immigration question makes for spirited debate

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    Pasadena Star-News

    Immigration question makes for spirited debate
    By Stephen Wall
    Staff Writer

    Friday, December 03, 2004 - CLAREMONT -- Opponents and supporters of legalizing undocumented immigrants squared off Friday in a debate at Pomona College.

    The estimated 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States drive down wages and drain money from the nation's education and healthcare systems, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors stricter limits on immigration.

    "It has a profound effect on all of us," Mehlman said of illegal immigration. "We have to provide education, healthcare and pay the social costs for these people earning low wages in our society."

    Bill Hing, a professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis, disagreed sharply with Mehlman.

    "The idea that undocumented immigrants hurt the rest of us is so farfetched and wrong," said Hing, who has written several books on immigration. "The undocumented population puts much more in the system than they ever take out. Who benefits from it? My parents, your parents, everybody."

    Undocumented immigrants take jobs in fields, factories, hotels, restaurants and construction that other Americans refuse to do, Hing said.

    "It's inaccurate to say wages are driven down by undocumented immigrants," he said. "If you try to pump up the wages, you're going to lose a lot of jobs overseas."

    Mehlman replied that Americans would toil in those industries if they paid a living wage with decent working conditions and benefits.

    The solution to illegal immigration is to punish employers who hire undocumented workers, Mehlman said.

    In 2002, the federal government fined only 13 employers nationwide for hiring illegal immigrants, Mehlman said.

    "We need to go after these employers who are exploiting these workers and exploiting the American taxpayers," he said.

    The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave legal residency to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, included employer sanctions that haven't been adequately enforced, Mehlman said.

    Hing argued legalizing undocumented immigrants would bring them out of the underground and encourage them to become productive citizens.

    "The only way to get rid of the undocumented is to make them legal," Hing said. "My approach to the undocumented is you welcome them, you integrate them into society."

    Mehlman and Hing debated President Bush's temporary worker plan that would allow foreigners to take jobs that other Americans couldn't be found to fill. The proposal, expected to be presented to Congress in 2005, would give undocumented immigrants work visas for up to six years.

    Mehlman called it an amnesty program for illegal immigrants.

    "It will destroy the middle class in very short order," Mehlman said of Bush's proposal. "An employer will never have to offer good pay and working conditions to an American worker."

    Hing said the proposal would not lead to permanent residency or citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

    "It's not an amnesty or legalization," Hing said. "It's not that generous. After the six years, you're out of here."

    Hing said that illegal immigrants strengthen the economy despite sending billions of dollars to their relatives back home.

    "Immigrants are consumers," he said. "They are spending money and buying products. They are not just sending it back to their native countries."

    Studies have shown that states with large numbers of illegal immigrants do better economically in the long run, Hing said.

    James Solomon, a 20-year-old Pomona College junior who watched the debate, said immigrants are the lifeblood of the nation and are increasingly occupying positions of political importance.

    Bush recently nominated two Latinos to serve in his Cabinet, Solomon noted.

    Alberto Gonzales, the son of Mexican migrant workers, was chosen to be attorney general. Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban immigrant, was Bush's pick for commerce secretary.

    "These immigrants contribute to many aspects of society," Solomon said. "You're not just getting low-wage workers. You're gaining the human capital for the next generation."

    -- Stephen Wall can be reached at (909) 386-3856 or [email protected] .

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