- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

The conventional political wisdom is that Social Security is the “third rail” of American politics. Touch it and you die. President Bush started his second term by taking a firm hold on the issue. While he is unquestionably still alive, his political health has never been quite the same.

Back before Franklin Roosevelt invented Social Security, and through the great swath of American history, the issue that has divided us like no other is immigration. Now President Bush has seized on it as a defining issue of his second term. So far, it has not helped him. According to a New York Times — CBS poll released May 10, only 29 percent of Americans trust Republicans’ handling of the issue.

As Oscar Handlin noted, in his 1951 study, “The Uprooted,” immigration tears all groups apart: Republicans against Republicans, Democrats against Democrats, employers against employers, and workers against workers. Among other things, some rifts are driven by location: What kinds of immigrants settle in what areas. Some are driven by what businesses people are in.

Lawyers and accountants have different view of immigrants than meat-packers or hotel owners and employees. It even sets immigrants against immigrants, because some have left relatives at home and want to bring them here, while others just want to slam the door shut behind them.

For most of our history, we had no legal restrictions on immigration, except for those infected by certain diseases, and, of course, for Orientals. For Europeans, there were no legal restrictions, but the waves of Irish starting in the 1840s prompted the eruption of “nativist” thugs, the “Know Nothings”. In 1855, their political arm, the American Party, won the governorship and a majority in the legislature in, of all places, “liberal” Massachusetts. After that, the Know Nothings were consumed by the national battle over slavery, and no restrictions on immigration were enacted for another two generations.

In 1924, Congress established a quota system, based on the origins of the existing population, designed to favor immigration from countries from which Americans had largely come and to inhibit immigration from those countries from which people then wanted to come. The government has tinkered with that system repeatedly. Now high-tech companies are upset because quotas for immigrants from India and China make it hard to get computer programmers and other highly skilled workers into this country.

There are parallels between our approaches to immigration and to narcotics: In both cases, we focus on interdicting supplies. Build fences along the Rio Grande. Hire more border patrol officers. Beef-up Coast Guard maritime inspection. The Republican House of Representatives has called for a wall along the Mexican border — like the Great Wall of China, or like the really ugly wall Israel is building along its borders. None of these efforts have worked well — as evidenced by estimates we have something more than 12 million illegal aliens now here. Some claim if we build the wall it will have to be built largely by illegal aliens.

In 1986, Congress tried a different path, with the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which, for the first time, made it illegal for anybody to hire an undocumented foreign worker.

For a while, there was some enforcement, and several presidential appointees were embarrassed when it became known they had hired nannies or housekeepers who had no right to work here. In the early days of IRCA, many employers set up elaborate procedures for complying. If you hired someone then, or looked for work, you could be sure many IDs had to be shown and lots of forms filled out. In recent years, there has been little enforcement, and compliance has dropped precipitously. This, despite concerns about illegal aliens since September 11.

Demand by U.S. employers for more labor and demand by foreign workers for entry into the U.S. has prompted one other initiative: the maquiladora program, essentially a way for U.S. employers to get access to low-wage workers by setting up plants in Mexico and, more recently, in Central America. It is controversial because of allegations some maquila plants violate workers’ rights and pollute the environment.

Nevertheless, the theory of the maquila program is appealing: Stop illegal immigration by helping the people earn enough to eat. At the same time, allow U.S. employers to control costs by “outsourcing” some more rudimentary work. It seems like a win-win proposition.

Why aren’t there more such ideas? Why aren’t there more ways to get the help of the governments south of the border — and the Mexican government in particular — to get control over immigration, and especially illegal immigration. Traditionally, the Mexican government has told its people, “If you can make it here, wonderful. If not, go north.” Traditionally, it has made life miserable for people from south of its border trying to get through Mexico to El Norte, but that doesn’t mean it has done much to stop them.

U.S. relations with all Latin American are worse than they have been in generations. Left-wing governments challenge the Bush administration in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and, of course, Cuba. Mexico will have presidential elections July 2. The results of that election could have a lot to do with how successfully President Bush — and his successors — deal with the true “third rail” of American politics.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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