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Immigration bill's demise suggests many OK with status quo
San Francisco Chronicle


June 11, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The collapse of the giant immigration overhaul in the Senate might demonstrate that the dreaded status quo -- 12 million people living in the country illegally and more arriving each day -- is not really so dreadful after all.

The multitude of interests involved in the immigration debate -- business groups, ethnic lobbies, politicians in both parties and the American public -- in the end proved unwilling to yield enough to support the bipartisan compromise.

As California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who helped negotiate the failed deal, said, the current immigrant situation in the United States is a de facto amnesty. Even the most ardent advocates of a border crackdown concede that it will be impossible to apprehend and deport 12 million people living here illegally.

But as much as everyone complains about the situation, the enormous black market in labor operating openly in the United States serves the interests of many involved, however imperfectly. It is an amnesty without amnesty.

"Inaction, the status quo, is particularly helpful to employers of unskilled, undocumented workers, because they obviously aren't going to face the potential teeth of tougher employer sanctions," said Daniel Tichenor, a research professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and author of "Dividing Lines: the Politics of Immigration Control in America."

Low-wage industries such as landscaping and nursing homes could fare better in the current freely operating black market than under a heavily regulated temporary-worker program that would require migrant workers to leave the country after two years.

A technology-company lobbyist complained at one point that Silicon Valley is the only business group that really couldn't live with the status quo, because tech companies rely on legal immigrants.

Peter Duignan, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who has written extensively about Latino immigration, observed that as angry as the public gets about illegal immigration, when it comes to deporting their nannies or housekeepers, people change their views. Economists frequently point out that the middle class benefits enormously from the wide availability of low-cost immigrant labor in restaurants, hotels, retailing, construction and many other service industries.

Unions complain of worker exploitation but are divided over whether the influx is a threat to wages or a large new recruiting pool.

Although everyone claims to want tougher enforcement, recent raids on employers have generated an enormous outcry, not just from immigrants'-rights groups but from the same Republican senators who have been demanding a crackdown.

Five Republican senators, including Charles Grassley of Iowa, Wayne Allard of Colorado and John Cornyn of Texas -- all of whom helped block the Senate immigration reform bill -- called Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to Capitol Hill to complain after federal agents arrested 1,282 illegal immigrants at Swift and Co. meatpacking plants last year.

For Democrats, the failure of the Senate bill allows them to keep the immigration issue alive for the 2008 election, when they will be courting Latino voters. Among the urgent business items that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said needed to take precedence over the immigration debate is a "no confidence" vote on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Asian and Latino immigrants'-rights groups wanted legalization for the 12 million undocumented immigrants but seemed unwilling to accept a major change in the immigration system that would have curtailed the migration of extended families in the future.

Republicans insist on shifting the current immigration system, which relies on family ties, to a merit-based point system that emphasizes job skills and education.

Ironically, the family-migration system was designed in the 1920s as a means of keeping out "undesirable" immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, because newer migrants did not have relatives in the United States, Peter Salins, a political scientist at Stonybrook University, noted in a recent article.

The family-migration system continues to heavily favor groups with established kinship ties in the United States, which today are Latinos and Asians.

Cecelia Munoz, a top Washington advocate for the National Council of La Raza, argued vehemently against opening immigration "to anybody in the world." Experts believe a point system could open new channels to African immigration, which historically has been heavily under-represented in the United States since the end of American slavery.


E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead(at)
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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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