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Immigration cycle: Ignore, uproar, repeat

The latest nativist backlash fits an old pattern.

By Steve Hallock

Arizona's racist and probably unconstitutional anti-immigration law has admirers in Pennsylvania.

With bipartisan backing from State Reps. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), Harry Readshaw (D., Allegheny), and others, House Bill 2479 would ape Arizona's controversial immigration law by empowering local and state police officers to arrest those who can't show that they're in the country legally. The bill would direct officers "to attempt to verify the immigration status of suspected illegal aliens."

Metcalfe told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the legislation would not allow officers to stop suspected illegal immigrants without reason. "An officer would have to have a reason for checking a suspected illegal alien's papers, such as if the alien was driving too fast, ran a red light, or was arrested for a break-in," the newspaper reported.

Welcome to the latest outbreak of the anti-immigrant fervor that has a long history in this country.

A newspaper editorial I read the other day argued that for the past 50 years, "migratory workers in the United States have been recognized as a problem, to themselves and to others."

It continued: "For the most part they were and are agricultural workers: 'following the fruit,' as the saying is in California: picking cotton; harvesting wheat; gathering perishable crops from one ocean to the other. ... They include many migrants who permanently leave their homes in search of better opportunities elsewhere, as the 'Okies' and 'Arkies' went to California during the Thirties."

The editorial is from a 1950 edition of the New York Times. It is now 60 years since its publication. It's also 109 years since the federal government first studied the migrant-worker situation and declared it a problem, 94 years since the Industrial Relations Commission published a report on the plight of migrant workers (many of them immigrants), and 60 years since President Harry Truman appointed another commission to study the situation.

The current Pennsylvania legislation coincides with President Obama's decision to send more federal troops to the border - in response, apparently, to the Arizona law, which could encourage racial profiling. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that most Americans back the Arizona law, with 48 percent saying they would support similar legislation in their state.

Much of this uprising against immigrants stems from frustration at the federal government's failure to get a handle on the problem - despite the Bush administration and Sen. John McCain's attempt at meaningful reform a few years ago. Since then, McCain has seen the light and crossed the political fence to join the get-tough movement symbolized by the Arizona law.

The latest push by anti-immigrant forces, backed by the tea-party movement, is to deny citizenship to children born of illegal immigrants in the United States - even though the 14th Amendment promises citizenship and civil rights to anybody born in this nation. So the political winds are blowing on immigration these days.

The Gulf oil spill has threatened to make immigration reform less of a priority, once again. But politicians who bend to the anti-immigration-reform winds are doing a disservice not only to this country's reputation for welcoming immigrants - who continue in the tradition of the European transplants who founded it - but also the promises of its Constitution.

The words published in that editorial of more than a half-century ago remain true today - as does the need for immigration reform that extends a welcoming hand to immigrant workers and their dependents, acknowledges their contribution to the nation's economic and social fabric, and recognizes the logic of ensuring that their children have access to education and health care.

While noting a need to restrain foreign labor from depressing wages or increasing unemployment among citizens, the Times editorial addressed the "larger task of bringing some order into this field of labor, of broadening the scope of social legislation to include it, and of trying to make its rewards comparable with its importance." That task has grown even larger and more difficult - but no less important - today.