An unhealthy dependence

Here’s something to ponder: If we manage to expel all the illegal immigrants from south of the border, who’s going to build the fence to keep them out?

That in the old nutshell is the dilemma of today’s society where tens of thousands of industrious but undocumented workers perform the chores most of our citizens can’t or won’t.

Dropping by the local convenience store parking lot to recruit someone to perform a handyman task has become a necessary routine for millions of American homeowners who can’t find help elsewhere. How many American businesses from El Paso to Minneapolis would be in dire straits without those willing to work long hours at lower wages for the chance to live and raise their families here? Who’s going to harvest the tomatoes and cantaloupes and apples and oranges if Juan or Manuel or whomever is gone?

We may be about to find out unless, by some miracle, there is a compromise between those who want to completely wall them out and those who would keep the status quo. The accommodation to both sides _ the moderate approach, if you will _ so eloquently outlined by President Bush a few days ago appears to have little chance of congressional endorsement before the November balloting and probably not much after either. As has been evident since his proposals, neither side is satisfied. There is, of course, just so much that the president can do administratively. In that regard, he has enlisted the National Guard and is actively seeking a way to stop the flood of humanity from Mexico and points south.

No country can afford a totally open border policy. How much longer the nation’s educational, health and other social institutions can survive the strain of so many needy non-citizens is problematic. Taxpayers in local municipalities and school districts where there is a large immigrant population are increasingly restive if not downright rebellious over the situation.

In addition, there is the question of national security. It is foolhardy to inadequately guard our borders in this time of terrorism. During a recent trip to the Midwest, complaints about Iraq were sublimated to the concerns expressed about immigration and the need to secure borders from terrorist incursion. The immigration issue is the first mentioned to anyone who admits being from Washington, particularly one who is associated with the media.

That intensity can be expected to increase with the dispatching of thousands of men and women from America’s hometowns to relieve the Border Patrol of mundane bureaucratic duties and free them for aggressive law enforcement. The fact that the Guards won’t be armed has caused wags to speculate that they will be there as “greeters” whose rifles have been exchanged for clipboards and clickers with which to count.

The cactus question is not so much how we secure thousands of miles of southern border, but what we do about the 12 million illegal immigrants already here, the fence builders and ditch diggers and day laborers. Bush wants to keep only those who have a long history of demonstrating their work ethic here and are worthy of citizenship. His detractors on both sides don’t seem to want anything to do with that approach, but they may have little choice given the sheer magnitude of identifying the millions who have no green cards.

That was a relatively easy task when those here illegally were located mainly in the metropolises closest to their points of entry: Los Angeles, San Diego and the Texas and Arizona border towns. Now their spread is nationwide. Even the small towns of the Midwest have sizable numbers of undocumented workers.

It is a problem that has been neglected by Congress for a long time and is not going away soon. The old Immigration and Naturalization Service was an utterly dysfunctional disgrace and lawmakers wanted it that way for constituents who needed the benefits of cheap and plentiful labor. Texas cotton barons and California orange growers looked away as hundreds of workers slipped into their states, many to go back after harvest but many others to stay.

But this reliance on illegal labor has become an unhealthy dependency. Now kicking our habit cold turkey could be terribly painful and disruptive to the economy.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)