Every tax is a pay cut. Every tax cut is a pay raise.
Citizens for Limited Taxation
|Mixed Signals||Sunday, September 28, 2003|
|Rick Holmes||Metrowest Daily News|
Framingham's police chief is reassuring local Brazilians that he has
no intention of helping immigration agents bust them. Local Brazilians
are proposing a sister city relationship with the city at the other end of a
well-trodden path for immigrants and their money. And state reps are
lobbying to let illegal immigrants have drivers' licenses.
All this has Framingham talking about illegal immigration, in emotional tones, in workplaces and coffee shops, in e-mails and letters to the editor.
It's a discussion that hits close to home. Framingham is home to immigrants from dozens of nations, with some 60 languages spoken in the homes of its public school students. A wave of Brazilian immigration has transformed downtown in the last decade. No one knows how many Brazilians are in Framingham -- the Census is particularly unhelpful -- with estimates ranging as high as 10,000 in a town with an official population of 66,000.
When at least one in six residents is an immigrant, it makes the issue of illegal immigration personal. It's personal for people who have friends, employees and business associates who were born overseas. They don't necessarily know which of their friends is legal and which is illegal. They don't see immigrants -- whether or not they have a green card -- as criminals. They see them as valued members of the community, and they don't like the suggestion that they be rounded up and deported.
Count Police Chief Steven Carl on this side. He's charged with serving all Framingham residents, not just those who were born in this country. He wants his cops chasing real criminals, not checking the documents of otherwise law-abiding immigrants.
Carl told leaders of the Brazilian community that chasing undocumented immigrants is the job of the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (formerly the INS), a task in which he has little jurisdiction and little interest. As for private bounty hunters chasing illegal immigrants, Carl says call his department and he'll chase them out of town.
Carl and most of Framingham's political establishment favor embracing diversity, not standing in its way. They are happy to blur the line between legal and illegal immigrants, who they'd prefer to call "undocumented immigrants," and they like the idea of giving newcomers that very important document, a drivers' license.
Which drives another contingent crazy. Immigration is also personal for people who haven't warmed up to the newcomers. They've watched their all-American town change before their eyes. Their old downtown stores are gone, replaced by shops offering strange products, staffed by clerks who don't speak English.
"Call them 'illegal aliens,"' they say. "They aren't immigrants, who make a commitment to a new start in a new country. They are law-breakers who come here to suck money out of our economy until they have enough to move back to their real country.
"Sneaking into this country is illegal," they repeat. "What part of illegal don't you understand?"
"Don't call them aliens, their neighbors reply. "That makes them sound like those slimy creatures that attacked Sigourney Weaver in the spaceship."
Maybe they are illegal, one correspondent in a Framingham e-mail network wrote this week, but it used to be illegal to help a fugitive slave escape to Canada. Sometimes laws should be ignored.
The pro-immigrant crowd isn't alone in seeking to blur the distinction between documented and undocumented immigrants. The National Alliance, a neo-nazi group that seems to delight in pouring salt on any community's ethnic bruises, leafletted Framingham last week with a message of hate. "Stop Immigration," they wrote. "Non-whites are turning America into a Third World slum."
Most folks are in the moderate middle. They distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants for reasons that seem obvious. The United States started regulating immigration in 1920, and there's no way we could go back to an open-borders policy. We simply can't accommodate the billions of people who might like to move here.
But we can't seem to stop the millions who are willing to risk life and liberty to come here and unwilling to go through the waiting and paperwork to do so legally. The question is, how much do we accommodate them?
Hence, the drivers' license fight. Three states -- California is the latest -- have adopted legislation making it easier for undocumented immigrants to get licenses. Better to give them licenses than have a bunch of untested, uninsured drivers on the roads, proponents say.
But that will just encourage more illegal immigration, opponents argue. A drivers' license is a de facto national identity card, which opens all kinds of doors that should be reserved for legal residents.
The answer to these objections is too rarely spelled out. If the drivers' license hurdle is necessary to discourage illegal immigration, is it working? Of course not, for a simple reason: Immigrants don't come here so they can drive. They come here so they can work.
If we were really serious about discouraging illegal immigration, we'd do what most other countries do. We'd make it impossible to get work without ironclad documentation.
Our Social Security card carries the same design as when it was invented in Franklin Roosevelt's administration. There's no photo, no hologram. The cards are easy to forge and Social Security numbers so simple to get that a privacy advocate announced last week he'd bought Mitt Romney's number online for $30.
What if we made Social Security cards as hard to forge as a passport? What if the feds kept a database that would identify people using duplicate Social Security numbers?
And what if the police got serious about arresting employers who hire illegal immigrants? They aren't hard to find: Start with hotels, restaurants, cleaning services and landscaping companies. After all, hiring an illegal immigrant is every bit as much against the law as being one. What part of illegal don't these employers understand?
Illegal immigrants do the jobs Americans don't want to do, immigration advocates say. But if employers paid enough, the market would provide legal workers. If there weren't illegal immigrants to exploit, we wouldn't be seeing the real wages of service workers sliding downhill while the cost of living soars.
And if those who hire undocumented workers faced consistent enforcement and heavy fines, the jobs for illegal immigrants would dry up. Word would get back to Brazil and a hundred other countries that there's no work here, and the flood at our borders would slow to a trickle.
The truth is America isn't serious about discouraging illegal immigration. If the Bush Administration really saw porous borders as a threat to homeland security, John Ashcroft would have already proposed photos for Social Security cards. He would already have proposed giving local police the training and authority to enforce immigration laws.
But politicians want the votes of recent immigrants, which is why embattled California Gov. Gray Davis reversed his position and signed the bill giving drivers' licenses to illegals. George W. Bush and Karl Rove see the Hispanics of the Southwest as part of their permanent Republican majority, so they talk tough on border security and go easy on undocumented immigrants.
Liberals in Massachusetts and conservatives in Texas are equally soft on illegal immigration. And businesses have no interest in losing their supply of cheap labor.
The emotional argument in Framingham will continue as long as the United States continues to send mixed messages on immigration: Give us your tired, your poor, but don't sneak across the border or overstay your visa. Undocumented immigration is against the law, but as long as you're here, pick our crops and clean our offices. And if you're pulled over on the way to work, you'd better have a fake license, because letting you take a driver's test would send the wrong message.
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