The issue of immigration is neither a new one, nor a simple one.
Throughout its history, America has been a magnet for, as Emma Lazarus wrote, the tired, the poor the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." At times we have welcomed them with open arms, while at other times we gave them the back of our hand.
We welcomed the Chinese to the West Coast to help build our railroads, then oppressed and even murdered them just because they were Chinese.
We passed laws to sharply minimize the number of refugees who could enter our nation escaping Eastern Europe's death camps at the end of World War II, but welcomed the English fleeing the Luftwaffe's bombs.
If there is one thing we can pride ourselves on our immigration policy, it's our consistent inconsistency.
It's easy to have a dialogue with yourself about the immigration issue:
-They're called illegal aliens because they're in our country illegally. If we don't enforce the laws against these people, the concept of being a nation of laws, not people, becomes meaningless. Or:
They're called undocumented workers because they perform work we can't accomplish competitively and cost-effectively otherwise
-We've learned from 9/11 that our porous borders make it easy for those who wish to destroy us to enter the U.S. We have to guard against that. Or:
No Latin immigrants have ever been brought to court charged with attempting an attack against the U.S.
-Kids should be in school, not marching on the freeways carrying the flag of another nation. Or:
It's wonderful how young people in Los Angeles are taking part in this political issue, getting involved in the democratic process.
-Robert Frost wrote that "good fences make good neighbors." Or:
Building a 700-mile fence across our border with Mexico makes NO SENSEnbrenner.
There are 10-12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Los Angeles County has somewhere in the neighborhood of one million such people. By far, the vast majority of them come here seeking economic opportunity and better lives.
The only real solution is for the nations to the south of us to enjoy economic prosperity, so that their citizens need not face desert heat, Border Patrol sweeps and other dangers to come here. But that is not likely to happen for a long time, if ever. Third World economies do not become economic successes within a few years.
The business community is as conflicted as are our elected officials in Washington over this issue.
To some, particularly those in agriculture, the building trades and the hospitality industry, where the availability of a plentiful, low-cost labor force is necessary for the very existence of the enterprise, the concept of guest worker cards or other means of keeping their labor pool plentiful is appealing, while criminalizing or deporting illegals is anathema.
To those businesses that rely on low-cost labor, including but not limited to, undocumented workers, their fear of prosecution under some of the pending legislation is real, and more than just slightly troubling. Should one of the proposed bills pass, they would have the choice of hiring illegal aliens to continue to operate their firms while looking out for those enforcing the new law, or facing economic difficulty or worse by paying higher wages demanded by those who could prove legal residency or citizenship. Truly a Catch-22.
In other areas, such as health care and education, there is evidence that many of those lacking insurance and who are otherwise unable to pay for services, and are overburdening the system, are undocumented persons from Latin nations, most of whom don't pay the taxes necessary to provide these services.
And, of course, this dialogue cannot be engaged in without acknowledging its potential racial overtones. Many of those in the Latino business community, a growing force in Los Angeles, view the issue in ethnic, as well as economic, terms. Perhaps immigration should join politics and religion as a triad of subjects that should enter the Pantheon of topics to be discussed in a gingerly manner.
Do we have statistically persuasive research from respected sources that tell us definitively whether illegal aliens are benefiting or hurting our economy overall? No.
No one should be surprised that the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, VICA, and other business organizations have not entered into the fray on this issue. In most cases, boards of directors, largely composed of professionals and managers representing manufacturing, entertainment and mostly white-collar-oriented organizations, govern them. The immigration issue is not a burning one to these individuals, and therefore is not one to the organizations that they lead.
Riding downtown's office tower elevators these days doesn't provide snippets of conversations regarding immigration; the conversations are more likely to be about the need for a more pro-business attitude on the part of City Hall and Sacramento lawmakers, our region's transportation woes, or the sudden collapse of the UCLA Bruins against Florida in the NCAA basketball finals.
One thing is certain, as the state with by far the largest number of undocumented aliens in its workforce, California's businesses will gain/lose the most from new legislation and is sure to be impacted in ways no one can predict.
Immigration reform is sure to put the Law of Unintended Consequences into play for California business.
Immigration is one issue where business does not speak with a single voice and perhaps that's a good thing.
*Martin M. Cooper, is a former chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association and is a partner at Cooper Beavers Inc., an Encino-based public relations company.
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