Crossing The Next Frontier

The census is yielding a bounty of eye-popping figures, but the most striking may be this: in California, harbinger of everything, nearly four in 10 residents now speak a language other than English at home. We knew that Hispanics had passed blacks and become the No. 1 minority group (growing an astonishing 60 percent over the last decade), but who predicted they would be surging in places like Iowa and North Carolina? Who knew that organized labor would welcome cheap immigrant labor? Or that GOP senators would start sounding politically correct? El futuro is here--ahead of schedule.

In Washington this week, los dos amigos, President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, are expected to give the world a clunky new buzzword: "regularization." Their original idea was blanket amnesty for Mexicans living illegally in the United States, but that trial balloon landed with a thud this summer. It turns out immigrants of dozens of other nationalities living in the United States didn't think it was fair that their illegals be treated as second-class noncitizens. Confronted on this point, Bush backpedaled. He also doesn't want to be seen as rewarding lawbreaking. Many of the president's conservative supporters have spent years attacking everyone from draft dodgers to pot smokers to Clintonistas for not respecting the rule of law. They might not be in the mood to make ideological back flips for Mexicans.

So we'll get inmigracion regularizacion (see, Spanish isn't so hard once you get the hang of it). The problem is that Fox and Bush have different ideas of what "regularization" means. Fox wants Mexican workers to move back and forth freely across the border filling unskilled jobs with the help of Social Security cards and labor protections. Bush wants to expand guest-worker privileges (which currently apply to only 100,000 Mexicans filling agricultural jobs) to restaurants, hotels and other locations and help certain successful illegal aliens get green cards--without encouraging new waves of Mexicans. Easier said than done. But because immigration laws are now about as effective as Prohibition (hundreds of INS agents trying to keep tabs on millions of aliens), some kind of reform may finally be at hand.

The key is Fox. He must figure out how to punish those who don't follow the new guest-worker procedures under Mexican law (by withholding Mexican social benefits to their families). Then the regulatory contraption the two amigos will announce this week might actually work.

The bigger problem is the whole tone of the immigration debate, which has moved from hectoring Hispanics to pandering to them. Neither helps. Until norteamericanos talk more honestly about the whole issue, we'll be buffeted by the cycles of acceptance and rejection that have always characterized our attitudes toward immigration. The biggest factor affecting those cycles, of course, is the economy. If unemployment rises, so will resistance to immigrants. If we need them to pick our fruit, clear our plates and--soon enough--pay for the retirement of our baby boomers, the attitude will be more accommodating.

Some recent history: the GOP's anti-immigration approach of the early 1990s was an abject failure politically; Pete Wilson will be remembered for little more, as governor of California, than a mean-spirited attempt to curb services to aliens. Newt Gingrich followed by preventing immigrants from getting food stamps. Clinton fixed that, and the Democrats put California away. It's now an official Republican disaster area.

But the GOP is determined not to give up. Since 1994 Bush and his political jefe, Karl Rove, have wooed Hispanics, cutting into Democratic totals in Texas. As president, Bush has appointed Hispanics to important posts, ordered the Navy to stop bombing Vieques Island off Puerto Rico (although not immediately) and made a big show of his friendship with Fox.

The GOP hope is that Hispanics, who tend to be socially conservative, will follow the pattern of Italians, Irish and most other immigrants and vote more Republican as they prosper. To make sure they do, some Republicans are willing to sound like old-fashioned Democrats. Trent Lott and other GOP stalwarts have gone so far as to call opponents of the administration's plans to let Mexican trucks on U.S. roads "racist." How P.C.

Unions, eager to expand their dwindling membership rolls, now fiercely support the same undocumented workers they once condemned for competing for jobs. But the big winner, naturally, is corporate America. Nearly every Bush decision ends there. The Center for Immigration Studies (admittedly, an anti-immigration group) estimates that unskilled immigrants will use $55,200 more in services each (especially in health care) than they will ever pay in taxes. This amounts to a substantial public subsidy to business, which gets to hold down wage levels. Despite the boom, high-school dropouts--in other words, the working poor--saw their wages fall 5 percent during the 1990s, partly because of a greater supply of cheap labor.

On balance, immigration is a big social plus, spurring entrepreneurship and restoring national vitality. But raising questions about it shouldn't lead one to be labeled a "nativist" (much less a racist). Those who favor a "time out" to absorb the huge wave of the last two decades deserve a hearing. In the meantime, Bush has sent Hispanic expectations soaring. If he doesn't deliver, it's hasta la vista, baby.