Column: Illegal immigration an issue easy to ignore

The recent deaths of scores of illegal immigrants in Europe and the United States have caused immigration officials on both sides of the Atlantic to review their enforcement politics in order to save lives.

While continuing to oppose illegal immigration, I believe this is an issue that needs priority attention from the governments of the U.S. and other developed nations.

The latest tragedy occurred last Sunday in Dover, England, where 58 illegal immigrants from China were found dead in the locked, unventilated cargo compartment of a large truck on the hottest day of the year; only two young men survived the hellish ordeal. English authorities believe some of the victims paid as much as $20,000 for their painful four-month odyssey from China's Fujian Province to England via Russia, Holland and the English Channel. Dutch authorities have charged the truck driver with manslaughter and the owner of the trucking company with alien smuggling.

"To have 60 young people in the back of a truck, there would have to have been some organization to get these people over from China," said an English police spokesman. The disaster has focused international attention on the criminal syndicates that traffic in people and on the desperate risks illegal immigrants take to flee oppression and/or poverty.

Closer to home, illegal immigrants continue to die horrible deaths along our southern border with Mexico and in the Florida Straits. Earlier this month, two youths drowned as they tried to swim across the Rio Grande River to Brownsville, Texas, in plain view of U.S. and Mexican border agents, a dramatic scene played repeatedly on Mexican television. And in Arizona, heat-related border crossing deaths are up and some Arizona ranchers are arming themselves for protection against illegal aliens. So far this year, there have been 25 deaths in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector and 13 more in the Yuma sector.

"We don't want to be faced with any more tragedies in Arizona," said Margie Emmermann, a policy adviser to Arizona Gov. Jane Hull. "We need to have border enforcement immediately to bring it (illegal immigration) under control." Unfortunately, the underfunded and understaffed U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is in charge of enforcing federal immigration laws.

Critics of U.S. border enforcement policies blame recent deaths on the Border Patrol's policy of pushing crossings from inhabited areas to remote desert regions with hotter temperatures and more rugged terrain. Crackdowns by the Border Patrol in San Diego and El Paso have funneled record numbers of illegal Mexicans into the southwest deserts. Because the Mexican government turns a blind eye toward their illegal immigrants - or, as they prefer, "undocumented workers" - and the INS is generally ineffective, state and local governments are left to cope with the flood of illegal any way they can. And, as the AP reported, some American landowners are arming themselves, a recipe for disaster.

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson called immigration "the great forgotten issue of the 2000 presidential campaign.... it is forgotten because hardly anyone seriously discusses it, certainly not Al Gore or George W. Bush," who curry favor with Hispanic voters by speaking a few words of pidgin Spanish and eating at Taco Bell.

Samuelson asked two difficult questions: Are we getting the "right kind" of (legal) immigrants? And if not, can we do anything about it? I would reply that we're getting the wrong kind of legal immigrants and tolerating far too many illegal immigrants.

I'd tighten-up legal immigration requirements and get tough on illegals. And, as the AFL-CIO now suggests, I'd prosecute to the full extent of the law employers who exploit illegal aliens, paying them less than minimum wage and denying them all benefits.

In "Heaven's Door," George Borjas, a Harvard economist who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba at age 12, argues that present U.S. immigration policies don't work because they tend to result in poor, unskilled immigrants who assimilate slowly, if at all, into the larger society. These unskilled immigrants tend to cluster in impoverished ethnic ghettos. Think Woodside Drive in Carson City, for example. Or the Tiger Drive trailer parks, where dozens of people, including women and children, live in unspeakable conditions - but better living conditions than they endured back home.

In his new book, Borjas offers a common-sense approach to immigration: "Don't stop immigration, but be more selective." He suggests something like the Canadian system, which gives preference to better-educated immigrants.

"Though this is a reasonable proposal, it is unlikely to be debated," wrote Samuelson in his review of Borjas' book. "To discuss immigration in anything but the blandest terms is to risk sounding like a bigot. Even Borjas concedes that his proposal is easily dismissed as 'racist.'" That's what happened to me when I endorsed 'English Only" laws as a way of encouraging immigrants to learn English so they won't be discriminated against in this country.

By 2025, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that legal immigrants will account for 12 percent of our population (the current percentage of Hispanics in Nevada); their American-born children will probably represent an equal number. That's one-quarter of the U.S. population. But will our presidential candidates address these smoldering immigration issues this year? Probably not, because they're politically risky. In the meantime, we'll continue to suffer the human tragedies of illegal immigration.

(Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.)


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