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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2003/ 15 Teves 5764

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Bush plan is empty pinata | Maybe I'm missing something, but President Bush's proposed program to legitimize immigrants working illegally in the U.S. has inspired much ado about nada.

Conservatives are prickly because, they say, illegals are robbing precious American jobs. And because illegals are, well, illegal.

Liberals are offended because they say Bush is merely creating an underclass of cheap labor, as though we don't already have exactly that. Except that presently it is also an illegal underclass.

And illegals are unhappy because they're not getting enough under the proposed program.

Excuse me for being so sane, but when did illegal aliens get to gripe about the size of their benefits package?

Bush, meanwhile, is happy because he gets to ratify his conservative compassion, attract Hispanic voters and feel virtuous as he waxes about our proud immigration heritage. Excuse me for interrupting again, but immigration was very cool the first 200 years or so of American history, but since Sept. 11, 2001, it's terrifying.

We clearly have an immigration system that needs fixing, but post-9/11 we might be spared the misty-eyed paean to the world's tired, poor, huddled masses. At this point, we're all a little tired, stretched and bunched up.

Mexico President Vicente Fox is also happy, though cautiously. He's happy because he temporarily rids himself of 3 million to 5 million people his country can't support, but cautious as he waits for "details." Translation: Please keep them!

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Most entertaining of the reactions has come from illegals themselves, or at least from their advocates. A spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza, for instance, said that once targeted workers read the fine print, many will feel they're better off living here illegally than putting their names in the government's database.

I know just what they mean. First they get you in their databases, then they want you to pay taxes.

Some of what illegals would get in exchange for their Juan Hancock are worker benefits, legal protection, freedom to travel between Mexico and the U.S. without fear of deportation, and a stake in our fabulous Social Security program. What they wouldn't get - and what they clearly want - is amnesty and a fast track to citizenship.

All things considered, I'd say that's a pretty swell deal for people who are otherwise breaking the law and who, alternatively, could be deported.

The Bush plan arguably has some logical merit. It seems reasonable to stop pretending that we don't have several million people working here illegally. It also seems fair that people who are working here should be protected in the usual ways.

It also seems pretty clear that no one's hotel room would get cleaned if immigration officials suddenly enforced our policies. Finally, I like the idea that we know who's here and what they're up to. Let's take names, by all means.

On the other hand, as critics have argued, why have laws if you won't enforce them? And what about all those immigrants who have played by the rules? The list of "yes, buts" is long and deserving of closer scrutiny.

Even if one agreed philosophically with decriminalizing human beings who merely want to live and work here, some of Bush's details seem a little fuzzy. In order to deflect criticism that illegals are taking away jobs from Americans, for example, he stipulates that employers "make every reasonable effort to find an American worker for the job at hand." Oh, OK.

Also under Bush's plan, qualified aliens would be signed up for a three-year work permit, then expected to go home. Given that they didn't head home when their previous visas expired - or were willing to come without one - why are they going to play by the rules this time around?

Ah, the grand incentive: They'll get to reap benefits accrued from their Social Security payments and individual retirement programs. Marvelous to consider, isn't it? Three years of subsistence wages plucking chickens and an early retirement. No wonder they flock to our borders.

Which is exactly the point of critics from the illegal side. Without the promise of amnesty or the incentive of citizenship, many simply will opt not to participate. To remain illegal. To live in the shadows where bureaucrats with databases can't find them.

Nobody said they were dumb. But a voluntary program that relies on the rule-abiding goodwill of illegal aliens who feel entitled to a better deal may be.

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