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Alien Invasion

Immigration, politics and panic

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Over the last several months, Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez has brought illegal immigration to the forefront of public awareness in the Treasure Valley with numbers like these: of Idaho's current population (about 1.3 million), Vasquez estimates that 34,000 are illegal immigrants. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services), estimates the illegal immigrant population of Idaho to be 19,000-either way, aliens comprise between one and a half and two and a half percent of Idaho's population. That statistic, combined with a recent comic-book/pamphlet published by the Mexican government instructing people on how to illegally cross the border into the U.S. and elude immigration officials, precipitated the Canyon County Commissioners' drafting of their infamous "Emergency Declaration" and the topic shot into the spotlight, not to mention controversy.

On January 12, Canyon County Commissioners, led by Commissioner Vasquez, released the "Emergency Declaration" in response to the Mexican government's Guia Para El Migrante Mexicano ("Guide For The Mexican Migrant"). In it, they call for Governor Kempthorne to declare Canyon County an emergency disaster area so that the Commissioners might "prepare a defense for our American citizens trapped behind the lines of this unarmed Mexican invasion of the United States of America." Public reaction was swift and highly polarized as evidenced by editorials and letters to the editor in local news publications. Commissioner Vasquez also quickly garnered national attention, appearing on the Fox News program Hannity & Colmes to talk about the Declaration.

Vasquez's objection to illegal immigration reduces to a few key issues: crime, disease and welfare. When asked by BW about the purpose of the Emergency Declaration, Vasquez maintained a twofold intent. In the short term, he said, the Declaration is intended bring money into Canyon County to cover expenses incurred by the presence of illegal immigrants. He pointed to recent tuberculosis and syphilis outbreaks in the county, welfare benefits absorbed by illegal immigrants and most notably, criminal prosecution costs-for instance, in the letter to Kempthorne, the Commissioners note that 17 percent of arrestees in Canyon County from 2002 to 2004 claimed non-U.S. citizenship. He also pointed to "cultural issues," particularly language barriers and the resultant accommodations required of public agencies. But the principal point, according to Vasquez, is to bring attention to all of these problems and thus ultimately combat them. Tighten the borders and stop illegal immigration (and avoid granting worker amnesty a la Senator Larry Craig's AgJOBS Act), and the money stops hemorrhaging.

Vasquez paints a picture of illegal immigrants as a dangerous, costly and mushrooming network, but it is questionable whether the content of his position or the alarmist manner in which he says it has raised more hackles. To his critics, Vasquez replied: "I was elected to do a job, not toady up to the powers that be. I truly believe that I am serving the best interests of my constituents, those American citizens who have a right and a vote and who elected me." Critics often find Vasquez's use of inflammatory language most objectionable-phrases like "imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury or loss of life or property" or "invasion by armed or unarmed illegal aliens."

In interviews and press releases, Vasquez has described illegal immigration as a calculated, menacing cultural threat. When questioned, though, Vasquez said his language is not designed to be provocative: "I express myself eloquently and articulately, albeit strongly." Regarding charges of racism, Vasquez says, "the only color involved is green."

Beyond the exceptionally strident articulation of his perspective, Vasquez is not unique in his position on illegal immigration. On January 27, Alan Tonelson of the United States Business and Industry Council out of Washington, D.C., was hosted by the Boise Council on Foreign Relations to give a talk on the "often-overlooked relationship between immigration and trade policy." Tonelson, whose recent book is titled The Race to the Bottom: Why A Global Worker Surplus and Uncontrolled Free Trade are Sinking American Living, said there is much concern today about immigration flows but not as much about trade policy.

Tonelson's take on immigration issues focused primarily on economic impacts. He observed that proponents of free trade are often anti-immigration, and proponents of wider immigration are often anti-free trade. A mistake, he says; immigration and trade are two sides of the same coin and problems in either sphere affect the other. When asked about the pamphlet that piqued Commissioner Vasquez, Tonelson remarked that it is widely known that the Mexican government strongly supports more immigration into U.S., as immigration provides a needed safety valve to a Mexican economy unable to produce the jobs needed to employ all its workers. The U.S. gets the overflow, Tonelson continued, and illegal immigrants entrench and inevitably tax the system.

In the end, however, even legal immigration is not immune from the central arguments against illegal immigration-satellite to Vasquez's position and central to Tonelson's. Vasquez's stated contention is against illegal immigration. But when asked by BW: Supposed immigrants are rigorously screened for criminal history and infectious disease; suppose the welfare system is nonexistent; do we then remove immigration caps? Vasquez's answer: No, because there will be a negative economic impact on the job market.

Tonelson's organization also endorses quota cuts on legal immigration flows, as a national security issue living in a post-9/11 world, but mainly for labor reasons. Trade agreements, Tonelson says, are designed to foster closer integration of the U.S. economy with other economies, which involves not just trade flows but flows of people. By integrating countries economically we can't leave workers out of the equation, because influxes of qualified workers (both legal and illegal) increase the labor pool and cut wages.

Surprisingly, some of the most extreme spouting of anti-immigration sentiments can be found in our own BW, via syndicated columns by liberal columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall. Earlier this month, Rall, in a column entitled "Legal, Safe and Common" (BW, Jan. 26, 2005), argued to seal U.S. borders in order to keep out "economic migrants, terrorists and others with unknown motives." Rall states that "workers' illegal status makes them vulnerable to exploitation, [so] employers create jobs for them to take-while eliminating better jobs for Americans." Thus, he suggests, our borders are not only porous, but purposely so.

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