After last weekend's enormous rally in opposition to proposed immigration reform legislation and Monday's mass protest staged by more than 40,000 middle and high school students, Los Angeles is buzzing with controversy and debate.
In at least one important sense, the rallies were strategic failures for those participating in them. The protests elicited unusually spirited and outspoken opposition to illegal immigration, even in a city that is frequently a hotbed of anti-illegal sentiment. Perhaps it was the relative paucity of American flags in evidence at the protests, compared to the more numerous Mexican and Honduran flags. Maybe it was the cries of "Viva la raza!" and other sound bites blanketing local radio, suggesting many of the protestors are asserting a right to live in the United States illegally. Or it could have been the news that Spanish language radio personalities heavily promoted the weekend protests that drew 500,000 to the streets.
In any case, for now at least, the debate over illegal immigration has reached a boiling point. For many Angelenos, who live with the problems engendered by the influx of illegal immigrants -- high taxes that subsidize strained social service budgets, and overcrowded schools, hospitals, prisons and highways -- it's a discussion that can't come soon enough. For too long, illegal immigration has been condoned by the U.S. government -- signs along the highways near San Diego warn motorists that people on foot (read: illegals) may be crossing the highway. And there was nary an official whimper when it was revealed that the Mexican government was providing its citizens with brochures on how to make the illegal border crossing safely.
It's understandable that some Republicans would be leery of adopting a hard line policy that would both deprive businesses of the workers they say they need and risk an anti-GOP backlash among Latinos generally. But as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders has pointed out, even after the supposed backlash against Proposition 187 (a ballot measure that would have denied state services to illegal immigrants), former Democratic governor Gray Davis suffered a stinging repudiation when he signed a bill authorizing drivers' licenses for illegals; fully 38% of Latinos in California strongly opposed the giveaway, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.
Nor are illegal immigration politics exclusively a Republican problem. Judging by the polls, opposition to illegal immigration is widespread. In a Quinnipiac poll, 90 percent of Americans characterized immigration as a "serious problem"; fully 75 percent believe that the United States isn't doing enough to keep illegals out, according to a Time magazine poll. If Congress produces an immigration law that isn't responsive to Americans' concerns, the backlash is likely to be directed at the political class as a whole. As the majority party, Republicans would likely be hardest hit, but Democrats would suffer, as well -- already, rumblings from their union allies are growing louder.
Politicians could do a great deal to address the controversy in two simple ways. First, before adjusting the status of any illegal immigrant, Congress should establish a system that succeeds in staunching the flow of illegals. Hard proof that the United States is in control of its own borders -- and is committed to enforcing existing law -- would reassure the Americans who suspect, not without reason, that bringing illegal immigrants "out of the shadows" will only promote more illegal immigration, resulting, inevitably, in new calls for legalization.
Second, ensure that illegal immigrants are required to acquire the skills necessary to assimilate. That starts with more than a rudimentary grasp of the English language. It goes without saying that Section 203 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, requiring bilingual election materials and assistance to be made available when a foreign language reaches critical mass in the general population, should be repealed.
As a nation of legal immigrants, America doesn't want to exclude those who come here seeking a better life. In the overwhelming majority of cases, opposition to illegal immigration has nothing to do with racism or selfishness. Rather, it stems from the conviction that if immigration laws are worth drafting, then they should be enforced -- and that people coming to this country should be doing so not only for the purpose of personal enrichment, but also with the aim of becoming an American, in spirit as well as in fact.
Ultimately, any immigration reform legislation must reflect the national consensus: That the U.S. government has the right (and the duty) to be the sole arbiter of who enters this country, and that immigrating to America is a privilege to be cherished, not an entitlement to be demanded.
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