Breaking the silence on immigration

Immigration is an issue those in power are reluctant to address. It provides cheap labor for rich nations. It pumps huge flows of money into the developing world. And usually it's the politically disadvantaged, lower-income workers who get hurt most. So the flows of people to the United States and elsewhere continue to grow, with little comment from most corners of officialdom.

The quiet is unlikely to last. For economic reasons alone, governments will have to act.

Here in the United States, immigration has reached a record level. Not even the recent recession and subsequent jobless recovery have slowed the flow of foreigners. But Washington keeps its head low, afraid of political potshots.

"There has been a deafening silence from the White House since Sept. 11," says Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro- immigration group in Washington. The administration is trying "to do as little as possible [for] as long as possible."

But she suspects immigration nonetheless will become a hot issue in the 2004 election year.

Both pro- and anti-immigration groups criticize Washington for not developing a coherent immigration policy.

Congress took a tentative step last month when it approved a law extending a pilot system for federal-document verification from six states to all states and for another five years.

But the program is voluntary. It doesn't require employers to check in with the computerized system to see if new hires are in the US legally, and thus suitable as employees. At this writing, the law awaits the president's signature.

In the years ahead, anti-immigrant groups are expected to press Congress to make the checks mandatory. Pro-immigration groups may oppose that shift.

"I can't imagine that a government agency can manage that program," Ms. Kelley says. She suspects many mistakes may be made, stopping qualified immigrants from getting jobs.

The new foreign aid

To many nations supplying immigrants - such as Mexico or the Philippines - the upward trend is not necessarily a bad thing. On a worldwide basis, the remittances sent home by foreign workers in the US and other countries amount to about $100 billion a year. That's twice the amount of foreign aid that rich nations and various development institutions dole out to poorer countries.

Remittances help hundreds of millions of families in developing countries buy food, clothing, TVs, etc. Mexico alone receives about $10 billion a year from Mexican-Americans and Mexicans living in the US.

A political pummeling

When politicians do speak out about controlling immigration, they often get pummeled.

Last year, for instance, Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's José Maria Aznar proposed that the European Union withdraw aid from countries that did not take effective steps to stem the flow of illegal emigrants to the EU. The idea died in a blast of protests.

One reason some governments like immigration: It bolsters population, especially important for developed nations with falling birth rates. Last month, Scottish nationalists argued that Scotland should take over its own immigration system to encourage more skilled immigrants to replace an aging population.

But critics point out that some immigrants are taking jobs from native citizens. Here in the US, for example, the number of foreign-born adults holding a job has grown by 1.7 million since 2000, while the number of working native-born Americans has fallen by 800,000, points out Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

Estimates of total immigration to the US vary. Mr. Camarota figures it's running at 1.2 million to 1.3 million a year on a net basis (taking account of those who have died or gone back home). The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), another Washington group interested in restraining immigration, pegs the number a bit higher - a net 1.4 million. That's well above the 1.13 million average annual inflow during the 1990s.

By 2050, immigration will boost the US population to 420 million, up from 292 million now, according to census projections. Jack Martin, project director at FAIR, reckons it could reach close to 500 million. "It's a staggering amount of people," he says.

Worries about the rising tide

Americans worry about that rising tide. Poll after poll shows they want less immigration and the immigration laws properly enforced. Last month, for instance, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 77 percent of those polled agreed that "we should restrict and control people coming into the country to live more than we do now." A June Gallup poll found 47 percent want immigration decreased and only 13 percent want it increased.

But action on immigration can be politically risky. Ethnic groups, such as Hispanics, may cast their votes against a politician seeking to restrain immigration or limit benefits to illegal immigrants.

Before the recall vote in California, Gov. Gray Davis switched positions and signed a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to use a tax identification number to get a driver's license. It was an appeal to Latino voters.

On Monday, the state legislature repealed the law.

In Washington, reluctance stems from "the elites who control 90 percent of the jobs in the country and are more interested in pursuing a short-term greed agenda," says Dan Stein, executive director of FAIR. He says powerful interests such as the meat-packing industry, home builders, restaurants and hotels, landscape firms, and the farmers who employ immigrants to pick their crops want to keep labor costs low by hiring immigrants.

Many academics agree that heavy immigration does dampen wages for the unskilled. Lisa Catanzarite, a sociologist at the University of California, finds that in occupations where new Hispanic immigrants account for a quarter of the work force, the jobs pay up to 11 percent less than those where there are no new Latino immigrant men.

And economists figure that immigrants help push up home prices in many cities in the nation.

Should the US worry about the rising tide of people?

"The numbers will be manageable," says Kelley. "Immigration is the genius of America. Immigrants change America, and Americans change them." Further, she argues, the aging of the American population means more immigrants will be needed to do the work.

Not everyone agrees. With less immigration, wages may rise for lower-skilled workers, says Dean Baker, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. Thus, some less important jobs may disappear - the midnight shift at the convenience store, for instance. Or teenagers may rake leaves - not Hispanic immigrants.

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