Congressman Gephardt suggests that the way to bring undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows and into the light of accountability" is to legalize their standing -- i.e., to countenance and, in effect, to reward their breaking of the law. This proposal was made to an assembly of the 3,000 who cheered him on wildly at the annual meeting of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic organization.
Gephardt acknowledged that it would not be possible to introduce the necessary legislation until some time later in the year. Later in the year, also, are congressssional elections, and if a few extra votes are garnered by the Democrats, the minority leader will become speaker of the House or, at least, majority leader, clearing the path for La Raza.
There is of course opposition, and at several levels. Dan Stein is executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He reported, in reaction to the Gephardt speech, that what would surely ensue from it and its proposals would be a stimulation of yet more illegal immigration. If there are now approximately 8 million illegal immigrants and 3 million of them are from Mexico alone, what reason would Congress have to think that amnesty would bring an end to illegal immigration?
When amnesty was given by President Carter to Americans who had dodged the draft and were now living abroad, whatever criticism one had could at least not be based on the assumption that amnesty would increase the number of illegal draft dodgers shirking duty at war, there being no longer a draft law or a war to fight.
And there are broader questions, well organized by Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies in National Review's current issue.
Here are the basic data. The foreign-born in America are 57 percent higher than in 1990. The number of immigrants in the United States in the past 30 years has tripled. The key question is always the same: Is assimilation doing the traditional work of Americanizing the foreign-born?
One begins by asking about employment. In the 20th century, immigrants found work in industry where training was not an important prerequisite. Such openings aren't as abundant in the post-industrial age, and the result of it is that the relative undereducation of the immigrant class results in relative poverty. Newly arrived adult immigrants are three times as likely as natives to lack a high-school education.
Moreover, the density of the immigrant population is a spur to the kind of ethnocentrism that retards assimilation. This is especially a problem, Camarota observes, with the second generation of immigrants. Their parents had a reason to have come to the United States. Their children, born here, think less of why their parents came than of relative disadvantages they suffer, retarding what John Fonte of the Hudson Institute has usefully called "patriotic assimilation" -- the adoption of America's past as something exclusively relevant to their developing culture.
The result is that the second generation veers in the direction of thinking itself a multicultural exfoliation -- encouraged to continue speaking in Spanish, persevering in Hispanic culture, refreshed by the frequent visits now possible to the original homeland.
Poverty leads, in the immigrant class, to a higher incidence of families without health insurance. Reliance on state welfare grows correspondingly, and since fertility is higher, the strain is greater on the protective engines of their new homeland. And then these -- welfare -- are constantly being reinforced, so that when congressional friends of La Raza promise amnesty, they are identifying themselves with all that is there to entice the immigrants to America in the first place: work, unemployment insurance, health care, education.
The big question before the house is: Does the United States benefit from unregulated immigration? By definition, the answer has been no -- otherwise there would be no such thing as a body of illegal immigrants. Illegal because Congress voted against green cards for the 8 million people who are nevertheless here and are being adopted by Mr. Gephardt the single father, who wants only one thing in return: a vote for Democratic legislators. But what is it that Congress has to legislate, if immigrants can come around in whatever numbers, whenever they want?