There is no immigration crisis -- other than the one created by a small but vocal stripe of opportunist politicians, media demagogues and freelance xenophobes. So it has always been throughout the history of this country when anti-immigrant hysteria periodically reigns during low ebbs in our national sense of security and vision.
The script is as old as the Mayflower: A false alarm is sounded that the values, wages and safety of the current roster of credentialed Americans are jeopardized by the "flood" or "tidal wave" or "river" sneaking across our porous borders -- be they Irish, Chinese, Jewish, Russian, Mexican or even the freed slaves seeking to earn an honest living in Northern cities after the Civil War. Any and all manner of societal problems are to be laid on these scapegoats, and the same simplistic solution offered: Find and deport them, and don't let any more in.
Luckily, although it sometimes takes years or even decades, saner voices eventually prevail, acknowledging that the continued influx of immigrants has always fueled America's astonishing economic and cultural rise ever since the original natives were bum-rushed off their turf. Immigration laws are liberalized, compromises are reached, amnesties are offered, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service bureaucracy grinds on.
Having intermittently covered this issue for the Los Angeles Times over 30 years, I can well recall the peaks of panic in which we reporters were dispatched to the border and out into the fields to witness the arrest of people desperate to find work -- only to be embarrassed by the hunted eyes and clutched crosses of the enemy discovered.
Such frenzied attention was inevitably followed by a lull in which most Americans were quite happy to eat the food harvested by those same harassed and abused workers as well as entrusting the "illegals" with the care of American homes and children. On no other issue is there such an extreme disconnect between attitudes and actions.
When Wal-Mart was busted for hiring undocumented workers, did anybody boycott the company for it? Of course not; consumers value price and aren't concerned, for the most part, about how a company accomplishes cheapness. If, however, people do really care about keeping all jobs open to American citizens, then there is only one effective strategy: Level the playing field by enforcing labor laws.
Some 2 million immigrant workers now earn less than the minimum wage and millions more work without the occupational safety, workers' compensation, overtime pay and other protections legal status offers. Consequently, when the president says that immigrants perform work that legal residents are unwilling to do, he may be right -- but we don't know. The only way to test that hypothesis is to bring this black market labor pool above ground.
That approach has been tried in California with some success. José Millan, who until this year ran such an enforcement program as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's labor commissioner and before that for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, told me that legalization of undocumented workers is essential to improving the situation for everybody.
"I am in favor of anything that brings these workers out of the shadows and into the sunlight; it's very easy to exploit a population when they're afraid," Millan told me Monday. "We would be a better country if we recognized the fact that there are 10 million undocumented workers in our midst, and we would be better off if they were granted the benefits and responsibilities of a legal existence."
This current xenophobia is no more warranted than it has been in the past. The number of claimed "illegal aliens" as a percentage of the population is clearly absorbable by the job market as our low unemployment rate demonstrates. Yet, the Republican Party and the Congress it dominates are currently teetering between driving undocumented workers further underground or taking a saner compromise approach.
The former, a draconian bill already passed by the House of Representatives, would legalize witch-hunts of undocumented workers, by reclassifying them as felons; their employers would be subject to a year or more in prison and punitive fines; as would even church and nonprofit organizations who offer succor to them.
Because employers are not trained to play cop, they will simply be driven to discriminate against job applicants based on "foreignness" determined by ethnicity or accent. The more reasonable alternative co-authored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and embraced as the heart of the proposal adopted by the Judiciary Committee on Monday, shuns the criminalization of the undocumented, instead offering paths -- albeit long, arduous and uncertain ones -- to legal status for undocumented workers already here.
This is a moment of truth for America. It is time we acknowledged that we need the immigrant workers as much as they need us and began to treat them with the respect they deserve.