Twelve million. That's the number of illegal immigrants living right now in the United States, according to a just-released study by the Pew Hispanic Center. The majority are from Mexico.
What should we do about illegal immigration? How it looks depends in part on where you stand. Me? I'm an ivy-educated "symbolic analyst" living in a slightly less affluent ZIP code of one of the most affluent U.S. counties. For me, personally, illegal Mexican immigration means that when a foot of snow falls, two nice guys show up and offer to shovel the driveway for $25.
But for my friend "Mary," the whole issue looks different. She cleans houses and baby-sits for a living. Her son paints houses. In both cases, they are competing directly with a new flood of immigrants who don't mind living doubled or quadrupled up (changing the character of neighborhoods) and for whom $10 bucks an hour is a premium wage.
I don't think the fact that she and her family notice (and object) makes them racists. Economic studies suggest that overall, immigration is a net wash, or a slight plus, for the American economy. But the pluses and minuses are not evenly distributed over the whole population: Lesser-skilled Americans who compete for jobs that don't require Ivy League credentials take the hit, while people like me enjoy a lot of the benefits. A 2003 Hamilton College poll found that only 12 percent of Americans worry that immigrants might take their job. I suspect these are the folks for whom the fear is quite realistic.
Meanwhile, a nationally representative Quinnipiac poll released March 4 concludes that 88 percent of all Americans see illegal immigration as a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem. By 62 percent to 32 percent, voters oppose making it easier for undocumented immigrants to become citizens. More than four in 10 Americans would prefer not to give U.S. citizenship to children born in this country to illegals (a right guaranteed in the Constitution).
"This poll reflects local concerns about immigrants gathering on street corners, waiting for jobs, or packed into illegal housing and the like," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Red state, blue state and purple state voters agree: Illegal immigration is a serious problem."
The thing that bothers me about the immigration issue is how much spin it generates.
Pro-business groups portray President Bush's proposed "guest worker" program as an alleged national security program. But we know, from European experience, that the whole "guest worker" idea is a fraud. It doesn't work. The workers don't go home. The guest worker program is a dishonest way to increase legal immigration. Moreover, it represents a disturbing retreat from the best of America's pro-immigration tradition, which includes inviting and encouraging immigrants to become Americans.
As for the national security implications, the 12 million people who are already in this country are ALREADY HERE. The terrorists among them are unlikely to step forward and identify themselves. The very worst thing for Republicans (trust me on this) is for GOP leaders to start using national security concerns as political cover for other agendas.
What about trying a little truth on immigration for a change? Secure the borders first and foremost. Voters know we can do it if we try. Oh, not completely, but a million people illegally entering the United States is clearly a passive policy choice, not an inevitability.
Secure the borders, because that's a non-negotiable national security issue. And then, if it's true we need and benefit from more hard-working non-native Americans, increase legal immigration.
That at least would be an honest move, which someone once remarked is generally the best policy.