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Jewish World Review August 3, 2001 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5761

James Lileks

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Constitution: George the Uniter picked a doozy to unify detractors -- ACCORDING to murkily defined ''administration sources,'' President Bush was about to shout ollie-ollie-ox-in-free to 3 million illegal Mexican immigrants.

Bright move: Pat Buchanan, who was packed in Cosmoline and buried after the last election, surfaced to attack Bush from the right. The Democrats hit from the left, wondering why Bush would roll out the carpet for Mexicans but stiff-arm Poles, Ukes, Croats, Aleuts, et al. Moderates wondered why illegals got to cut in front of people who actually bothered to apply for citizenship. Everyone, whatever their political stripes, could only stare agog at this buck-naked vote-buying on display.

Let no one say George W. is not a uniter.

But was the furor justified? After all parties had strafed the proposals into smoking confetti, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared to ''clarify'' the matter. He dismissed talk of a ''blanket'' amnesty. But he said the administration would try to assist undocumented workers in becoming documented workers --- as well as help them become citizens, if ''that's where their destiny takes" them. Destiny?


This makes it sound like citizenship is a preordained surprise, like finding out you're really a prince, or Darth Vader's son.

The GOP is always skittish about the immigration issue. Should a conservative suggest that the nation's boon be reserved for citizens, this somehow comes across in the news media as ''Deport anyone who does not require sunblock.''

Yes, there are people who believe that. There are also people on the left who believe that the entire Southern Hemisphere is entitled to come to the United States and be fed, housed and educated at public expense, and get a ballot in their native language. (''Mark your ballot for Democrat Happy Help Party, or the Reptile Demon-G-d Baby-Eater Party.'') These social programs will be paid for by cutting open all the rich people to see how they produce those golden eggs.

These are extremist points, both of them, a pox on both their casas. Everyone in the middle agrees that immigration is what made this country great but that there are limits. Most people don't mind Cinco de Mayo day at the local Chi-Chis. Making it a paid federal holiday is another matter.

Some sort of immigration control is necessary --- but how?

It's simple, in a long and complex sort of way. Illegal immigration will decrease when the home countries provide opportunities on par with those offered by America. This means a stable political environment that tolerates dissent rather than slapping opponents in jail to serve as car-battery testers. It means a low-tax, low-regulation economy not dominated by conglomerates. Hint: If a nation has two main companies, and they're named TelBeerCemento and PetroFoodClotheria, and both are owned by brothers of the president, the country's main export will be people. To help combat this, we must not only encourage countries that encourage free trade, but give other nations a chance to sell us stuff. Political and economic freedom keep people at home.

Why, just look at Mexico!

Ahem. OK, not the best example, but give them time. President Vicente Fox is not a caudillo from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Judge Mexico not by a few years of NAFTA and a few months of new blood. This stuff takes years --- and that's the problem.

Conservative ideas for immigration reform are insufficiently Oprah-friendly. We live in a culture guided by pictures and emotions and immediate solutions. We weep when we see a local TV story on a poor, struggling illegal who just wants a better life. We yawn when we read about a procedural struggle in a congressional subcommittee to defeat tariffs on Guatemalan-made cellphone rechargers --- even though the latter may have more long-term impact.

Back in the '80s, we did make a stab at ending the immigration problem in our lifetime. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed a flat-out amnesty that was bigger than the one Bush was accused of considering. It was accepted at the time --- like a horse pill dry-swallowed sideways --- because it contained all sorts of provisions to discourage the hiring of illegals. Stiff fines. Jail time. It was suggested then that these accommodations would only encourage more illegals to come in hopes of a similar reprieve down the road. It was suggested that today's low-wage, dangerous jobs would be filled by the illegals of tomorrow.

Poppycock, they said. And they'll say the same thing if there's an amnesty tomorrow. The only difference is that we have a Spanish-speaking president now, and he'll say el poppycocko.

And it still won't get him any votes.

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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03/26/01: You've been warned
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02/06/01: Can you say 'Ayatollah Bush'?
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11/28/00: Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore
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11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2000, James Lileks