St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Davis' crass calculation

Published October 5, 2003

In a desperate effort to stave off recall, California Gov. Gray Davis signed a law granting several million illegal immigrants in the state access to a driver's license. He had vetoed the measure twice before, when his political cojones weren't so directly on the line, but now he can't afford to alienate the Latino voter.

This crass calculation may be applauded by immigrant-rights groups such as the National Council of La Raza and all those participating in the recent Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride who seek to undo distinctions between people who came here legally and those who flouted the rules. But the move is a betrayal of Californians - even those of Hispanic descent - who already host more illegal immigrants every year than they can possibly absorb.

I am a firm believer in government policies that encourage legal immigration. Newly inducted Americans are the lifeblood of this society and economy. But people who ignore our formal immigration process and jump the line should not be assisted further by being given a credential that can be used to do much more than drive a car. A driver's license is a de facto universal identification card. It eases the path to enrolling in government benefits, obtaining a bank account, renting an apartment or qualifying for credit. Why are we making the magnet stronger than it already is?

American society shouldn't be something you can cheat your way into. We are a nation based on laws. Yet by granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, as California and 13 other states have done, or providing them college tuition at in-state resident rates, as Congress is considering doing, or by offering amnesty for those who successfully squatted here for years, a longstanding call which is gaining new momentum, we are giving succor to scofflaws. Meanwhile, the future citizens we want - those who respect our borders and rules - are stuck on years-long waiting lists.

No one knows for certain how many undocumented aliens live in the United States. The 2000 census estimates 8.7-million but others believe this is a severe undercount. What we do know is why the problem has gotten so out of hand: It serves nearly every stakeholder's interest.

The La Raza-left gets to expand its constituency while powerful economic sectors - such as agriculture, the hotel and restaurant industry, and slaughterhouses - gain a ready supply of cheap labor. And let us not forget the better off families who hire illegal immigrants to care for their children, homes and lawns.

This influx also benefits Mexico, which rakes in $10-billion in annual remittances from workers sending money home, according to Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor at California State University at Fresno. Hanson, who wrote Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, explained on C-SPAN's Booknotes recently that Mexico is also able to rid itself of "hundreds of thousands of potential dissidents who might otherwise march on Mexico City for redress of grievances" while acquiring "an expatriate community that romanticizes Mexico the longer and further it's away from it."

Maybe that is why Mexico refuses to allow the reintroduction of the interior repatriation program that existed in the 1990s, where illegal migrants were sent back to their hometowns. Being left just across the border makes it easier to try again.

Hanson's thesis is that we are damaging the character of this nation and the prospects for Latino success by allowing a flood of illegal immigration beyond our ability to assimilate. He sees the "therapeutic left" having formed an unholy alliance with the corporate conservative right. A constant supply of Latino illegal immigrants keeps wages low, serving industrial interests, and this is exacerbated by the left's suggestion that it is nativist or even racist to demand that newcomers obtain English language skills and become part of the melting pot. Latino immigrants who don't acculturate miss out on the historical route to success.

Those who suffer most from the presence of so many illegal immigrants are low-skilled Americans and recent legal immigrants, who can't gain an economic foothold because wages are driven so far down. It is absurd to suggest that citizens won't do the "dirty" jobs taken by illegal immigrants. Government employees who maintain sewers or pick up trash have jobs about as unglamorous as they come. Still, citizens fill them because they pay a living wage and offer benefits. But Americans are not going to play a race-to-the-bottom game with the exploited workforce of undocumented aliens.

Illegal workers lead oppressive, vulnerable lives. Policies encouraging them to come here are destructive, not compassionate, and fuel a cycle of misery that renews itself with every furtive crossing. In the big picture, Gov. Davis' action is no helping hand, it is a license for social unrest and despair.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.