Politicians far and wide – federal, state and local, Democrats as well as Republicans – ignored the illegal immigration issue for as long as they could. Despite the fact that the voters of California, in 1994, approved overwhelmingly a ballot measure (Proposition 187) that sought to deny public benefits to illegal aliens, the politicians and the courts just didn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of public antipathy for illegal immigration. One would have thought that even if the courts found constitutional problems with 187, the politicians would have been sufficiently aroused by the passage of 187 to do something about the issue. But it was not to be.

In fact, instead of taking action to curtail illegal activity from Mexico or anyplace else, politicians and various public agencies did just the opposite. For example, the California Legislature enacted legislation to allow “undocumented students” (don’t you just love that term?) to pay in-state tuition while American citizens who are not residents of California are forced to pay nonresident fees. Not to be outdone, the Regents of the University of California voted 15-3 to approve a similar policy. I was one of those on the losing side of that vote. My thought at the time was that if students who have entered the country illegally are allowed to pay about $13,000 a year less than American residents, it might be financially prudent for a young person residing in Oregon, for example, to leave the country and reenter illegally in order to qualify for this gift from the American taxpayers.

Were it not for “talk radio,” the “Minutemen,” Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, and a host of outraged citizens largely in Arizona, the issue would still by lying dormant. But it is not. Because of a massive public outcry for action, illegal immigration has become the most volatile domestic issue of this decade, with the potential to affect profoundly the future of our nation.

In future columns, we will explore the many facets of illegal immigration: the “A” word – amnesty; Is America dependent on illegal immigration? And, is it true that illegal aliens perform jobs “that no American will do?” But, for now, the overriding question is, Why have the politicians been so anxious to ignore the phenomenon of illegal immigration? And, what are the prospects that a lasting solution will be fashioned to resolve this problem?

First, I am not optimistic about a meaningful long-term solution being developed by the President or Congress. The reason for my pessimism is that the motivation behind their involvement in this issue is almost totally political. To be candid, most of those involved in the negotiations view the challenge as one of controlling the political damage that might ensue if they were to fail to address the issue instead of genuinely resolving the matter. Illegal immigration has become a complex and nuanced issue, the solution to which requires a genuine commitment to controlling our borders, dealing realistically with those who have lived in our nation – even if illegally – for a long period, and reassuring the American people that what they regard as “American culture” will not be destroyed by illegal immigrants. I am not convinced that the President or Congress have that commitment.

Where’s the Action?

This leads to the question: Why have the politicians become so reluctant to confront this matter? We would do well to remember that George W. Bush has been consistently soft on illegal immigration. Bush always points with pride to his friendship with Mexican President Vicente Fox – and there is certainly nothing wrong with that, provided that he does not allow his friendship to cloud his perspective about this issue. I fear that it has. Bush opposed Proposition 187 and distanced himself from Pete Wilson, often making the claim that measures such as 187 were damaging to Republicans and were misguided.

Even now, as President of the United States, and no longer governor of Texas, Bush portrays illegal aliens as mere “human beings” in search of a better life for their families, doing jobs that Americans won’t do. Bush only rarely seems to acknowledge that the “rule of law” is being violated by illegal immigration; he states without question the claim that illegals are essentially indispensable to the American economy; and he offers securing the border only as a trade-off for a guest worker program and providing illegals with a path to “earn citizenship.”

In Congress, while a handful of Republican members in the House have fought consistently for tough border controls, they have been (and probably still are) in the minority. It is highly doubtful that a majority of members in the House and Senate are sufficiently committed to resolving this dilemma. There are two underlying reasons for their lack of resolve. First, the Republican Party finds itself in what it considers a “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t” circumstance. If it doesn’t solve this problem, its political base might be eroded. On the other hand, if it does get tough about illegal immigration, there is the fear that the GOP – as the party that controls the Congress – will alienate itself from the growing Latino vote and consign itself to a long-term future of hostility between itself and Latinos, especially those of Mexican descent. Thus, the commitment to solve the problem is extremely squishy.

Of equal influence in the illegal immigration equation is the expressed need for low-skilled workers on the part of employers, particularly in the agriculture, construction and hospitality industries. These industries have become hooked on illegals and engage in vigorous lobbying to ensure that their supply of illegals remains intact.

In view of these factors, it would be highly imprudent for anyone to hold his breath waiting for the politicians to provide the American people with a lasting solution to the problem of illegal immigration.