Wednesday, March 29, 2006


David Brooks plays defense attorney for illegal immigrants in today's NY Times op ed (see below). What he says, although I question some of his statistics and their sources, is generally true. And given his objective to convince "social conservatives" that "a balanced immigration bill is consistent with conservative values," I can't really fault Brooks for telling only half the story.

The immigration issue, has more than two sides. It's complicated. And the omitted complications need to be addressed if we are to come up with a sensible and moral solution to the problem--if it is, in fact, a problem.

As Robert Scheer points out in "Legalize the 'Illegals'", though we are a nation of immigrants, we have a rich history of blaming them for virtually every societal malady du jour. Better that, than blame ourselves, where the root of the problems usually lie.

Like Lou Dobbs of CNN, I believe we should first blame ourselves for failing to secure our own borders and then start securing them--pronto. Secure borders are imperative for both our national security and our ability to enforce immigration laws and stop the flow of illegal immigration. Importantly, the intent of secure borders is not to stop immigration, but to facilitate legal immigration. The Bush administration has failed miserably, despite their truculent terrorist tough talk, to secure our country from illegal immigrants crossing our borders, much less terrorists. The very fact that we are discussing an illegal alien problem is proof that BushCo has failed. But, then, we knew that.

While we immediately begin to secure our borders, we should be drafting an immigration policy that provides both an avenue for new immigrants to achieve citizenship and a way for illegal aliens who are already here working and raising families to legally gain citizenship. (We could look to our neighbors to the North for some pointers on both border control and immigration law; They've done a far better job than us.)

The more mean-spirited among us will argue that the illegals have broken the law and should be treated as the criminals they are; we should show them no mercy, throw them in jail, or deport them. I would argue that we have failed to enforce our own laws for years, knowingly and willingly, for purely selfish reasons; The black market for illegal aliens is a most attractive labor market for a wide variety of businesses, including agriculture, food service, child care, cleaning services, landscapers, contractors, construction, and more--business loves ultra-cheap labor because they love the resulting ultra big profits. And we love shopping for the resultant cheaper goods.

But, you protest, that's the problem! Our workers wages are being driven down by the ultra cheap immigrant labor! Perhaps. But is that the immigrant's fault? Or the business's fault? Obviously, businesses are taking advantage of these people and knowingly, in many cases, paying them a subsistence wage. And we continue to take advantage of low, low prices.

So what do we do?: Raise the minimum wage laws, my friends.

I submit that no one can make a living at the present minimum wage (stuck at $5.15 an hour for the past nine years) and if they can't make a living, they can't afford to buy much so they can't possibly add much to the economy. Fair wages help people and the economy. So let's up it, right now.

Immigrants to Be Proud Of
By David Brooks
The New York Times
Everybody says the Republicans are split on immigration. The law-and-order types want to close the border. The free-market types want plentiful labor. But today I want to talk to the social conservatives, because it's you folks who are really going to swing this debate.

I'd like to get you to believe what Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas believes: that a balanced immigration bill is consistent with conservative values. I'd like to try to persuade the evangelical leaders in the tall grass to stop hiding on this issue.

My first argument is that the exclusionists are wrong when they say the current wave of immigration is tearing our social fabric. The facts show that the recent rise in immigration hasn't been accompanied by social breakdown, but by social repair. As immigration has surged, violent crime has fallen by 57 percent. Teen pregnancies and abortion rates have declined by a third. Teenagers are having fewer sexual partners and losing their virginity later. Teen suicide rates have dropped. The divorce rate for young people is on the way down.

Over the past decade we've seen the beginnings of a moral revival, and some of the most important work has been done by Catholic and evangelical immigrant churches, by faith-based organizations like the Rev. Luis Cortés's Nueva Esperanza, by Hispanic mothers and fathers monitoring their kids. The anti-immigration crowd says this country is under assault. But if that's so, we're under assault by people who love their children.

My second argument is that the immigrants themselves are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic. Immigrants work hard. They build community groups. They have traditional ideas about family structure, and they work heroically to make them a reality.

This is evident in everything from divorce rates (which are low, given immigrants' socioeconomic status) to their fertility rates (which are high) and even the way they shop.

Hispanics and Hispanic immigrants have less money than average Americans, but they spend what they have on their families, usually in wholesome ways. According to Simmons Research, Hispanics are 57 percent more likely than average Americans to have purchased children's furniture in the past year. Mexican-Americans spend 93 percent more on children's music.

According to the government's Consumer Expenditure Survey, Hispanics spend more on gifts, on average, than other Americans. They're more likely to support their parents financially. They're more likely to have big family dinners at home.

This isn't alien behavior. It's admirable behavior, the antidote to the excessive individualism that social conservatives decry.

My third argument is that good values lead to success, and that immigrants' long-term contributions more than compensate for the short-term strains they cause. There's no use denying the strains immigration imposes on schools, hospitals and wage levels in some markets (but economists are sharply divided on this).

So over the long haul, today's immigrants succeed. By the second generation, most immigrant families are middle class and paying taxes that more than make up for the costs of the first generation. By the third generation, 90 percent speak English fluently and 50 percent marry non-Latinos.

My fourth argument is that government should be at least as virtuous as the immigrants themselves. Right now (as under Bill Frist's legislation), government pushes immigrants into a chaotic underground world. The Judiciary Committee's bill, which Senator Brownback supports, would tighten the borders, but it would also reward virtue. Immigrants who worked hard, paid fines, paid their taxes, stayed out of trouble and waited their turn would have a chance to become citizens. This isn't government enabling vice; it's government at its best, encouraging middle-class morality.

Social conservatives, let me ask you to consider one final thing. Women who have recently arrived from Mexico have bigger, healthier babies than more affluent non-Hispanic white natives. That's because strong family and social networks support these pregnant women, reminding them what to eat and do. But the longer they stay, and the more assimilated they become, the more bad habits they acquire and the more problems their subsequent babies have.

Please ask yourself this: As we contemplate America's moral fiber, do the real threats come from immigrants, or are some people merely blaming them for sins that are already here?

Photo credits: (1) (AP) A Mexican flag is displayed as a huge crowd protests immigration reform in front of Los Angeles City Hall, Monday, March 27. Students across the country walked out of classes to demonstrate against the proposed changes. (2) David Brooks (The New York Times)

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