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Let the Workers Come

Our immigrant governor stunned Californians last week by praising the work of the Minutemen, an armed citizens' group patrolling the U.S.- Mexican border in Arizona. "They've done a terrific job," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared during an interview Thursday on a right-wing Los Angeles radio talk show. "They have cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants by a huge percentage."

Those remarks came barely a week after Schwarzenegger bellowed in a policy speech to scores of newspaper publishers at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel: "Close the borders. Close the borders in California, and all across Mexico and the United States."

Even though the governor later modified his statement -- he meant "secure the borders," he explained -- Schwarzenegger is still pursuing a flawed policy, however politically expedient he thinks cracking down on illegal immigration may be. Plenty of Americans openly advocate closing the border. Witness the so-called Minutemen camped out on the Arizona border this month, adventurers (President Bush called them "vigilantes") trying to scare Mexicans from coming north across the desert.

An immediate step toward solving the tragic chaos on our southern border is just the opposite: Open the border to Mexicans who wish to come north. Trouble is, try as we have -- whether it be with the official Border Patrol or the concerned citizen playing self-appointed soldier -- we can't shut down the economic-driven migration of Mexicans. And we shouldn't try. Almost any determined Mexican who wishes to come north manages to make the trip; the federal government estimates that a million do so annually. Along the way, many are victimized by harsh desert conditions, thieving smugglers and violent bandits. But the U.S. laws against crossing the international border without proper documentation don't stop them. That's because they know they will find work in el Norte. They need the jobs and we need the workers.

Anyone who takes even a casual look at the border crisis quickly realizes our immigration policy regarding Mexicans is a fraud. Because we require workers, we offer them jobs. Laws against employing undocumented workers are barely enforced. A Border Patrol that can't stop the Mexican march north doesn't maintain the troop strength to bust down business doors and inspect green cards, especially businesses owned by generous contributors to Washington politicians. Honest employers are at a disadvantage, too, because of the sophisticated nationwide trade in counterfeit documents.

Even if the policing manpower were available, the government doesn't have the political stomach to use the military to seal the border. The result is an out-of-control no-man's-land, with our cooks and gardeners, our maids and nannies literally running across the desert to their jobs.

The governor is correct: This wide-open border does pose a national security threat. We do not know who is hiding in the shadows of the Mexicans coming north to work. But instead of following Schwarzenegger's call to close the borders, we should regularize the traffic of Mexicans who wish to come north to work. Invite them to pass through border checkpoints with no restrictions other than registering. With this simple change in policy, we will at least know who is coming north legally. And if we know who and how many actually are joining us here, the government can plan for their assimilation. We'll be in an improved position to provide adequate schooling and health care. Ignorant and ill immigrants serve no one.

But more important, with this policy of an open border for Mexicans, we will give the Border Patrol a chance to stop the marauders we do not want in our country: the terrorists and drug traffickers, the known common criminals and people smugglers. Right now, despite record numbers in uniform, the Border Patrol cannot secure our southern border because the sheer number of Mexicans coming north overwhelms them and their sophisticated tracking equipment. If you remove the Mexican workers from the hordes illegally pushing north each night, if those Mexicans are passing unimpeded through official border stations, then the ratio of Border Patrol officers to truly illegal migrants vastly improves in favor of the cops. They will be able to stop the border crossers we do not want in our midst.

With the United States open to those Mexicans that the U.S. economy wants and needs, the Border Patrol will know that the people trying to break into this country -- the ones in the tunnels, running across the desert and jumping fences -- are the real villains.

Of course, this solution isn't perfect. Some Mexicans who are criminals will take advantage of the policy change and migrate with the workers, just as they do now. Central Americans and others who wish to come to the United States to work will be discriminated against by this favorable opportunity for Mexicans. But there is an argument to be made that because of our shared border and history, Mexicans constitute a special immigration category deserving first consideration.

We should, however, forget the fair-play aspect of this solution. For selfish reasons alone, it makes sense: We get the workers we need and we create a more secure post-Sept. 11 border.

This piece originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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