From the ‘back of the line’ to the front

Much of what politicians do is a total waste of time, and is of little interest to the typical citizen. The debate about immigration “reform” does not fit such a description. In fact, this debate – the outcome of which will affect the lives of virtually all Americans in one way or another for the rest of the life of our nation – is probably one of the most important debates the Congress will have in most of our lifetimes.

Over the past two or three years, there is no issue that has stirred as much passion as illegal immigration. For Californians, Texans, as well as residents of Arizona and other border states, the consequences of illegal immigration are nothing new. We have been living for decades with the problems that other Americans are only now beginning to experience.

The constant plea of my friend and former California governor Pete Wilson for the federal government to take appropriate action to control the border fell on deaf ears as the “feds” looked the other way. In fact, Pete was often characterized as “anti-Latino” for even suggesting there was a problem. As we now look at all the dimensions – health care, law enforcement, public welfare costs, cultural assimilation – of the illegal immigration issue, no rational being can deny that Pete Wilson has been vindicated.

I knew then – as I know now – that Pete was not “anti-Latino” in any sense of that phrase. He simply realized, as any governor should have, that unbridled illegal immigration presented a host of problems that were beyond the capacity of California to solve. State government was hemorrhaging red ink, prison rolls were swelling, hospitals were bulging with patients needing emergency care, local governments were complaining about rapidly escalating costs – and all of these problems were traceable, to one extent or another, to illegal immigration.

Now, the attention of the nation is focused on what to do about immigration in general and illegal immigration in particular. This is commendable. Personally, I support comprehensive immigration reform. But, it has to be truly “comprehensive”; it has to be real “reform,” and it has to be a solution and not a placebo to political forces.

For many years, our nation has also debated the merits of race preferences (“affirmative action”). This debate has been conducted in our legislatures, our courts, our schools, our communities, and at the ballot box.

Some regard the illegal immigration issue and that of race preferences as unrelated topics. They are not. Immigration – whether legal or illegal – and race preferences cannot be considered in isolation. Under existing laws and policies, the majority of immigrants coming to America will automatically be eligible for race preferences and privileges not provided to the great majority of Americans. This is because those who are classified as “black,” “Latino,” or “Hispanic” will be “underrepresented minorities” and therefore targeted beneficiaries of preferences in public hiring, public contracting, and college admissions.

As voters in California, Washington, and Michigan made clear in their overwhelming support of ballot measures banning government-mandated racial preferences – and as voters in five other states (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma) will have the opportunity to prove again in November, 2008 – the American people strongly oppose the idea that our government should treat any of us differently based on race, ethnicity, sex or national origin. They understand that while preferences were aimed at giving a helping hand to those who had historically suffered discrimination, in practice such policies have served above all to compound injustice, needlessly breeding resentment by systematically privileging some Americans over others. Yet, immigrants cannot even claim to be victims of the historical discrimination that “affirmative action” was designed to redress.

It is essential that any new immigration legislation not perpetuate, indeed not exacerbate, these injustices. Any new legislation should include carefully drafted provisions to ensure that the new immigrants and their children not be afforded any special privileges that put existing Americans, including minority Americans who have suffered actual discrimination in the past, at a disadvantage.

Regardless of one’s position about the appropriate solution to illegal immigration, there should be consensus that each individual should be judged on his or her merits. While immigrants and their descendants should be afforded the right to compete fairly and freely in every aspect of American life, they should receive no special benefits on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity or national origin.

Ours is a nation dedicated to the proposition that all of us should be treated as equals under the law. Those who seek to join the American family should be treated accordingly. No individual or group of individuals should bring to our land an expectation for a future entitlement to preferential treatment – and under no circumstances should we grant it.