Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Candidates must get to the bottom of illegal immigration

(Originally published 12/8/07)

You know that old saying about Social Security being the third rail of politics?

That’s so last century.

Now -- for Republicans, at least -- it's illegal immigration.

GOP faithful are given to all kinds of gnashing of teeth when the topic comes up. They have the visceral reaction to it that government expansion used to draw, back in the days before there was an earmark in every pot.

So it’s no surprise that Republican candidates for president are clambering to see who can get the farthest to the right of the political continuum without falling off. Commercials detailing scary crimes committed by illegal immigrants that would make Hollywood horror filmmakers proud, mailers featuring dusty corners of the border guarded by warped wire fence and arguments over so-called "sanctuary cities" have become part and parcel of the GOP landscape.

Gee, it’s even affecting Mitt Romney’s lawn. The candidate fired his landscaping company after Boston Globe reporters, in a piece of ‘Gotcha!’ investigative journalism not likely to win the Pulitzer, planted themselves outside Romney’s home in Massachusetts for two months, followed the landscapers, questioned them about their immigration status and then – AHA! – delivered the stunning revelation that they are in the U.S. illegally.

(On a side note, the Globe made no mention of its efforts to report its findings to federal immigration authorities. But I’m sure it was just an oversight.)

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, the founder of the deportation wing of the GOP, had one of the best sound bytes from last week’s CNN-YouTube debate: He assessed his fellow candidates’ immigration platforms as "people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo."

Indeed, with apologies to Barbara Mandrell, Tancredo was against immigration before being against immigration was cool.

During the debate, Tancredo fielded a question from a small-business owner who stays competitive with imports by using employees through a seasonal guest worker program. Would Tancredo support the continuation of the guest worker program as president? the man asked.

"Well, I’ll tell you, I’m not going to aid any more immigration into this country," Tancredo said, going on to say that "massive immigration, both legal and illegal" makes assimilation difficult and takes American jobs.

"I reject the idea, categorically, that there are jobs that ‘no American will take.’ I reject it," he said.

Over applause, Tancredo said he believes that American workers eschew the jobs illegal immigrants are doing because of the low wages and poor working conditions they typically entail.

But it was the next statement that made me look up from the dishes I was washing.

"But am I going to feel sorry if a business has to increase its wages in order for somebody in this country to make a good living? No, I don’t feel sorry about that and I won’t apologize for it for a moment. And there are plenty of Americans who will do those jobs," Tancredo said.

Whoa, I thought. I wonder how Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, Dole and others agricultural giants will feel about this!

What about the National Association of Home Builders, their state subsidiaries and all the associated construction trade organizations?

A Republican candidate for president arguing for better pay and working conditions? Tancredo sure sounded more like he was stumping for a union endorsement than trying to impress a bunch of capitalists.

It’s a simple fact that the labor provided by illegal immigrants undergirds a large portion of the economy. The question is whether American workers would, indeed, fill those jobs held by illegal immigrants – and, if so, at what cost.

Finding the answer will require a lot of deft stepping by the candidates over America’s new third rail.

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