One viewpoint scorns them as illegal aliens mocking our national laws. The other side sees an indispensable workforce, 11 or 12 million strong. Both points of view are correct.
What a pickle.
Immigration policy and the impact on our industry was debated at one of the more interesting educational sessions held at September's Network '06 joint convention of PHCC-NA and the American Supply Association. Several contractors served on a panel discussing their experiences, while plenty of contractors in the audience weighed in with viewpoints ranging from reasoned to just short of frothing at the mouth.
Some were all for building a fence across the Mexican border. At the other end of the spectrum were those defending hard-working people doing jobs no Americans want to do. Most deplored their illegality, while at the same time saying they're needed to staff their jobsites. One construction contractor said foreign workers comprised 70 percent of his field work force. “Without them, I'd have to close up shop.”
A few days ago, the U.S. Senate passed its latest immigration reform bill. One provision calls for spending $54 billion (estimates are always way too low) to finance construction of a 700-mile hig-tech fence that determined aliens are all but certain to figure out a way around, over, under or through. S. 2611 also would establish a Social Security database that will be hard (though probably not impossible) for the phony ID peddlers to circumvent.
Finally, the bill includes a proviso to legitimize guest workers. Almost anyone not frothing at the mouth agrees this is needed for reasons both economic and humanitarian. By the time you read this, we may have a new immigration law in place.
One thing almost everyone agrees with is that the immigration system in place as of this writing is in dire need of fixing. Immigration debates get clouded by three key issues. This opinionist weighs in on them as follows:
1. Laws must be obeyed. Hard to argue against this one, but I'll try.
Various contractors at the PHCC session admitted employing documented foreigners knowing full well that many of those documents are as phony as - well, the counterfeit driver's licenses that get peddled in every American college town so our kids or grandkids can buy a drink or 10 while underage. My fellow parents and grandparents, let's have a secret show of hands telling how many of us found ways to circumvent the liquor laws in our misspent youth. So much for respect for the law.
Remember Prohibition? The net effect of that constitutional amendment was to make Al Capone and his cohorts richer, faster than anyone in American history thanks to millions of decent but thirsty citizens.
Laws so widely flouted by otherwise law-abiding people undermine respect for laws in general. We finally saw the light and repealed Prohibition. Immigration legalities rest on similar quicksand.
2. They cost us money. People complain that illegal workers suck up tax dollars using our healthcare system and sending their kids to our public schools. There is that, to be sure.
Yet, many illegal workers get taxes withheld from paychecks and pay into phantom Social Security accounts whose funds end up who knows where. Do they consume more than they pay? I'm not sure, though I suspect it's pretty close to a wash.
3. Why don't they assimilate? As a thoroughly American grandson of an immigrant, I have a frothy mouth on this one. It drives me bonkers to see idiots waving the Mexican flag at pro-immigration rallies when they ought to be torching that symbol of an inept and corrupt government that is the root cause of their poverty.
Generalizations are unfair, though. Many immigrants from south of the border do become part of the American melting pot. So do people from Asia, Eastern Europe and other downtrodden parts of the world who fill our construction and menial labor jobs.
They're people looking for a better life, just like my grandfather and so many of yours. Most work hard as hell and stay out of trouble. Most jobs they take could run want ads for months without drawing suitable American applicants.
Let's cut them some slack - and do ourselves a big favor as well by integrating them legally into an economy that can't function without them.