Sunday, May 21, 2006

Manufactured Crises

First it was Social Security: doomed to insolvency by the Baby Boomer retirements, this bed rock social safety net had to be overhauled into private accounts. The Emperor made it the central domestic issue of his first term. Fortunately, the American public and wise people in the Congress saw through the boondoggle and refused to throw slabs of money at Wall Street mavens. Yes, funding Social Security does need to be re-examined, but better ways to insure the continuity of the program exist than dismantling it.

Now it's immigration: we are being over-run by the illegals who come to this country only to suck up welfare monies and devastate our county emergency rooms. Tom "Nuke Mecca" Tancredo of Colorado promised over a year ago to make immigration reform the main issue of the 2006 and 2008 elections, and he has succeeded in putting the issue squarely in front of the American people and Congress. Tancredo and Rep. "Tex" Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin pushed a bill through the House of Representatives that 'solved' the immigration problem by funding a wall for the entire length of our southern border and by declaring all illegal immigrants and any people who assist them in any way to be felons.

A slightly more reasonable bill is being hammered out in the Senate, but the racist, xenophobic fear mongers continue to attack anything less than the House bill provisions. The NY Times published an editorial today which suggests some guidelines for the Senate bill.

A good immigration bill must honor the nation's values and be sensible enough to work. It must not violate the hopes of deserving people who want to work toward citizenship. It must not create a servant class of "guest workers" shackled to their employers and forbidden to aspire to permanent legal status. It must give newcomers equal treatment under the law and respect their rights of due process. It must impose rigorous enforcement of labor laws, so unscrupulous employers cannot exploit illegal workers. And it must clear the existing backlogs of millions seeking to enter the country legally, so that illegal immigrants do not win an unfair place in line.

The Senate is the only hope for real reform this year because the House has already chosen its plan. It wants to wall off Mexico, turn 11 million or so illegal immigrants into an Ohio-size nation of felons, and then pick them off through arrests, deportation and an atmosphere of focused hostility until they all go home, abandoning their families and jobs.

That spirit of wishful hunkering has infected the Senate, where Democrats and moderate Republicans have had to struggle against the obstinacy of those who join their counterparts in the House in seeing immigration entirely as a pest-control problem.

An immigration solution cannot be focused only on the border. We've tried that. Border enforcement has swelled in the last 20 years, with no visible effect. Mr. Bush's plan to send National Guard troops was seen on both sides, rightly, as a ploy to placate the xenophobes.

The value of illegal immigrants to many employers is their fearful willingness to work for low pay in bad conditions. People who are secure in their status will stand up against abuses, leading to better treatment for all. Workplace enforcement is one tactic. Employers who risk real punishment will be less likely to flout the rules. But guest worker programs without the citizenship option are also an invitation to worker abuse, and a shameful abdication of America's values.

Like the whole Social Security kerfuffle, immigration reform is coming out of a manufactured crisis. The problem with crises, real or imagined, is that responses to them are always ill-considered and overly dramatic (vide the Patriot Act). And in this situation, the responses usually spring directly from the worst parts of our national psyche, racism.

Progressives in the Senate should quit trying to 'placate' those who insist on draconian measures to ensure American purity. We don't need another bad law this year. If rational immigration policies can't be had this term, then give Mr. Tancredo what he wants: a campaign issue. I think the American people will surprise the gentleman from Colorado.


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