerous jobs that Americans won't take, at least not at wages that allow
employers to keep the jobs here rather than ship the jobs overseas.
The only answer is a properly constructed guest worker program
that regulates the flow of workers into the country, depending on economic
conditions in the United States. When we face boom times and labor
shortages, we should be able to bring in more workers. When the job market
tightens and the economy contracts, we should be able to send them home
again. Those already living and working here, albeit illegally, ought to be
able to "earn" legal status by paying a hefty fine for having broken our
immigration laws, learning English and demonstrating work history and skills
that make them a good bet as future workers.
A guest worker program may not be the perfect solution to our
growing illegal immigration problem, but it's a lot better than what we have
now: U.S. officials' wink and a nod to illegal immigration and foreign
governments' open encouragement to their nationals to flout our laws.