At a table on the patio of a downtown bistro last week, some friends were discussing economics and foreign policy -- ordinary late-night small talk among political folk in Washington.
When the conversation turned to U.S. policy in Iraq, I became bored. The discussion was heated and earnest, but utterly pointless. The Bush administration doesn't listen to outsiders, and I've long since lost interest in endless arguments among friends about a policy over which none of us has any influence.
Much more interesting to me was our waitress, whose cheerful efficiency suggested ambitions beyond a generous tip for the service.
A college student? Yes, she said. Her major? International business and marketing. And where was she from? Mongolia, she answered.
Had she misunderstood my question? I was asking about her hometown, not her ethnicity. Her English was flawless and without any detectable accent -- if she had said she'd grown up in Gaithersburg or Fairfax, I would not have been surprised.
She assured me she was indeed a native of Mongolia. And then came the real shocker: she had only been in the United States for five years.
She explained that she had attended school in Japan before coming to America at age 17 for her senior year of high school -- in Kansas, of all places. Schools in Kansas don't offer bilingual education (at least, not in Mongolian) and thus her one year in an American high school was a total-immersion experience. Though she struggled with English at first, in subjects like math and science she found herself far advanced in comparison to most of her classmates.
So here she was in Washington at age 22, waiting tables to earn her way through college, undoubtedly destined for success, both more interesting and more relevant than my tablemates' discussion of Iraq.
Earlier that same day, the Wall Street Journal made an editorial attack on Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Rector dares to cite facts that contradict the rosy scenarios beloved by supporters of "comprehensive" immigration legislation. This eminent scholar was therefore stigmatized as a "restrictionist."
Mr. Rector has stubbornly argued that the Bush-backed bill now contemplated by the Senate would grant legal residency to millions of illegal aliens whose levels of education, income and job skills are so low that each of them represents a net annual cost to U.S. taxpayers of nearly $20,000.
Perhaps Mr. Rector's analysis is too pessimistic, though I'm no more qualified to question his scholarship than I am to second-guess the Pentagon. Still, the Heritage researcher's arguments have the merit of resembling common sense.
If the nation's economy is so deficient of human capital as to require augmentation from abroad, wouldn't it be better to take in well-educated people who are likely to become taxpayers, rather than poorly educated people who are likely to become clients of the welfare state?
Common-sense questions like that ought not be answered with accusations of harboring "anti-immigrant sentiments," a charge recently leveled by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson.
The category "immigrant" encompasses too great a diversity for the term "anti-immigrant" to have any useful meaning in the present debate. Surely Mr. Rector has no "sentiments" against the cheerful student/waitress, who didn't break the law to come here, and one suspects Mr. Rector would welcome many more such bright, ambitious young immigrants.
Nor is there any need to insult the citizenry, as President Bush has repeatedly done, by telling us that illegal aliens are "doing jobs Americans won't do." My own daughter waits tables at Pizza Hut to earn her college tuition, my wife works part-time as a provider of janitorial services, and both of my brothers are truck drivers. Are my kindred not American, Mr. President?
The bistro waitress didn't volunteer any opinion of U.S. immigration policy, and I didn't raise the issue. Politics has confused the debate so much that it's become nearly as boring as talking about Iraq and, in much the same way, nobody in the Bush administration is listening to outsiders like us.
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