IT'S a harbinger of an election year in the United States: politicians once again raising the profile of illegal immigration.
In Florida, Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) sued the federal government this week, claiming that it owed his state $1.5 billion for services that Tallahassee is required to provide immigrants who enter the country illegally.
In California, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) argues that the feds should pay for the problems that he sees illegal immigrants posing in his state - at a cost that he puts at $3 billion.
Similar complaints come from Texas and New York.
If the question simply is one of unfunded mandates, the governors have a point. States and localities, already running tight budgets, have been saddled with tens of billions of dollars a year in additional spending to comply with rules and regulations set along the Potomac.
Immigration is a federal issue governed by federal law. It is not unreasonable to ask Washington to help states deal with the effects of inadequate enforcement.
But too often, while one finger points to Washington, the other points to ``them'' - the immigrants - as the problem: ``They'' are taking our jobs (a dubious assertion); ``they'' are filling our schools, public hospitals, and jails. These people cease to be real people - who in many cases are drawn to this country by the hope and prosperity it offers, however imperfectly - and become political targets of convenience. What at root is a law enforcement problem all too easily degenerates into a racial problem, playing on fears and stereotypes.
In this climate, many advocates for immigrants' rights can be forgiven a tendency to criticize moves, such as those by Governor Chiles, as anti-immigrant or as scapegoating. These advocates try to give the voiceless a voice.
A Cuban-born Miami attorney observes that while illegal immigration is a legitimate issue, ``I would hope people talk about it in a more human and much less explosive way.''
Few are the state and federal politicians who rise or fall on their stand on immigration. It's time to cool the rhetoric.