Bush can’t stay on illegal immigration fence

  • Froma Harrop / Providence Journal Columnist
  • Saturday, December 4, 2004 9:00pm
  • Opinion

It’s time to talk about illegal immigration. President Bush can no longer wink at the problem. The American people have tired of his fan dance – saying he opposes illegal immigration, but doing nothing about it. The bell has gone off, and a serious discussion is about to commence.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner has started things off by blocking the president’s bill to reform the intelligence system. The Wisconsin Republican wants the law to ban states from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. Driver’s licenses are the ID that people use to get onto planes. That’s why the 9-11 Commission Report called for tighter controls on these and other documents used for identification.

“What is controversial about setting strong standards to stop another Hani Hanjour from receiving a driver’s license?” Sensenbrenner wrote in a newspaper column. What, indeed? Hanjour was the 9-11 hijacker who flew a plane into the Pentagon.

Sensenbrenner was asked to put the matter on hold until next year. The congressman is no fool. Unattached to something Bush cares about, the issue will die of neglect.

In the states, meanwhile, a rebellion against illegal immigration grows hot. Last month, Arizona voters easily passed Proposition 200, which would deny some public services to illegal immigrants.

Why Arizona? The state has become the busiest and deadliest corridor for illegal immigration from Mexico. The traffic has saddled the citizens with added crime and social disorder. Arizonans also bear the dollar costs of free medical care and other services for illegal immigrants. (It deserves noting that 47 percent of Arizona’s Latino voters supported the referendum.)

Whether Prop 200 survives legal challenges remains an open question. But no one should doubt the message being sent to elected officials: The people want something done. Immigration reformers in California and Colorado are now working on similar ballot items for 2006.

The immigration free-for-all is burdening local governments, as well. In Long Island suburbs, for example, absentee landlords turn houses into overcrowded lodgings for illegal aliens. Some work for unlicensed contractors who are undercutting prices charged by legitimate businesses. As a result, local companies that pay taxes and good wages are either going broke or squeezing their workers.

These New York City suburbs are already paying some of the highest taxes in the country and resent having to support services for illegal aliens. Widespread anger has prompted Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy to make a controversial proposal: He wants to deputize some of his police officers to detain illegal immigrants arrested on other charges.

Neither Arizonans nor Long Islanders should have to be doing any of this. Immigration is a federal responsibility. Which brings us to the president.

Democrats have never shown great passion for controlling immigration, but they are tigers next to the Bush administration. During the presidential debates, Democrat John Kerry showed more interest in slowing illegal immigration than did his Republican opponent. Kerry at least said he would crack down on illegal hiring. Bush did not.

The workplace is key to immigration control. Federal law requires the government to fine employers for hiring undocumented workers. Guess how many companies were fined in 2002. Thirteen. Guess how many illegal immigrants were in the United States. At least 8 million.

What’s in it for the Bush administration? Cheap labor. Many of Bush’s corporate backers clamor for low-paid help, and he’s been happy to oblige. Flooding the labor market with illegal foreign workers also depresses wages and benefits for low-skilled natives and legal immigrants.

In any case, the chaos caused by illegal immigration is little skin off the federal government’s back. The states and local governments pick up most of the costs. (Observant Republicans like Sensenbrenner understand that the cheap-labor wing of their party is brewing political poison.)

We look forward to a serious immigration debate. It will let those against open borders counter the cartoon characterizations of their views and themselves. They can refute the charges that they are all racists, that illegal immigration is good for the economy and that it exacts no social or environmental toll.

No doubt about it. The thorny issue of illegal immigration is coming out of the shadows. There will be an honest discussion, after all.

President Bush is invited to attend.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Contact her by writing to fharrop@projo.com.

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