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Politicians finally awakening on immigration

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Posted: Thursday, November 8, 2001 10:00 pm

A year ago, some friends and I were wondering what it would take for the federal government to wise up about the country's immigration laws.

And since the presidential outcome was still in doubt, we also debated which of the two candidates -George W. Bush or Al Gore - might be more likely to promote immigration reform.

We now know the answer to both questions.

What it took to put immigration on center stage was the terrorist hijacking of four commercial airliners, two of which were ploughed into the World Trade Centers, one into the Pentagon and one into a Pennsylvania field.Joe Guzzardi

To get Congressional attention, 5,000 had to die.

As to whether Bush or Gore would be more reform oriented, the answer is Gore. I say this with confidence because no one could be worse than Bush.

We'll turn our attention to Bush and his double-speak on immigration later.

But my, haven't those Congressmen had an awakening in the last few weeks? Even Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), the granddaddy of open borders, wants to tighten things up.

Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), the Senate's No. 1 liberal, is right there with Kennedy.

For the last 10 years, today's champions of change turned a deaf ear to every plea made to listen to reason.

Now we have their attention and the country is inching toward more sensible immigration policies. But while this is the moment reformers have been waiting for, it is a joyless and depressing experience.

We never proposed mass deportations or closed borders. We wanted common sense - too much to ask for as it turned out.

If only a few had paid attention, things might have been different. But the truth is that no matter what aspect of immigration was brought to Congress's attention - amnesty, guest worker programs, driver's licenses, schools or visas - no one wanted to hear our side.

Take, for example, worker visas. In 1993, Leslie Stahl did a piece for "60 Minutes" titled "North of the Border," about the then little-known H-1B visa program. When Stahl learned that 65,000 visas were issued annually that allowed overseas workers to get jobs in the software industry, she was aghast.

Among the phrases used in "North of the Border": "firing American workers," "low-cost replacements," "immigration loopholes" and "looking the other way."

I venture that Stahl expected her expose to cause a firestorm of protest. But despite mounting evidence over a decade that the H-1B visa was a scam for employers to indenture overseas workers, the cap was steadily increased from 65,000 to 195,000.

No one ever wanted to talk about immigration's affect on schools either. Politicians love to have their picture taken with school children; they just don't want to talk turkey about education.

Public schools are in crisis because, among other reasons, enrollment of immigrant children is so overwhelming that schools have changed their entire approach to learning.

The teacher shortage is so acute that school districts are recruiting from overseas. No public official cares to comment on the obvious Catch-22 of hiring immigrant teachers because our schools are so overcrowded with immigrant children.

Instead of rational discussion on important social issues, the pro-immigration lobby cut off the reformers with charges of xenophobia, nativism and racism. Nothing kills discourse as quickly as incendiary attacks.

Sometimes the consequences of groundless racism charges do more than end intellectual debate.

In 1999, the Federation for American Immigration Reform ran an ad criticizing former Sen. Spencer Abraham, a candidate for re-election, for attempting to weaken border controls.

Abraham wanted to kill a provision in the 1996 Immigration Reform Act that imposed entry-exit controls on temporary visa holders. In the ads, FAIR asked why a U.S. senator "is making it easier for a terrorist like Osama bin Laden to export their war of terror to any city street in America?"

Abraham, the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, immediately played his trump card and yelled "racist."

The argument was deflected from whether or not entry-exit controls are important and why Abraham is opposed to them to whether the FAIR ad was racist.

In retrospect, having that debate might have saved lives. Instead, we rehashed tired arguments about perceived racism.

Earlier, I promised you some insights into President Bush's true feelings. His speeches about tighter immigration controls sound tough. Behind the scenes, however, a different scene is playing out.

Apparently unwilling to abandon his promises to Mexican President Vicente Fox, Bush pushed hard to win an extension of 245(i). That provision would allow illegal immigrants who are relatives of legal residents or sponsored by their employers to go to the head of the green card line for a $1,000 fee.

Despite Bush's best efforts, the extension was defeated.

Perhaps Bush will take note of his setback. Under the best of circumstances, 245(i) mangles immigration law. But of special note is that there is no provision for background checks. Pay your money and get your prize.

If I'm not mistaken, failure to check backgrounds is what got us where we are today.

And correct me again if I'm wrong - but don't those who died Sept. 11 deserve better than such a blatantly craven political move?

Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly opinion column since 1988. He can be reached via e-mail.

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