Will the question of what to do about illegal immigration turn America's black and Hispanic minorities, now members of the so-called "rainbow coalition," into bitter political opponents? If you had asked me that question a month ago, I might have guessed "yes," based on what everybody knows: that blacks, fearing a threat to their opportunity for starting-level jobs, support effective measures for restricting illegal immigration from Latin America, while Hispanics, fearing that those efforts could sanction a sort of anti-brown racism, are girding to fight the restrictions.
I'm not so sure now. A recent poll suggests that what everybody knows may not be true. It's true enough that, at the leadership level, blacks and browns are on opposite sides of the question--particularly, for instance, with regard to the employer sanctions contained in the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. But among the non-leaders, the poll--billed as "the most comprehensive ever taken on the attitudes of Hispanic and black Americans on U.S. immigration issues"--reveals a surprising, almost startling, agreement.
Both groups see a need for greater immigration controls. Both believe that fewer legal immigrants should be admitted. Both believe that illegal immigration hurts job opportunities for U.S. citizens. And both favor, by substantial margins, proposals to curb illegal immigration by increasing border patrols and by penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants. That last comes as a particular surprise. The major Hispanic rights groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, are on record as opposing the Simpson-Mazzoli bill because of its provision for employer sanctions. But according to the poll conducted by the V. Lance Tarance and Peter D. Hart organizations, Hispanics support the sanctions by nearly 2 to 1. Sixty-six percent of both black and Hispanic citizens favor the sanctions. (Hispanic noncitizens oppose the sanctions by a margin of 55 to 38.)
The results of the survey, which was commissioned by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, suggest a degree of realism in the land that makes substantial reform a real possibility. One element of that realism is the understanding that new waves of poor immigrants, legal or otherwise, do indeed threaten the economic security of the low-income citizens already here. Another element, perhaps more important, is the recognition that America today is a very different place from what it was when it earned its sobriquet as a "nation of immigrants," a boundless haven for the world's tired, poor, huddled masses. As Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm recently put it, "America the empty contintent" has been replaced by "an America of limits: of gasoline shortages, resource restraints, inflation, unemployment and slow economic growth."
It remains, nonetheless, the most attractive country in the world--which is why immigration is such a major problem, and also why we have to devise pragmatic, effective and fair ways of dealing with it. Enacting the Simpson-Mazzoli bill would be a good place to start.