New Politics of immigration

Illegal immigrants are a chameleon political issue.

When the country lacks low-wage workers, they're given a green light. In periods of high unemployment, illegal immigrants make many Americans see red.

This year, with the economy booming, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has reportedly eased up on trying to nab illegals in the workplace, even as it also remains vigilant at the southern border.

Economic analysts point out the anti-inflation role of cheap labor in a tight market. Immigrants are a "safety valve" for employers desperate to keep costs down. But the issue hasn't come up much in the presidential campaign, for two reasons:

Republican nominee-apparent George W. Bush is the governor of a state with a large Hispanic population that opposes or at the least wavers on tough US immigration policy. Many Texas employers rely on such workers. Mr. Bush is not about to take a get-tough stance on this issue.

And Democrat Al Gore? A few weeks ago organized labor did an about-face on immigration and proposed an amnesty for illegal immigrants now holding jobs in the United States. The AFL-CIO sees the possibility of unionizing a vast new cadre of workers. This labor stance alone might be reason enough for Mr. Gore to take a let-them-stay position.

But he also has to think about the continued vibrancy of an economy that he claims credit for.

The current tolerance of illegal immigrants already here shouldn't obscure the need for sound - and enforced - policy in this area. Simply allowing an unofficial amnesty by not detaining illegal workers seems like flimsy expediency. It suggests that disrespect for the law is OK when economics demands it. Better to alter the laws to let in more legal workers than to put on enforcement blinders to the illegal ones here.

And for foreign skilled labor, which is in demand among high-tech industries, the US remains too restrictive in granting visas. Congress needs to respond better to these problems.

Legal immigration should swing with economic ups and downs. And for now, lawmakers should take steps to make foreign workers more available - while not just looking the other way on illegal ones.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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