Want to frighten a roomful of U.S. senators? One of the most
certain ways is to try to get them to debate the hotly emotional,
but vitally important, topic of illegal immigration.
Want to frighten a roomful of U.S. senators? One of the most certain ways is to try to get them to debate the hotly emotional, but vitally important, topic of illegal immigration.

How important is immigrant labor – illegal or not – to the American economy? Think this issue is confined only to agricultural states? Well, Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland predicted recently that the crab processors of her state’s Chesapeake Bay might have to close their factories this summer if they can’t get visas for temporary workers from Mexico.

At the same time, potato farmers in Idaho, cherry growers in Michigan and cotton farmers in Georgia and South Carolina are on record saying they’d suffer dearly if they couldn’t hire illegal immigrants.

That’s why they solidly backed an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho that sought to grant legal status and permanent resident status to any agricultural worker who has been in this country illegally, but has worked 100 days out of any one-year period during the 18 months before Jan. 1 of this year. Their families would also have qualified under the Craig plan.

Some estimates put the number of working illegals Craig sought to legalize and allow to stay in America for good at 1 million, with another 2 million family members quickly legalized, too.

Had Craig’s plan been approved, it would have started the largest immigration amnesty program of the last 19 years, one that might have dwarfed the 1986 amnesty plan that eventually produced more than 1.5 million new American citizens, more than half of them living in California.

That program was a major factor in changing the political complexion of California from a state that mostly voted Republican in statewide and national elections to one that’s been solidly Democratic in such votes since 1994 – except when a celebrated and muscular actor was running.

This history terrifies many Republican senators. They were also scared by seeing hundreds of “Minuteman” quasi–vigilantes conducting private patrols in the deserts near the Mexican border with Arizona. They get uncomfortable when they see how popular a few strongly anti-illegal immigrant congressmen have become with far-right, grass-roots elements of their party like the California Republican Assembly.

One of these – Tom Tancredo of Colorado – even is actively contemplating a run for President in 2008.

Republican senators are divided on illegal immigration because they know cheap labor provided by the undocumented helps many businesses, which in turn boost the economies of their states and – not incidentally – contribute to their campaigns.

At the same time, some share the concerns of groups like the American Patrol, which are convinced any amnesty would open the flood gates of illegal immigration, inspiring moves by many thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans who now hesitate to make the hazardous trek north. They believe even a limited legalization would cause those still living in the sending countries to believe all they need is patience and they, too, can one day win amnesty and eventually U.S. citizenship.

In fact, Craig’s proposal was peanuts compared to what President Bush has proposed – a much larger plan inviting workers to enter the country legally for a limited period after which they’d have to go home. The history of programs like the post-war braceros and today’s H-1b visas for highly skilled workers indicates at least half those who come in under short-term visas stay much longer, legal or not.

Craig argued for his plan on moral and business grounds and vows to bring it back to the Senate soon. “We want to stabilize the current agriculture work force – workers who are trusted, who are already on the job, who are already putting food on our tables. It makes more sense to allow them to earn legal status than to try to replace a large part of the agriculture work force,” a top Craig aide told a reporter.

But most senators don’t even want to talk about this idea. That’s why Craig was unable to break the threatened filibuster that limited debate on his measure and killed it for now. But they had to say a little, because Craig attached it to a spending bill covering costs associated with the war on terror.

This didn’t sit well with most senators. A week before the filibuster threat derailed the plan, they passed a non-binding resolution calling for passage of the spending bill with no immigration amendments on a bipartisan vote of 61-38, with California’s Dianne Feinstein in favor and Barbara Boxer against.

The entire sequence was merely avoidance behavior, though. For illegal immigration and its role in American business is the ignored elephant sitting in America’s living room and especially in California’s.

This state now is host to more than one-fourth of all illegal immigrants in America.

Eventually, both California and national politicians will have to bite the bullet and confront the conflict between fears of business failure and fears that a huge influx of Latino immigrants will change the very nature of America.

The sooner the better, even if it makes all of us uncomfortable.

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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