It’s Immigration, All Over Again : When the economy is bad, politicians often look for scapegoats. Now, as in the 1970s, they’ve found immigration.

<i> Adela de la Torre chairs the department of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach. </i>

Immigration reform and welfare reform have become the rallying cries of politicians of all persuasions in their battles to bolster their lagging popularity in the polls. Unfortunately, although estimating the costs and benefits of immigration should be honestly discussed, an emotional furor has overtaken the debate and made rational discussion on immigration impossible.

All of us who live in Southern California see dark-skinned people who speak a foreign language in our schools, hospitals and churches. Aren’t they undocumented, and shouldn’t we trust our own judgment on this issue? Aren’t we lucky that many of our expected officials confirm our suspicions for a change, or should we recognize that political survival requires the instinct to exploit others’ insecurities for political advantage?

The ship of political fools who have embraced one another with new strategies to control the border include characters as diverse as Ross Perot, Pete Wilson, Bill Clinton and Dianne Feinstein. Their political motivation is transparent. Yet if we are to learn anything from history, it is that political duplicity often comes during times of economic strife. These strange bedfellows speak to the value of scapegoating a relatively powerless group, a much easier task than confronting the failure of both Democrats and Republicans to address the severe problems of the California economy. As tiresome as the immigration debate has become, the new immigration debate is hardly different from the old. In particular, the striking similarities between the current policy deliberations and the discussions during the Carter Administration merit further reflection.

During the first year of his presidency, sensing frustration due to lagging productivity and inflation, Jimmy Carter sought to radically transform immigration law. The Carter plan included civil penalties for knowingly hiring undocumented workers, increased funding to control the border and an aid package to stimulate domestic employment in Mexico and control population growth. Although Carter’s proposal was never supported by Congress, key elements of the plan were picked up by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. This law included Carter’s amnesty provisions as well as civil penalties for knowingly hiring undocumented workers. For more than 20 years, this latter point has been acknowledged as the linchpin in controlling undocumented immigration to the United States. Other key provisions of IRCA were an alien-verification provision to access public services, federal funds for states disproportionately affected by the amnesty applicants and guest-worker programs for seasonal agricultural employment.


Although IRCA was viewed as a failure by some academics, to a large extent the limitations of the 1986 law were due to lack of adequate enforcement and funding. Lax enforcement of employer sanctions was particularly true during the latter part of the Reagan Administration and the Bush Administration. As in the past, there was no need to heat up political discussions on immigration when the economy was on track.

That much of the current discussion has been wasted on pitting one group against another and fueling ethnic mistrust is unfortunate. Media hysteria aside, enforcement of existing laws should be a first step in the reform process. It requires recognizing that the federal government must adequately fund enforcement, particularly in employment. New laws that strip away basic rights of citizenship would result in decades of litigation and squandered resources. The only solution to immigration reform is an economic policy that stimulates employment and economic growth, both here and in Mexico.