schwarzenegger / immigration

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    Alameda Times-Star

    Schwarzenegger afraid to find middle ground on immigration

    Thursday, September 30, 2004 - GOV. Arnold Schwarzenegger did the right thing last week when he vetoed legislation that would have offered California driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. But Schwarzenegger, by trying to play to both sides of this volatile issue, is missing a unique opportunity to engage his state in a serious discussion about immigration. As a native of Austria who moved to this country in 1968 and became a citizen 15 years later, Schwarzenegger is better suited than any politician to address the difference between legal and illegal immigration. Other leaders who have tried to broach this subject have been accused of being anti-immigrant. Schwarzenegger can hardly be tarred with that brush.

    Following the rules

    The best case against giving driver's licenses to those who came here illegally is that the state should not be blessing their law-breaking.

    No matter how much compassion one might feel for the individuals involved, rewarding illegal immigrants by legitimizing their status penalizes legal immigrants who waited years in line to enter the country according to the rules we have established. And it tells others who are still waiting today that they are fools to follow the law.

    California's struggle with immigration is complex and at times contradictory.

    Politicians from the left complain often about a lack of funding for education, overcrowded hospital emergency rooms and stagnant wages for low-skilled workers -- all problems made far worse by the presence of more than 2 million illegal immigrants in the state.

    But the same politicians look the other way when employers hire illegal workers. And they press for changes in state policy, like the driver's license bill, that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to remain here.

    Who makes it possible?

    Many conservatives, meanwhile, decry the effects of illegal immigration, but they, too, are unwilling to confront the businesses whose employment practices make it possible.

    Agriculture, because of its need for seasonal and migratory labor, might be the exception that needs some kind of special, regulated program for immigrant guest labor. But there is no reason that Californians cannot live without illegal immigrants as janitors, hotel maids and restaurant busboys.

    The loss of that cheap and exploitable labor pool would, most likely, drive up wages for the citizens and legal immigrants who do this work or would be willing to if it paid more.

    This would reduce their need for public assistance and would be a huge win for entry-level workers and the taxpayers.

    This is the argument Schwarzenegger is positioned to make. But he has shied from it. Instead, he has bought into the argument that the driver's license bill is about automobile safety. It is not. It's about blurring the line between legal and illegal immigration.

    Schwarzenegger, during his campaign for office last fall, vowed to repeal the driver's license law passed in the summer of 2003 and signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis.

    His position on that issue drew toward him the support of a huge majority of Californians who opposed the Davis law. But fewer people heard Schwarzenegger also say that, once the original law was repealed, he would work with its supporters to craft a compromise that would allow illegal immigrants to drive legally under certain conditions.

    It appears that once he became governor, Schwarzenegger saw that such a compromise, if it could be found, would still not please a majority of the voters.

    He focused more and more on the issue of national security, arguing that the uncertain identity of those getting the licenses could make it easier for potential terrorists to roam the country.

    After months of negotiations, he settled on one demand that he knew supporters of the bill would never accept: a special marker on the card identifying the license holder as an illegal immigrant.

    Addressing the question

    The governor's focus on terrorism, while legitimate on one level, had about as much to do with this issue as the claim by the bill's backers that they wanted to license illegals in order to improve driver safety.

    Both sides simply refuse to address the core question: Should the state of California knowingly give its most basic identification card to people who are in this country illegally? By ducking that question, Schwarzenegger is forfeiting his special opportunity to make a moral case for legal immigration and against its illegal counterpart.

    If he showed more political courage, he could help poor, low-skilled workers understand that they are the ones hurt most by illegal immigration and have the most to lose from state policies that encourage its expansion.

    And if he could make that case stick, he might just change the political dynamic that drives all discussion of this difficult, emotional issue.

    Daniel Weintraub is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee.

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