THE COMPROMISE immigration proposal served up this past week reminded me of that half-cooked grotesque and agonizing creature that emerged out of mad scientist Seth Brundle’s smoky teletransportation chamber in David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly.
It’s exactly the sort of bloody mishmash you get when policy becomes an amalgam of conflicting political dictates instead of a convergence of realities. Or, to put it in more direct political terms: The failure of both political parties to deal honestly with immigration over the last two years has now materialized in front of us as the stinking mess presented publicly by senators Kennedy and Kyl (with an assist from the White House).
Who could be surprised that a befuddled Senate quickly granted itself extra time, until June 4, to actually vote on it? Whatever it is. Or whatever the concoction eventually jells into.
The proposed compromise satisfies no one and pretty much infuriates everyone else. The seal-the-border types are outraged that 12 million undocumented people living and working in America will now be given “amnesty” and offered a clear, if torturous, path to legalization. Democrats are upset because the path being offered — including a punitive $5,000 fine and an absurd demand that the head of the household go back to the country of origin to complete the paperwork — is a tad too torturous. Employers who fought for this bill, meanwhile, now complain about the overly complicated databases they will be forced to use to make any new hires and to verify the legality of their current payroll. Unions that said they wanted comprehensive immigration reform are now having loud second thoughts when they are confronted with the reality of a guest-worker program. And immigrants already living here are frightened that — because of the proposed shift away from a standard of family reunification toward a centralized Soviet-style point system for granting visas — they will never again see their relatives.
Right. Only inside-the-Beltway geniuses could come up with this doozy. And it’s too bad that they have so sorely botched it. For despite all of the above faults, the measure does move the ball forward on two key points: the legal recognition of those doing all the manual labor in this country and the growing need for more foreign workers as a key ingredient in our prosperity.
But two decades or more of delusional denial from the totality of the political establishment has made it more or less impossible for any major politician to offer honest leadership on the issue.
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To the right wing someone has to say, “Amnesty? Of course, we need an amnesty!” What more efficient and might I say more secure way is there to figure out just exactly who is living and working here? Amnesty isn’t about “rewarding lawbreakers” as both Democrats and Republicans repeat ad nauseam. Instead, it’s how governments can quickly amend obsolete policy to catch up with fast-moving reality. We’ve had amnesties before. And if the political will can be found to grant it to young people who dodged the war in Vietnam, certainly we can summon it up for those who dodged the Border Patrol to clean toilets, wipe babies’ asses and mow lawns. For those queasy about masses of illegals lurking among us, a simple one-step, nonpunitive amnesty would — presto! — bring everyone out of the shadows and into regulation.
The liberals and the unions must also be told directly that what’s gingerly called a guest-worker program is also a pressing need. I agree with the unions that these imported workers must have full labor, legal and political rights, including the right to organize. They must also be given a reasonable path to permanent residence. But the fundamental point, that the American economy absolutely demands what experts figure to be around 500,000 younger, foreign workers per year should not be obscured by mumbling about downward pressure on wages and loss of American jobs.
Younger Americans have stopped taking low-paying service jobs not because Juan from Michoacan has aced them out, but because more Americans than ever go on to higher education and frankly wouldn’t dream of picking grapes or washing cars for a living. As to wages, well, the best way to raise wages is to organize unions, and right now immigrant service workers are precisely those who have revived American labor.
Now, back to reality. I give this immigration bill, in any amended form, no more than a 25 percent chance of passage. When it fails, we will be right back to where we’ve been: in a state of institutionalized hypocrisy.