Illegal immigration: CBS asks, `Whose America is it?'

CBS News, which entered the disco-beat newsmagazine field recently with flashy ``West 57th,'' is paying a sort of electronic penance with a classic Bill Moyers documentary, airing, ironically, on the same evening as the next edition of ``West 57th.'' Whose America Is It? (Tuesday, 8-9 p.m.), which deals with illegal immigration, is as bold in its choice of subject matter as ``West 57th'' is with its strident, sensational subjects treated so superficially they are almost subliminal. Unlike ``57th,'' however, the Moyers documentary is thoroughly researched, sensitively reported, and carefully balanced with fine-tuned perspective. With correspondent Bill Moyers -- often called ``the conscience of American television'' -- in control, viewers can expect just what they get: incisiveness mellowed with compassion.

``Whose America Is It?'' doesn't beat about the sagebrush. It points out that by the end of the century Hispanics will constitute the largest minority in America. Dade County, Fla., alone, is already 40 percent Hispanic, as Cubans, Caribbeans, Central and South Americans pour into the area, legally and illegally, demanding jobs and, sometimes, bilingualism. Already the United States is the seventh largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. The documentary doesn't hesitate to deal with all of the vit al questions which arise:

How are we to handle job discrimination in Hispanic-controlled industries where bilingualism (Spanish and English) is a requirement, thereby ruling out non-Hispanic Americans, often black?

Is English, heretofore ``the glue of our society,'' beginning to become unstuck as Spanish-speaking immmigrants -- secure in their Spanish-language ghettos -- resist learning the language.

Is it fair to levy a fine on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants?

Should we adopt more stringent controls at our borders so that the flow of underprivileged foreigners will be stopped?

Is it true that labor unions have a valid point in accusing illegal laborers of taking jobs from Americans, of bringing down salaries by accepting lower wages?

Moyers is not content to merely pose the questions; he visits the sites of the action, talks to the people involved. Viewers will hear a Salvadorean refugee explain poignantly how, in her desperate search for freedom, she paid $3,500 to a ``coyote,'' who led her to safety across the Mexican border. Moyers chats with illegal immigrant workers, their employers, their American competitors for jobs. It is shocking to hear a union official object to the 2 million to 12 million illegal aliens with the words: ``We are being invaded as surely as if an enemy dropped bombs.''

Bill Moyers, in conjunction with executive producer Perry Wolff, producer-director Elena Mannes, and associate producer Elizabeth Karnes, has managed to find not only the problems but to probe the causes and the possible solutions as well. They have managed to present some potentially explosive issues (the bilingual issue in Miami especially) without prejudice toward either side. And in placing the segment early in the documentary rather than at the conclusion, they have kept it in proper perspective. T he documentary is a fine tribute to its makers' taste, news judgment, and keen understanding of the American heartland.

In the end, as Congress seems poised to enact new immigration legislation, Moyers concludes that ``our current policy is immigration anarchy, full of holes and hypocrisy. . . . The immigrants keep coming, creating a country within a country, their language and culture enabling them to resist assimilation. In the eyes of many Americans, this is a threat to English as the language of citizenship, to the livelihood of people already here, and to America's sense of nationhood.''

In what is surely CBS News's finest public-service hour this year, Bill Moyers warns ominously: ``The desperation and frustration are reaching a flashpoint . . . as this nation of immigrants debates what to do about the new strangers in our midst.

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