Realism, Compassion Lacking in Immigration Debate

Perhaps the most striking thing about our national debate over immigration is the utter lack of attention to the root causes of mass migration from Mexico or to the moral dimensions of the injustice and human tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes.

Mexicans and other Latinos have been coming to our country for more than a century -- lured by businesses seeking cheap labor and by government policies that promote temporary work programs.

This migration accelerated greatly in the 1990s, in part because of the devastating impact on Mexican agricultural workers from the North American Free Trade Agreement. About two-thirds of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in our country have arrived since 1995, shortly after NAFTA took effect. The vast majority of unauthorized immigrants, about eight in 10, are from Latin American countries. And three-fourths of those are Mexican.

Today, these immigrants are among the most abused, exploited and denigrated people in our society.

Like the Irish of the mid-1800s and other waves of immigrants that have arrived on our shores, they provide the muscle at the lowest rung of our economic ladder. They make hotel beds and help put food on America's tables. They process poultry and work in construction, making products and services less expensive for all of us. Yet, they are vilified just for being here and are increasingly at risk of physical violence from border vigilantes and racist thugs.

Yes, many cross the border illegally, in search of a better way of life. But tens of thousands of Latino "guest workers" are recruited each year by major U.S. corporations seeking cheap labor to harvest vegetables, plant pine trees on giant timber plantations in the South or fill other low-wage jobs. Many lured here find only broken promises, pain and misery. Unscrupulous companies routinely cheat immigrants out of their rightful pay or force them to work in unsafe conditions, knowing they have little recourse.

As a nation, we can and should do better. We should greet immigrants with compassion and treat them with dignity.

And we must seek realistic solutions. As we've seen repeatedly in these first years of this new century, belligerence and ideological rigidity do not work.

Rounding unauthorized immigrants up and throwing them out of the country -- a notion favored by many conservative pundits -- is not a realistic option. Arresting, detaining and then deporting such a vast number of people would cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars and would require the creation of a virtual police state built on racial profiling. The potential for human rights violations is enormous.

Even if we could enforce a mass deportation, it would have severe economic consequences, as undocumented workers now make up nearly 5 percent of the U.S. labor force. And, with families being literally ripped apart, the human suffering would be incalculable.

We can stop the mass flow of economic refugees, but we must start by promoting economic policies designed not solely to extract profits from Mexico but to help our long-troubled neighbor strengthen its communities and build an economy that will sustain its people.

At home, we must reject the apocalyptic fantasies of political demagogues and the depraved appeals of white supremacists who seek to inflame racial passions.

We must ensure that immigrants, regardless of their status, are not exploited for profit and are not subjected to violence and hate.

We must stand for justice and tolerance on behalf of those who have left behind broken communities to seek a better future for their families. Whether we can muster the courage and wisdom to do this will be a true test of the American spirit.

Richard Cohen