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Who's Missing in Utah's Immigration Deal

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Someone is missing at the celebration for the Utah Compact on immigration. Who could that be?  

Latino activists, the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, the Chamber of Commerce and the state's political establishment -- they're all there, hailing the law that would let illegal immigrants pay a fine, then apply to the state for two-year work permits. In the meantime, the governor would seek a waiver for the program from the federal government.  

But there are some empty chairs at the banquet table. Who's not there? Oh, the workers aren't there. They forgot to invite Utah's workers! Now why wouldn't they seek a thumbs-up from the folks they want to replace with guest workers from Mexico?  

I can think of some reasons.  

The Utah compact states:  

"Utah is best served by a free-market philosophy that maximizes individual freedom and opportunity. We acknowledge the economic role immigrants play as workers and taxpayers. Utah's immigration policies must reaffirm our global reputation as a welcoming and business-friendly state."  

What classic bedrock conservative principles! What a big-hearted "howdy" for newcomers from foreign lands! And I thought the compact's backers were mainly fat cats trying to push through a cheap-labor deal.    

Observe their application of "a free-market philosophy" to the workforce. As it happens, the United States does not have a free market in labor -- free market, as in letting anyone from any country walk in and take a job without proper documents. That's why we have laws forbidding employers to hire illegal immigrants. If the plan is to turn America's labor market into a global free-for-all, I think we need a conversation first.  

Guest-worker advocates, writes an approving editorialist for The Wall Street Journal, believe that "the most responsible way to shrink the illegal alien population without hurting the local economy is by giving foreign nationals wider access to the state's labor markets." He calls the law's opponents "immigration restrictionists."  

Gosh, Utah is now setting up a formal partnership with the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon to grease the pipeline of foreign laborers. Native-born and otherwise documented workers, hold your tongues. You don't want to be called a "restrictionist," do you?  

Over on the left, The New York Times gushes over the "welcome contrast" Utah draws with the "xenophobic radicalism" of Arizona. Utah does avoid the serious flaw in Arizona's law -- letting police demand immigration papers from those merely suspected of being in the country illegally.  

But the Times also likes this end-run around federal laws that limit the number of immigrants that may enter this country legally -- laws designed to protect the wages and benefits of U.S. workers. How nice to treat the long-suffering low-skilled American as invisible and shroud that neglect in pious humanitarian sentiments.  

The pro-compact alliance of businesses, cheap-labor conservatives, ethnic activists and church groups resembles the powerful coalition that tried to pass the grand immigration bargain a few years ago in Washington. That legislation went down in flames because the broader public saw it as heavy on amnesty and light on enforcement of existing immigration laws.  

Make no mistake: America desperately needs immigration reform. And to work, it would have to pair an amnesty for most illegal immigrants with an airtight system to ensure that employers hire only legal workers. It would probably include a limited guest-worker program to serve the special needs of agriculture.  

But it wouldn't let employers call Mexico any time they can't find takers for the wages they're offering, however puny. And it would restore the federal government's reputation as overseer of immigration policy.    

Perhaps we can accurately call the Utah Compact "pro-immigrant and pro-business." Sadly, it's not pro-labor. But who asked the workers, anyway?  

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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