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The silence about immigrants

WOULDN'T YOU think that a public policy issue that profoundly affects homeland security, unemployment, poverty, education, health, and the environment would be a hot-button issue in the campaign? Immigration policy is just such an issue, yet we don't hear a peep out of either camp on the subject -- except for bipartisan endorsement of amnesty for illegal immigrants.

How important is immigration policy? Ponder the following:

* Chiefly as a result of immigration, our population grew from 249 million in 1990 to 281 million in 2000, an increment of 32 million -- roughly the total population of Canada.

* The Census Bureau projects a population of 420 million in 2050 in the absence of a change in immigration policy, an increase of almost 140 million people -- 50 percent -- in the 50 years from 2000 to 2050. The Latino population, 36 million in 2000, is projected to exceed 100 million in 2050.

* The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that the illegal immigrant population grows by 500,000 people a year. This means that about 1.5 million immigrants settle in the United States each year.

* In 2000, California's population was 33 million. Today the state faces grave problems of water shortage, atmospheric pollution, urban sprawl, and vehicular congestion. Ponder those problems if California's population exceeds 49 million in 2025, as the Census Bureau projects.

These data help us to understand:

* Why the 9/11 commission was so focused on immigration policy -- above all, the flow of illegal immigrants.

* Why Harvard University's George Borjas, widely considered the nation's leading immigration economist, and Cornell University labor economist Vernon Briggs are so concerned about immigration's harmful effect on employment and wages, particularly at the low end.

* Why former Colorado governor Richard Lamm is so worried about the educational underachievement of Latinos and the number of immigrants not covered by health insurance.

Why doesn't immigration surface as a major campaign issue? Powerful political and ideological forces are in play that suppress debate sustaining the inertia of a dubious policy that has huge long-run implications for the size, composition, cohesiveness, and quality of life in America.

Both parties know the demographics of growing Latino numbers and believe they can woo Latino voters by being pro-immigration. However, surveys indicate that recent immigrants are not as enthusiastic about continuing high levels of immigration as the politicians think. After all, the newcomers will be competitors for jobs and benefits.

A recent Chicago Council on Foreign Relations survey found that the largest differences between elite and popular opinion over a range of key issues is on immigration. Elites support high levels of immigration, while popular opinion favors a significant reduction and rigorous enforcement of immigration law.

The ideological spectrum on immigration is spanned by two unlikely pro-immigration bedfellows, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The Journal, and conservatives and libertarians more generally, view low-wage labor as enhancing US competitiveness and sustained rapid population growth as desirable.

The New York Times, and liberals more generally, tend to see the world through Emma Lazarus's eyes: "Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." But those words were written 120 years ago when the US population was about 55 million.

We have to find ways to legitimize immigration policy as an issue of high national interest and open debate. We must insist that the candidates develop clear positions on what to do about immigration policy. Do they support open borders? If not, what criteria would they use in establishing limits? What specific levels of immigration would they endorse? Should visas be issued on the basis of skills or family connections?

The reduction of poverty, the increase of incomes at the lower end of the scale to a living wage, and conservation of the environment should have the highest priority in immigration policy.

The US Commission for Immigration Reform has called for greater effort to stem illegal immigration; substantial reduction in the number of legal immigrants; a shifting of emphasis in legal immigration from family connections to the skills we need; and an immigrant policy that promotes assimilation. These recommendations offer an excellent framework for debate by the candidates.

Lawrence R. Harrison, a senior research fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, is co-editor of "Culture Matters." 

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