A Flip That's Flopped

Monday, November 12, 2007

AS MAYOR of New York in the 1990s, when undocumented immigrants were pouring into the city, Rudolph W. Giuliani extolled their contributions to the Big Apple's burgeoning economy, forbade city workers from denying them social services and benefits, bent over backward to help them navigate the path toward citizenship, and grasped the plain fact that they would never be deported en masse. As the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Giuliani has gradually purged such ideas from his campaign rhetoric, stressing instead his plans to erect a "technological fence" to secure the nation's borders, end illegal immigration, and monitor the comings and goings of "every noncitizen" in the country by means of tamper-proof, biometrically savvy ID cards.

He has gradually deemphasized all discussion of eventual citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country to such a degree that when he mentions it at all, it's practically an afterthought, expressed obliquely. And he whispers not a word about the fact that the nation's employers and economic growth have come to depend on an annual influx of 500,000 or so workers, who, owing to a political impasse in Washington, are denied any legal means of entering the country.

Mr. Giuliani, himself the grandson of Italian immigrants, clearly understands the value of newcomers to this country in more than boilerplate terms. Until shortly before the immigration debate crested last spring, he spoke reasonably of the conditions by which the undocumented population might eventually be granted legal status -- paying a penalty, going to the back of the line, paying back taxes, mastering English and grasping American history. Setting the question in moral terms, he often said that fair treatment for illegal immigrants was a matter of decency. Nowadays, when he talks of illegal immigration, he frames it almost exclusively in terms of national security and terrorism.

That may dovetail neatly with his strategy of appealing to Republican primary voters and portraying himself as a security expert. But it is not a serious policy. Hiring more border patrol agents and adopting more high-tech gadgetry may impede the flow of immigrants over the border, but 40 percent of illegal immigrants enter the country legally. And it is fanciful to imagine that illegal immigration can be stamped out given the inadequacy of legal channels for low-skilled workers to enter the country, the absence of penalties for employers who hire them and the reality of an integrated labor market.

In the spring, Mr. Giuliani was quick to condemn the Senate bill that offered hope that the country could forge a workable policy on immigration. One hopes that if he becomes the Republican nominee, he will reach for broader support on the issue by reviving the common sense and compassion he once displayed.

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