Monday, September 10, 2007

Immigrants a fact, not an illusion.

Thousands of columns have appeared in this space over the last 23 years, but none has received more feedback -- most of it negative -- than a recent treatise on the vital role that illegal immigrants play in the California economy and the potentially heavy impact of a federal crackdown on their employers.

The column opined that of the state's estimated 3 million illegal immigrants, nearly two-thirds are working, and that replacing those 1.85 million workers would be virtually impossible, leading to great economic dislocation.

The feedback came via e-mail, phone messages and a record 52 comments posted on The Bee's Web site, some positive but the majority negative -- not surprisingly, given the incendiary nature of the subject.

Some respondents were simply troubled that illegal immigrants are illegal and that creating a pathway to legalization, as the column suggested, would be rewarding lawbreakers. That's a legitimate point, although it's difficult to equate the nonviolent, victimless "crime" of sneaking across a border to perform hard work with lawbreaking that robs or physically harms others.

There was a tinge of racism, or at least xenophobia, in many comments -- a visceral resentment of what some see as an invasion by those from an alien culture who would alter America in undesirable ways.

"You and the open borders crowd won't be happy until the flood of illegals turn this country into a Third World cesspool," wrote one. "The state is fast becoming Mexican supporting millions of lawbreakers who broke the law by crossing our borders. ... You people make me and the majority Americans who love this country sick."

"When there are no jobs for illegal aliens, they will either starve or return to their origins; either result will be fine," wrote another.

The most inexplicable comments, however, came from those who somehow believe that the state could lose 1.85 million workers -- well over 10 percent of its labor force -- without serious consequences.

One example: "It's about time we cracked down on illegal immigration. Sure California will lose those jobs, but California is a resilient state with lots of young Americans fresh out of high school (or in high school) looking for jobs. As for the crops in the fields. Easy solution: Put the 175,000 criminals locked up and put them on chain gangs and have them earn their stay in state prison. We did it decades ago before California went soft on crime. Better yet, have the thousands of parolees out there stop collecting free state assistance and have them work off their community service in the fields. Problem fixed!"

Not so. Remember, we're talking here about 1.85 million workers, most of whom aren't agricultural laborers. Were every prison inmate to replace an illegal immigrant worker, they would still fill fewer than 10 percent of the vacant jobs, and how in heaven's name would we manage having tens of thousands of often- violent felons working alongside law-abiding Californians in the myriad venues that employ illegal immigrants? It's simply ludicrous.
The hard-core unemployed, as the column pointed out, are only about 300,000, so that's not a big enough pool to fill the jobs either. And those high school graduates that the writer cited? Many are headed to college and the others, for the most part, go to work already.

The hard mathematical facts are inescapable. Nearly 2 million jobs that are important to the state are held by illegal immigrants. Were they somehow to vanish -- which is not about to happen -- the economy would be severely impacted.

Lots of folks may not like that fact, but they can't wish it away. And we should have the courage to acknowledge it and realistically address it rather than debate theoretical absurdities.

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