'Myths' about illegal Mexican immigration

A Reagan administration task force is currently shaping a position on the most vexing issue between the United States and Mexico -- unlawful immigration. Before announcing any plan, the administration should consider eight half-truths -- or, in some cases, myths -- which have suffused past discussion of illegal immigration.

1. Mexicans and other illegals perform menial work spurned by Americans.m In some instances this is true: however, with eight million Americans unemployed, a variety of jobs becomes more attractive. Pollsters for the Los Angeles Times reported (April 7, 1981) that three out of four jobless citizens said they would apply for positions paying between $3.35, the minimum wage, and $4.50 per hour. Impressive numbers of those interviewed expressed a willingness to seek work in restaurants (48 percent) and the garment industry (40 percent) -- magnets for undocumented aliens. Americans now perform the great majority of low-status jobs in this country. Marginal jobs rejected by legal residents can be filled through the H2 program, which offers temporary contract employment to foreigners when no American workers are available.

2. Illegal aliens are younger than the US population as a whole and are, therefore, an economic asset.m While there is an element of truth to this proposition, it overlooks the competition that immigrants pose to youngsters in the US, notably blacks and Chicanos, who suffer the highest rates of joblessness. A permeable border also militates against reforming the US welfare system; specifically, closing the gap between effort and reward that has discredited public assistance programs.

3. Because they pay taxes, contribute to social security, and don't apply for welfare, illegal aliens put in more than they take from government coffers.m Officials of Los Angeles Country doubt this proposition, for they have sued the federal government for $89 million in unpaid medical bills for undocumented workers. Also skeptical are school superintendents in Brownsville and other Texas communities who claim that their systems face bankruptcy if a Justice Department lawsuit prevents charging tuition of illegal foreign residents whose children attend public schools. In addition, current payments into social security represent deferred claims on that beleaguered program.

4. That authorities apprehended fewer than one million illegals from Mexico in fiscal 1980 for the first time in five years indicates a slowing of the flow across the Rio Grande.m This is misleading, for the drop occurred because the border patrol shifted over 200 officers to Florida to handle the so-called "Freedom Flotilla" of Cubans, while curbing checks on factories and residences during the census count.

5. It is only a matter of time before oil-rich Mexico creates the jobs that will put its people to work at home.m Oil-endowed countries have a poor track record in generating jobs, as evidenced by the experience of Iran, Venezuela, and Ecuador. The Mexican government's industrial development plan, designed to secure "permanent prosperity" by the 1990s, is relatively capital-intensive, with rewards flowing disproportionately to entrepreneurs who employ machines rather than men. A spiraling inflation also works agaist job development.

Ironically, such economic growth that does take place may actually nourish emigration because expectations often outpace incomes, spurring highly motivated young people to seek their fortunes abroad, and, thereby, drain the cornucopia-shaped nation of vitally needed talent.

6. Enforcement of its immigration laws will cost the US access to Mexican oil and gas.m This is unlikely because lower transportation costs enable Mexico to sell its hydrocarbons at a premium in the US market. Moreover, oil is fungible, and Mexico's shipment of an increasing percentage of its output to other countries -- a move well underway despite Washington's forbearance of illegal immigration -- frees oil in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere for American consumption.

7. As is the case with most problems in a democracy, pressures will eventually compel American politicians to limit the flow of illegal aliens.m Such may not be the case. In their quest for political clout as the nation's largest minority, many Hispanic-American leaders welcome the influx of Spanish-speaking people. As seen in 1980, the Electoral College magnifies the influence of ethnic groups viewed as power brokers in pivotal states. Postponing action on unlawful immigration will strengthen those forces opposed to sound border management.

8. Diversity has enriched the United States, which -- as a "nation of immigrants" -- has a moral obligation to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate of other lands.m Times have changed. Exploding populations in poor countries and advances in transportation and communication have made this a "promised land" for millions upon millions of "have nots." The US has responded with the world's most liberal immigration policies. Yet, limited resources, turgid economic growth, and exceptionally high domestic unemployment mean that only a small fraction of those clamoring for admission can be accommodated without greatly sacrificing the quality fo life Americans, especially the least affluent. Moreover, a country such as Mexico, which earned $10.4 billion in oil sales last year, must take far greater responsibility for meeting the needs of its people.

9. The bracero or guest worker plan that operated between 1942 and 1964 proved succussful, reducing illegal immigration and fostering bilateral cooperation.m Unfortunately, bribes sometimes proved necessary to win admission to the program in Mexico. Then the Mexican government often perceived acts of unfairness and discrimination toward the workers as insults to its national honor. In addition, the number of illegals grew faster than that of braceros until, during the final years of the program, the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched a concerted lawenforcement effort that involved sweeping searches and massive deportations.

The easy approach would be Mr. Reagan's assuring Mexico that the safety valve will remain wide open for its job-hungry people. Yet, in defending his southern frontier against Central American migrants, Mexican President Lopez Portillo has recognized that controlling one's nation is a universal attribute of sovereignty.

Continuing a porous border will (1) diminish the pressure on Mexico's elite to vigorously pursue employment creation and other promised reforms, (2) see the current flood of illegals become a tidal wave, and (3) possibly spark an antiforeign backlash in the US in view of the 91 percent support for an "all-out effort to stop" illegal entries voiced by respondents to a mid-1980 Roper Poll.

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