Illegal Immigration: Boon or Bugaboo? Part 2

Bush's ideas show adequate promise for serious consideration

By Fernando Oaxaca
Published on LatinoLA: January 15, 2004

Illegal Immigration: Boon or Bugaboo? Part 2

Wickenburg, Arizona, is a small town about a 45-minute drive west of Phoenix. On a summer day, two obviously Latino men stood on the roof of a house under construction. It was 105 degrees on the thermometer but up on the partially completed red tile roof, it was probably 120 degrees, coming up from heat-absorbing terra-cotta colored tile through the men's shoe soles. One of the men was passing by hand the searing individual 7- or 8-pound tile pieces to the other for careful placement on the new roof. Neither man wore gloves.

''Those Mexicans are the only guys willing and able to do this work in weather like this,'' my contractor brother-in-law said to me.

'''Why don't they wear gloves?'' I asked. Don't they burn their hands?''

''Naah, I've offered them gloves but they say that their hands are OK and they can handle the tiles more surely, without dropping and breaking them.''

And so it goes across our nation. Wiping sweat from their entire face while picking only the ready fruit in the blazing sun of the California Central Valley... Dripping with cow-blood and suffused with its unique stench while butchering and cutting beef carcasses in an Omaha packing house...Cultivating hundreds of boxes of mushrooms in dank, stifling dark rooms in Pennsylvania while breathing the almost suffocating air, reeking of fertilizer and fungus-promoting materials...The undocumented Mexican workers contribute to the American economy.

Meanwhile, the immigrant bashers like Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, or immigration "expert" Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, or their nativist soul-mates at FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) all continue to insist that illegal immigrants have jobs that Americans would fill, if only the pay was better. How much better? $30 bucks an hour, $40, $50? Special clothing, nurses at the work place, long rest periods in air-conditioned facilities, special disability insurance and job hazard pay besides? Moving costs for families as jobs end and new ones develop hundreds of miles away--as they do for migrant farm workers? Blacks and "Anglos" lined up to take these jobs? Not this year, or maybe never!

Maybe President Vicente Fox of Mexico is wilier than we think; he knows that we as a nation have become addicted to having this cheaper, tolerant, patient, and hungry work force of his, willing to sweat and strain in our crummier workplaces. That is why he and his foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, have felt free to kick us in the groin from time to time and still believe that we would eventually cave in to their demands for ''regularization'' of their Mexican illegal workers in the U.S.

Reacting to the new Bush immigration plan, Derbez called the proposal ''the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end'' of the immigration debate. ''We're going for more. We're going for more,'' Fox told reporters last Thursday. ''It is an achievement of the measures we have been taking during these [last] three years,'' Could this arrogant man, Fox, be serious in thinking that he is driving the deal and that the Bush Plan is the result of ''three years'' of his, Fox's, effort?

Let him think so. But I do not believe that our president has forgotten Mexico's abandonment of us on the U.N. Iraq vote in 2002, of waffling on support of our anti-terror policies, of their refutation of our views on the International Court of Justice, of again cozying up to Fidel Castro, of refusing to extradite brutal murderers of Americans who have fled across the border ''because we have capital punishment in the U.S.,'' etc.

Meanwhile, let us look at the Mexican interface with California, immigration-wise, a good example of the illegal worker issue. Incidentally, neither Mr. Fox (''They are not illegals. They are people that come there to work, to look for a better opportunity in life....'') nor American Latino ''immigrant rights'' champions, approve of using the term ''illegal.'' La Raza says: "...they are just workers without documents.'' Perhaps they believe that denying the existence of immigration law-breaking makes the illegality more tolerable. But back to California, chief magnet for Mexican illegal immigration.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, immigrants from Mexico and Central America in California had a median income of $17,500. 32% were ''poor.'' Median income of Asian immigrants was almost double that of Latinos, $32,000! (Per PPIC, Public Policy Institute of California.)

More than 32% of immigrants in the 2000 Census who spoke Spanish, spoke no English at all! In 1990 it was 26% and among long-term Spanish-speaking immigrants, 17% spoke no English. Of those speaking Chinese, non-English speakers were 12.5% in 2000 and only 9% among long-termers.

Almost 46% of Latino immigrants in the 2000 Census only had an 8th grade or less educational attainment. Barely 8% had ''some college'' and only 4% had a degree. Among Asians, only about 10% had 8th grade or less education while 26% (three times that of Latinos) had some college, and 29% of Vietnamese and a whopping 44% of Chinese had a bachelor's degree!

Median hourly wages for Mexican and Central American immigrant men in the 2000 Census was $7.15; for women, only $6.21. For Vietnamese immigrant men, the median wage was $11.80, for women, $11.50. Among Chinese immigrant men, the median wage was $18.32, among women, $12.78. Thus, in 2000, immigrant Chinese women made more than twice what Mexican women made and 80% more than Mexican immigrant men!

What this possibly boring array of numbers tells us is that Mexico is sending us very poorly educated people who fall far behind their much better educated Asian counterparts in salary earned AND WON'T CATCH UP FOR A GENERATION OR MORE. The percentage of illegality among Asians compared to Mexicans and Central-Americans is not known but is assumed as lower. Yet the individual contribution to productivity in the California economy of Latino immigrants versus Asians is undoubtedly higher. Or is it? Are ten hours picking strawberries or grapes or cleaning and canning seafood or cleaning the toilet at the Ritz Carlton in Newport Beach more ''productive'' than serving dim sum or selling imported Asian art goods in Chinatown or writing software? I think so but who knows for sure?

Beyond their educational handicap, Vicente Fox is sending us people who are sadly deficient in English language skills. Worse, on average, this population of immigrants measured in 2000 versus 1990 actually lost ground in English competence. For California, this means an excruciatingly large group of working parents unable to teach their children English, unable to help them with homework from English-language schoolbooks and, as workers, unable to progress much in any workplace that is not at least bilingual.

Summarizing what the heavily illegal Mexican and Central American workforce means to California, they are under-educated, have none or poor English skills, and their prospects within their generation for increasing their earning capacity are poor, at best. Further, any children they might have, come into California society with serious built-in problems from their monolingual and monocultural home environment. They are almost doomed in advance to have school achievement difficulties.

On the more ethereal plus side, these immigrants have courage and initiative built into their very soul. Willing to brave the unknown, to gamble their lives on the good will of people-smugglers (coyotes), abandoning all that is dear and familiar for a possibly better life--this is a population arguably even more courageous than the European immigrant cohorts of the last century. And now we have inherited this infusion of human courage and energy and good will in the persons of these, at times reviled, illegals. That alone, even with the included problems, has tremendous value to our national human inventory.

On balance, the Bush immigration proposal might do little to make California's illegal problems any less fiscally damaging, in the short term. But, conversely, the productivity benefits to the California economy remain at least constant and possibly improved. This would stem from an illegal workforce now ''legalized,'' even if for just a few years. We would thus have a more stable workforce, with individual workers having more peace of mind, with freedom of movement, even with driver's licenses if desired, and with some improved prospects of an eventual green card.

If the eventual Bush-driven immigration ''reform'' legislation can relieve the financial burden on California from health care and education needs of this workforce and its dependents, it would be much more attractive. But, even as-is, there is an immeasurable bonus from the potential new law in the area of national security and law enforcement. The identity and location of millions of currently unidentified persons in our United States would now, theoretically, be known. The terrorists among them, admittedly, will be few, but experience tells us that criminality is no stranger to this population.

Finally, there is another gut-level factor working here. The far right, congressionally, in academics, and in media are almost all opposed to the Bush initiative. The left, the immigrant-rights activists, the usual anti-Bush malcontents like Nancy Pelosi's deputy, Congressmen Bob Menendez (N.J.), and Chair Ciro Rodriguez (TX) and their Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and knee-jerk Bush-hating publications like ''The Nation',' are mostly violently against the proposed new law. Why?

Because it doesn't include the politically impossible 100% amnesty for 10,000,000 people!

Conclusion? With both ideological participants in the debate opposing him, it seems clear to me that President Bush must be onto something. Aside from having shown political courage and some new leadership after eight years of Clinton/Gore neglect of the subject, he has moved us off dead-center. There are, though without perfection, undoubted humanistic, economic, and practical and potential benefits to the nation from immigration reform a la Bush. And a large number of currently illegal but, realistically, permanent residents and their many thousands of citizen children can also benefit, should some ''reform'' emerge. Change will probably not come before the spring of 2005 but as of 11 months before the 2004 presidential election, Mr. Bush's ideas show adequate promise for serious consideration and deserve a strong position in the national agenda.

About Fernando Oaxaca:
Fernando Oaxaca is a long-term conservative and community activist in Los Angeles. He receives e-mail at:

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