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Legalize the ‘Illegals’

Posted on Mar 28, 2006
Mexican Border Fence

A Mexican flag is displayed as a huge crowd protests immigration reform in front of Los Angeles City Hall, Monday, March 27. Students across the country walked out of classes to demonstrate against the proposed changes.

By Robert Scheer

There is no immigration crisis—other than the one created by a small but vocal stripe of opportunist politicians, media demagogues and freelance xenophobes. So it has always been throughout the history of this country when anti-immigrant hysteria periodically reigns during ebbs in our national sense of security and vision.

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The script is as old as the Mayflower: A false alarm is sounded that the values, wages and safety of the current roster of credentialed Americans are jeopardized by the “flood” or “tidal wave” or “river” sneaking across our porous borders—be they Irish, Chinese, Jewish, Russian, Mexican or even the freed slaves seeking to earn an honest living in Northern cities after the Civil War. Any and all manner of societal problems are laid on these scapegoats, and the same simplistic solution is offered: Find and deport them, and don’t let any more in.

Luckily, although it sometimes takes years or even decades, saner voices eventually prevail, acknowledging that the continued influx of immigrants has fueled America’s astonishing economic and cultural rise ever since the original natives were bum-rushed off their turf. Immigration laws are liberalized, compromises are reached, amnesties are offered, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service bureaucracy grinds on.

Having intermittently covered this issue for the Los Angeles Times over 30 years, I can well recall the peaks of panic in which we reporters were dispatched to the border and out into the fields to witness the arrest of people desperate to find work—only to be embarrassed by the hunted eyes and clutched crosses of the enemy discovered.

Such frenzied attention was inevitably followed by a lull in which most Americans were quite happy to eat the food harvested by those same harassed and abused workers as well as to entrust the “illegals” with the care of American homes and children. On no other issue is there such an extreme disconnect between attitudes and actions.


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When Wal-Mart was busted for hiring undocumented workers, did anybody boycott the company? Of course not; consumers value price and aren’t concerned, for the most part, about how a company accomplishes cheapness. If, however, people do really care about keeping all jobs open to American citizens, then there is only one effective strategy: Level the playing field by enforcing labor laws.

Some 2 million immigrant workers now earn less than the minimum wage, and millions more work without the occupational safety, workers’ compensation, overtime pay and other protections that legal status offers. Consequently, when the president says that immigrants perform work that legal residents are unwilling to do, he may be right—but we don’t know. The only way to test that hypothesis is to bring this black market labor pool above ground.

That approach has been tried in California with some success. Jos Millan, who until this year ran such an enforcement program as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s labor commissioner and before that for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, told me that legalization of undocumented workers is essential to improving the situation for everybody.

“I am in favor of anything that brings these workers out of the shadows and into the sunlight; it’s very easy to exploit a population when they’re afraid,” Millan told me Monday. “We would be a better country if we recognized the fact that there are 10 million undocumented workers in our midst, and we would be better off if they were granted the benefits and responsibilities of a legal existence.”

Xenophobia today is no more warranted than it has been in the past. The number of claimed “illegal aliens” as a percentage of the population is clearly absorbable by the job market, as our low unemployment rate demonstrates. Yet, the Republican Party and the Congress it dominates are currently teetering between driving undocumented workers further underground and taking a saner compromise approach.

The former, a draconian bill already passed by the House of Representatives, would legalize witch hunts of undocumented workers, by reclassifying them as felons; their employers would be subject to a year or more in prison and punitive fines, as would even church and nonprofit organization members that offer succor to them.

Because employers are not trained to play cop, they will simply be driven to discriminate against job applicants based on “foreignness” determined by ethnicity or accent. The more reasonable alternative, co-authored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and embraced as the heart of the proposal adopted by the Judiciary Committee on Monday, shuns the criminalization of the undocumented, instead offering paths—albeit long, arduous and uncertain ones—to legal status for undocumented workers already here.

This is a moment of truth for America. It is time to acknowledge that we need the immigrant workers as much as they need us, and to begin to treat them with the respect they deserve.

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By J.P.Kane, March 29, 2006 at 8:58 am Link to this comment
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The toothpaste is out of the tube and now they want to get it back in again. So sorry folks it just ain’t going to go back. For better or worse we are all citizens of this world, and we dam well better learn to live together or prepare to die together. What has made America great is indeed the melting pot of different cultures. IOO MILLION aliens paying $300 A YEAR for a WORK PERMIT…..
adds up to 300 million dollars annualy its a start towards costs to securing the gate.

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By Edgar Williams, March 29, 2006 at 8:53 am Link to this comment
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I notice that most of the “progressive” pundits who are writing to defend illegal aliens (there is no such thing as an ‘illegal immigrant’) are members of what we used to call the Liberal Elite - like Robert Scheer. Progressives who have actually had to work for a living like Lou Dobbs are against giving legal status to illegal aliens and recognise this drive for what it is; a ploy by business to keep down the cost of labor.

I consider myself very progressive but I have supported Sensenbrenner’s bill from the start. I have worked in the fields for a living. It is time people who do that type of hard, dirty work get paid a living wage. If the rest of us have to pay more for our vegetables - so what? Are we progressive enough to put our money where our cappuccino is - or are we just all talk?

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By John Nickols, March 29, 2006 at 8:51 am Link to this comment
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There is also the fact that Mexico is exporting their unemployment. Mexico is not a land of opportunity. You will search long and hard to find a middle class.

There has to be an easier way to allow Mexican immigrants come to the USA than scaling walls, crossing deserts, getting raped or often murdered in the process.

I think we will only see posturing and partisan blather for another 6 months. The Democrats want cheap votes and the Republicans want cheap labor.
Meanwhile Mexican mothers and fathers will continue to sacrifice all they have to capture a better life in a better land. Nothing will change.

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By Barrie Johnson, March 29, 2006 at 8:39 am Link to this comment
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there are as many as twenty million illegal aliens in this country with as many as 3000 more per day entering illegally, and you don’t find this a problem??? That border must be closed so we can have some control over illegals. our already overburdened institutions; schools, medical facilities, social services are being swamped by illegals unable to pay for the services they demand. the ag industry in Napa and Imperial valleys do not need an additional 3000 farm workers every day to hoe their fields. the presence of cheap illegal labor here creates huge downward pressure on wages, benefits and workers rights, which will slowly but surely spread into other job areas affecting first the lower classes, then into the middle classes. it is happening already. First we have get the border under control, then we can deal with the existing illegals. Documenting them might help protect them a bit, but only by leveling the playing field downward for all of us. Regarding Walmart, one of the biggest ways they achieve low prices is by poor or no health insurance for the worker. their health care then falls on emergency rooms, on Medicare, Medicaid, and on state family services such as Badger Care in Wisconsin. all of which has to be paid for with taxes. we do pay higher prices for Walmart goods, just in different ways. Just wait til Walmart freezes out all the competition, then where will the prices go? I believe your major problem is that you consider this to be business and politics as usual. never before in the history you refer to, have we had a government totally dominated by the party of big business, in which every decision made is aimed at enhancing corporate profits at the expense of the working classes. don’t deny this. congress is working steadily to reduce health benefits, real wages, social security, retirement benefits, out sourcing jobs, and ad nauseum. the whole sorry litany of attacks on middle class America, of which illegal immigrants is just another part of the disintegration of our country. if you are unable to see this, perhaps you are part of the process of disinformation provided by the republicans. Time for you to retire, Mr Scheer.

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By anonymous, March 29, 2006 at 8:33 am Link to this comment
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We’ve created some social programs that we can afford for our citizens but, I fear those programs may be in jeopardy if they are available to an unlimited number of poor immigrants.

Like outsourcing jobs, insourcing workers can only benefit employers who get a growing number of workers for a shrinking number of jobs.

The majority of illegal immigrants today have little or no difficulty in coming to America, unlike most in the past who had to think long and hard about how they could leave everything behind to cross oceans with equal difficulty in returning should their migration result in failure.

We do need immigration but, we should be able to select from those who can demonstrate a commitment to become Americans.

America should be more than a place to find work.

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By Guitarsandmore, March 29, 2006 at 8:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I welcome anyone who wants to come to the United States to improve their life, but we as a country are not obligated to let just anyone walk across the border and check into the hotel California.

There are 8 billion people in the world and they all can not live in Southern California as there is not the space or the natural resources to support them all.

I pay taxes every year and for that money that I give to the United States government I fully expect that the borders will be guarded and secured.  The National Defense budget is 505 billion dollars for fiscal year 2006.  How much money does it take to scrutinize people walking into this country?

There needs to be some rules and expectations applied to those who wish to live here.  No terrorists are welcome and if you come here waving someone else’s flag you can just turn around and go back to wherever it is you came from.  You need to learn English and you have to read, write, and speak it.  Teddy Roosevelt made this same demand 100 years ago.

Undocumented workers are reportedly coming in from Guatamala and working in Utah as skilled tradesmen in the construction industry.  These people who can not read or write English are trying to work from blue prints to build houses!  This means they are not just taking the jobs of unskilled labor, they are taking the jobs away from the unions.  Carpenters, roofers, electricians, plumbers, are all skilled tradesmen that have to know city and state building codes.

There are many rules and regulations that do not show up on blueprints that must be known.  You can’t let just anyone pick up a hammer, build a house and then charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for that house.  It is a rip off and it’s going to have defects. 

The motives of these immigrants are to take over Robert Scheer and you need to wake up to that fact

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By Bridgit, March 29, 2006 at 8:22 am Link to this comment
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I think immigration is stupid. make them all speak english.

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By Mark Smith, March 29, 2006 at 8:22 am Link to this comment
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Thank you, Rober Scheer

What’s the real reason for Lou Dobbs’ opinion “secure the borders first”?  He must know that this would tear hundreds of thousands of families apart.  It seems like a ‘caring’ person would address the two points simultaneously???

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By Nathaniel, March 29, 2006 at 8:20 am Link to this comment
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We have an administration that is incapable of multi-tasking - securing our borders and reforming our immigration policies - they need to focus on securing our borders first then address policy. If you offer future citizenship to illegals already in this country without securing the borders first then you will have 11 million more on our door steps. Why bother with the formal legal process of applying for citizenship when you can sneak across the border as a shortcut.

The real reason for this problem is the dismal failure of Mexico to offer its citizens a decent living standard. The government and elites are so corrupt they only survive because of repatriated dollars from illegals and an active drug trade.

Odd how concerned we are about security after 9/11, but we let anyone walk across our borders. I agree with a previous writer it’s greed on the part of Corporate America. Also, throw in another corrupt immoral institution namely the Catholic church. Would they be so supportive of illegals if they were Jews or Muslims? I doubt it, but Hispanics add to the flock since they are predominantly Catholic.

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By Tom, March 29, 2006 at 8:19 am Link to this comment
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Many of the jobs that the undocumented have are on the farms far away from the most of the impoverished unemployed citizens who live in the large cities.  Many of the the farm jobs actually pay well above minimum, often over $10 per hour.  In this particular job catagory, largely filled by the undocumented, the wages have been driven up by a strong demand for staff.  The undocumented have not driven down wages of US citizens.

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By rgerold, March 29, 2006 at 8:14 am Link to this comment
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Allowing illegal immigrants into this country is a form of slavery.  It seems that the Bush gang and their friends the predatory capitalist, most of our representatives in congress, along with Robert Sheer are proponents of slavery.

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By Keith Willis, March 29, 2006 at 8:11 am Link to this comment
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Limosine liberal is an appropriate name for folks like you.  Illegal immigration not only drags down wages for low income Americans, it also drags down wages for median income Americans, it increases our health care expenses and the cost of our public services.  But folks like you who are unaffected and apparently oblivious to these issues, it makes sense to have a cheap gardener.

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By Hilding Lindquist, March 29, 2006 at 7:52 am Link to this comment
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Immigration amnesty and the value of labor:

Granting amnesty (aka guest worker status) to the millions of illegal immigrants without first protecting our borders serves the financial interests of business owners, not the workers. Without secure borders businesses will continue to pay less for labor than they would if illegal immigration were halted.

One big reason weighting the labor cost issue in favor of the business owner—when the owner is able to employ an illegal immigrant—is the obvious reluctance of the illegal immigrant to demand fair labor practices lest he or she be deported.

That is the core issue.

The fact that some workers side with the illegal immigrants who are willing to take jobs for less than what would otherwise be the prevailing wage—or fair labor standards—is not a rational position for labor to take.

Keeping the cost of goods low is the big benefit of slavery. Do we want to drive wages and labor standards down to the point where the quality of life for workers is so degrading that it correlates with slavery?

Once the borders are secure, we can then regulate employment with minimum wages, payment of payroll taxes, and fair labor standards ... protecting the workers and our way of life. Do we really want the globalization of sweat shops and child labor?

No amnesty (aka guest worker program) without secure borders—period!

One other thing, if there is going to be a felony attached to illegal immigration, it should be for the hiring of an illegal immigrant by the business owner. Those who argue that convicting business owners would be too difficult are throwing up a smoke screen to block the cases that would test the efficacy of this solution ... a solution that works quite well in other white color crime areas to put the fear of the long arm of the law in those who might otherwise conspire to circumvent the law.

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By florence rothmel, March 29, 2006 at 7:52 am Link to this comment
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Why are the only immigrants being targeted in this latest of so-called immigration reform, hispanics. What about all the other illegal immigrants who attended our colleges and universities and overstay their student visas and seem to disappear into our society to take further advantage of our way of life, only then to turn their backs on us.  At least the hispanic immigrants are not in our country to destroy us, they are here to earn money for their families, and perform work that most Americans would not do.  Their being in our country is not the cause of loss of jobs for middle America, that is being caused by outsourcing to other countries, and yet no one talks about that drain on our job availability.  Why not just grant amnesty to those immigrants here for several years, and then enforce the laws already on the books.  Making 11 million immigrants felons is stupid and illogical.  Our politicians better wake up, and spend more time at their jobs instead of boondoggling all around the world.

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By Osprey, March 29, 2006 at 7:27 am Link to this comment
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I am not against helping people but there are so MANY. How can our country absorb all of these people “pooring down” our society. What will happen to “our” low income workers, what will happen to our social service support system or our jails, schools and health care. Our nation is in the midst of a catastrophe from the cuts of the regime in power and we want to accept more people who will be on the fringe - does NOT make any sense. Someone (W) needs to tell Mexico to fix itself and help its owns people.

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By Terry Sanders, March 29, 2006 at 7:06 am Link to this comment
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You’re overlooking what is the most probable reason for the Bush administration’s sudden ‘compassion’ for the poor & downtrodden of the world: a continuous supply of cheap, unregulated labor, together w/ upwardly mobile outsourcing insures a further devaluing of labor in America. You seem to swallow the line ‘doing the jobs Americans won’t do’. No, self-respecting Americans won’t do those jobs for SUBSTANDARD WAGES with no safeguards.

This is consistent with tax breaks for the ultrarich and slashing social programs to pay for them. All those in favor of further eroding what little political power they have left, march alongside this big business-fueled astroturf movement for legalizing illegals.

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By Carl, March 29, 2006 at 6:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

No Mr. Scheer it is not time to legalize the illegals.I read yesterday that illegal workers send $20 billion dollars back to Mexico each year. It is Mexicos’ 2nd largest income after oil.That Mr. Scheer is $20 billion that would have been spent in the USA if earned by Americans.
That old excuse that illegals take jobs that Americns don’t want is nonsense.Pay a decent wage and Americans will work those jobs.Sure the business community wants the illegals to improve their profit at the expense of the American taxpayer. Remember money earned illegally is not taxed, and don’t forget the costs to our social programs by these illegals.
Lou Dobbs is correct no Amnesty for illegals.

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By Susan Block, March 29, 2006 at 5:49 am Link to this comment
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This bill sponsored by Kotex Heir James Sensenbrenner would criminalize undocumented workers, as well as anybody who helps them. This includes you, if any of these people watch your kids, clean your toilets (including your Kotex!), trim your hedges, deliver your pizza or pick the oranges you had for breakfast. It is a racist, mean-spirited bill that would pit folks of different colors against one another, break up families and deny the rights, work and play in this land, essentially turning millions of us into criminals.

H.B. 4437 is a vicious effort to win the hearts and votes of fearful, racist Americans, and a seamy attempt at extending the genocide that certain European peoples committed against the indigenous tribes of North America. The Northern Euros pretty much wiped out the Injuns throughout most of the area we now called the States, but the Euros in the South seemed to have had more interesting sex lives and interbred like bunnies with the natives. Their offspring are what we now call “Hispanics” or “Latinos”. The way I see it, they have just as much right to live, work and play in this land as I do. And though I’m a little irritated that I have to improve my Spanish, I’m grateful that many of them are humble enough to do work that nobody else in this country wants to do. But of course, the way I feel isn’t all that relevant to the facts. The fact is that Latinos are fast becoming the majority, at least here in Southern Cali, and they are taking over. And why not? This is their land. I’m grateful they *let* me live here. Amen and Awomen. Por favor pase el guacamole

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By JP, March 29, 2006 at 5:45 am Link to this comment
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As much as leveling the playing field in terms of pay, immigrants will be trying to enter the States as long as our income and quality of life are drastically higher than other countries’.  Demand for cheap labor fuels this market, and no wall is going to cut supply.

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By Eugene Whitehead, March 29, 2006 at 2:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear Robert Scheer,
I don’t consider myself a conservative, in fact
whenever Bush or one of his inside gang is shown
on TV I turn it off!!
So why do we have a border? Ought we to open it to
everyone who can prove themselves a citizen of what-
ever countries we admit people from?
Of course if I had a business that needed cheap
unskilled labor I would want the border open.
Why ought we to leave out border open to relieve
pressure on the Mexican Govt. to give opportunity
to “all” their citizens?

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By Michael Balter, March 29, 2006 at 2:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Many thanks for this. The choice is, and always has been, between nativism and internationalism. International borders are the arbitrary invention of those who want to keep the “good” people in and the “bad” people out.

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By Dain, March 29, 2006 at 1:25 am Link to this comment
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I don’t think illegal immigrants bolster U.S. innovation.  We democrats have to decide whether we are on the side of low income American citizen workers or big business who exploits the cheap labor of illegal immigrants.  Illegal immigration lowers the average pay of unskilled workers (i.e. U.S. citizens). We democrats must support our fellow legal citizens who seek jobs legally instead of supporting big business who thrives on illegal immigrants to exploit.

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By Paul Tracy, March 29, 2006 at 12:22 am Link to this comment
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The elite wants the illegals here to drive down working class wages.

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By Frank D. russo, March 29, 2006 at 12:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Schwarzenegger himself praised the Minutemen, the vigilante group on the border.  He also called for closure of the border, and then had to recant that remark.  He is playing this issue largely for his base and has vetoed the driver’s license bill for undocumented workers twice.  This is all documented in an article at

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