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Jewish World Review April 7, 2000 / 2 Nissan, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports



Thank the immigrants for booming economy -- NEXT TIME you're wondering whom to thank for this booming economy, thank an immigrant. That's right, any immigrant -- from the fellow laying bricks in the new housing development down the street, to the guy flipping burgers at your local fast-food restaurant, to the woman who cleans your office building every night, to the software engineer who makes it possible for you to buy your food or pick a new wardrobe, all while sitting at home by your computer.

Sure, plenty of American-born workers perform these jobs, too, but the fact is, if it weren't for the large influx of foreign-born workers into the economy in the last several years, nearly everything we pay for would cost more. Mass legal immigration has been a critical component of economic growth over the last two decades, but one we too often either ignore or wrongly assume causes more harm than good.

One man who does understand the importance of immigration to our current -- and future -- economic success is Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan. A few weeks ago, Greenspan told a congressional committee that the most effective thing Congress could do to ensure the economy keeps humming along would be to let more immigrants into the country. Apparently, the members weren't listening very carefully, because they've refused to knuckle down and pass much-needed immigration reform.

So far this year, the only immigration bill Congress is likely to pass is one to increase the number of temporary work permits -- known as H-1B visas -- for high-tech and other highly skilled workers. And Congress may not even get around to passing this legislation, which will provide about 65,000 more workers per year, despite an estimated shortage of at least 250,000 workers in the high-tech industry alone.

The U.S. Labor Department predicts that the country will produce 130,000 new information-technology jobs per year for the next decade. But who will take these jobs? American colleges are turning out 40 percent fewer graduates in computer science than in the 1980s, and one-third fewer electrical engineers than a decade ago. We either have to import workers with these skills -- or export the jobs.

And it isn't just the technology industry that depends on foreign-born labor. Have you taken a good look at your local construction site lately, or the doctors and nurses at your HMO? Chances are, you'll see a lot more brown faces there than in the past. U.S. industries as disparate as meatpacking and tourism now rely heavily on immigrant labor. The agricultural industry, perhaps the most highly dependent on foreign labor, would virtually collapse without a constant stream of immigrant workers, many of whom work here illegally.

But no one, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, intends to do much about these illegal workers. While the INS has increased border patrols, illegal aliens have little to fear from being apprehended or deported once in the country. As one INS official recently told the New York Times, "It is just the market at work, drawing people to jobs, and the INS has chosen to concentrate its actions on aliens who are a danger to the community."

Wouldn't it be better to change the immigration laws to allow more people to reside here legally than simply to turn a blind eye to those who are violating the laws now on the books? A few years ago, anti-immigrant fervor was high, spurring efforts like California's Proposition 187 to deny welfare and education benefits to illegal aliens and their children. But today, with the economy purring along, most Americans are less concerned with immigrants in general. According to a recent Gallup poll, fewer than half of all Americans want to see lower immigration, the first time since 1977 that support for restricting immigration has dipped this low.

Congress should take this opportunity to reconsider our outdated immigration laws, and let the market dictate how many immigrants we can absorb. Our continued prosperity depends on it.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate