ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION is a tough national problem that requires a comprehensive solution. That serious problem, currently roiling the southern border states, should be separated from the cheap political gain that comes from get-tough legislation on the local level. Bills like the one passed by the state Senate Thursday serve mainly to inflame prejudices and distract attention from more urgent priorities.
Like the welfare queens of another era, illegal immigrants are a convenient scapegoat in bad economic times: They allow politicians to fool voters into believing that their hard-earned tax dollars are going to undeserving law breakers. There may be a few showy examples of illegal immigrants who manage to draw on government services, but the fundamental problem with such residents isn’t that they’re a drain on the treasury. In fact, the many who pay Social Security taxes for benefits they’ll never receive probably contribute more to the public purse than can possibly be drained by those who obtain government services.
The “crackdown’’ supported by the state Senate in a 28-10 vote is not, as a matter of policy, an outrage. It reinforces the broadly accepted precepts that illegal immigrants should not obtain public benefits and that employers should not hire workers without papers. Its enforcement mechanisms, such as requiring all state contractors to verify the citizenship status of their employees, are objectionable mainly in that they take time and energy from more pressing problems.
But it’s a sad comment on the politicians of Massachusetts that this issue, above all others, would inspire senators to take to the floor with silver-tongued oratory about American values. “It was President Lincoln . . . who suggested that respect for the law should be preached from every pulpit, taught by every mother to every child,’’ declared state Senator Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican. The crackdown that Tarr was touting serves mainly to focus anger on a nearly invisible scapegoat, while local governments struggle to maintain services and vital programs fall by the wayside. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Lincoln.