Friday, December 28, 2007

What kind of American values would appreciate the plight of undocumented immigrants?

'The general welfare'

The eighth in a series of editorials examining American values and the candidates for president.
December 28, 2007
Los Angeles Times

Most Americans cherish an abiding conviction that we live in a land of opportunity -- for all, not just a few. We often wrap this conviction in the mantle of liberty: Because we are free, we can pursue our dreams, change our lives, change our world.

But there are prerequisites to opportunity. To live productive lives, we must enjoy health. We must have access to the knowledge we need to be successful. And we must have a sound understanding of the rules of the society we live in.

With this editorial, we consider the presidential candidates' positions on healthcare, education and immigration, issues that may seem unrelated but that, in starkly immediate ways, determine our ability to pursue our American values -- notably, promoting the general welfare


The candidates may be forgiven if they seem unable to find solid footing for their views on illegal immigrants. Voters appear to be unsure themselves. They tend to oppose social services for illegal immigrants, but a majority favor a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million already here.

That's not as contradictory as it might seem. In fact, voters seem to be aware of some of the complexities surrounding illegal immigrants in this country. Undocumented workers contribute more to the nation, in the form of taxes and willingness to take low-paying, unattractive jobs, than they cost. The benefits and costs, however, are unevenly distributed. Employers and consumers gain from the low wages; federal and state governments receive the income tax paid on wages. But the burden illegal immigration places on society tends to fall at the local, not national, level.

That's why supporting comprehensive immigration reform -- the stand of most Democratic candidates as well as this page -- is a start, but only a start. Voters aren't buying simplistic solutions such as building a fence the length of the border or issuing some form of identification. In their neighborhoods, they see houses where one family used to live now sheltering several immigrant families. As a result, their schools are overcrowded. The children, whose parents often don't speak English and sometimes can't read, need extra help, and the schools are in trouble for their low test scores. Kids drop out of school, and crime rates go up. The expenses that employers avoid by not offering undocumented workers health benefits fall to local emergency rooms and community clinics.

With no certain answers, candidates must at least raise the hard questions or risk seeming hopelessly out of touch with these day-to-day realities. Only Clinton has mentioned the idea that the federal government, which has failed in its job of restricting illegal immigrants while accepting their income tax payments, might use some of that money to compensate affected communities for the related costs.

Nor have Republican candidates -- who have been tripping over each other to prove they're the hardest on illegal immigrants -- offered a more pragmatic platform. The border fence might reduce the numbers of new immigrants, but it won't stop them, especially when two of five illegal immigrants [pdf] already here entered the country legally and overstayed their visas. A lack of driver's licenses hasn't discouraged them either. It has simply put more unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the roads.

Among Republicans, only Giuliani and McCain still talk about allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. The others pretend that 12 million people have been living -- most of them working -- in this country without playing an appreciable role in its economy. Even Huckabee, known for favoring state scholarships for illegal immigrants, now says the best route is to throw them all out within four months, then give them a chance to apply for return. Among the questions we'd like to see addressed: Would that be before or after they finish their college degrees?

Next: "The Blessings of Liberty" looks ahead to The Times' endorsement of a presidential candidate. The complete "American Values" series can be found at,0,710619.story?coll=la-opinion-leftrail

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