The Journal Editorial Report | January 14, 2005 | PBS
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Briefing and Opinion
January 14, 2005

Vital Infusion or Perilous Invasion?

Mexican pamphlet
The human tide across America's southern border is relentless: every day, more than a thousand people illegally enter the U.S. to work and live. Just last week, the Mexican government acknowledged that reality with a new booklet full of advice aimed at making the crossing less dangerous. On the U.S. side of the border, anti-immigration activists argue that the human tide amounts to an invasion.

Kathy Mckee "I think it's a fact of life that our culture is under attack," says Kathy McKee. Some of their neighbors argue that those migrants are just responding to the laws of supply and demand and chasing the American dream. "We're here for the same reasons that every other immigrant in the history of this country has been here -- to make sure that our children have a future."

What both sides of the debate agree on is that American immigration policy isn't working very well. Right now, Congress is going through all of the arguments in an effort to reform U.S. immigration law. That battle -- over a handful of immigration bills and proposals on Capitol Hill -- is shaping up like one that played out in Arizona last year: voters approved Proposition 200, which makes it harder for illegal immigrants to get government benefits. Its supporters say they hope that discourages people from crossing the state's southern border.

Proposition 200Kathy McKee, who founded the group that put the proposition on the ballot, says illegal immigrants drain taxpayers' money. "We cannot be the lifeboat, the education system, the medical system for the entire world. Really, why should we when these countries can take care of their own people?"

On the other side, immigrants' rights activist Alfredo Gutierrez says the millions of Mexicans who are already in the U.S. illegally are the ones who are under attack. "The level of hostility is palpable," says Gutierrez. "People feel it. They know it and it's focused on the immigrant. It's not focused on the public policy."

Alfredo GutierrezSome of Arizona's biggest businesses joined Gutierrez in opposing the proposition. Produce farmers admit that hundreds of thousands of farm workers are here illegally -- but without them, they say, the industry would die. "Without foreign workers we could not harvest our crops," says Gary Pasquinelli of Pasquinelli Produce Company. "We couldn't get it done without them. I know that their values and their culture and their morals that they bring are good for our country. I don't wanna be protected [from] these people. I think they're going to revitalize America."

Arizona's booming construction industry also depends on foreign workers, legal and illegal because native-born U.S. citizens won't work at prevailing wages. "I could use an extra 150 carpenters right now," says Ron McGee of Superstition Carpentry. "I can't find them. You, know there are no more."

Federal law requires employers to check the legal status of their workers but business owners say it's almost impossible not to hire the occasional illegal worker. farmworkersDocuments are relatively easy to forge and federal law only requires employers to affirm "to the best of [their] knowledge" that a worker's papers "appear to be genuine."

Businesses in Arizona and elsewhere are pinning their hopes on federal legislation that would make it easier for migrants to work legally in the U.S. Earlier this month, President Bush reiterated his support for a guest worker program.

Arizona Republican Jeff Flake is co-sponsor of a House bill that would give foreigners already in the U.S. illegally the right to work for three years, then renew for three more. "There has simply got to be a temporary worker program in order to deal with this situation at the border and the situation of those who are here illegally now," says Flake. "We are going to have a foreign work force in this country for a long time. Now we can either keep it illegal or make it legal. That's our choice."Jeff Flake

The bill would also give undocumented workers a chance to stay as legal residents and that's raised the ire of some of Flake's fellow Republicans. "We're not in the middle of just illegal immigration," says Arizona Representative J.D. Hayworth. "We are in the middle of a full-scale invasion. The problem that I have with what some in our Congressional delegation have offered, is that it changes the order of things. It says, 'Let's set up a whole group of new laws,' which begs this question, "If people aren't obeying existing laws, what makes us think they'll obey any new laws?"

Hayworth says the bottom line is national security: in the post-9/11 environment, the U.S. can't afford to open its borders just because it's good for business. "We ignore the problem at our own eventual peril," he says. The threat of terrorism has made immigration even more contentious than usual. The two sides don't even seem to be speaking the same language, according to Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University who has advised Democrats and Republicans.

"This debate is so fractured by people who adamantly believe, not just different things about how we should manage the flow of migration, but fundamentally what migration and immigration means," says Lowell. "So with those kind of fundamental differences and opinions and values about what an immigrant is, it's difficult to reach some kind of consensus. Compromise is necessary."