GOP demonization of illegals distorts real immigration picture

GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, left, and Rick Perry debate illegal immigration in Las Vegas Tuesday.

THE ILLEGAL immigrants who dragged mowers and hedge clippers onto the lawn of Mitt Romney’s Belmont estate, working long days under an exploitative boss before moving down the street to do the same thing at his son Tagg Romney’s home, are at least closer to the real issue than other illegal-immigrant fantasies presented during last week’s Republican presidential debate.

Often working as gardeners and maids for sub-minimum wages, the vast majority of illegal immigrants do jobs most Americans don’t want. But there are some unemployed people who might benefit from such jobs, if employers were to provide anything close to a living wage. Illegal immigration is a problem that must not be a permanent fixture of the economy. Rich people like Romney should acknowledge some culpability for hiring cheap contractors without asking any questions. They, and everyone else, should do what they can to expose the problem and push Congress toward a comprehensive solution.

But the wild-eyed demonization of illegal immigration as the source of grievous harm to average Americans is a travesty for which the entire Republican field bears some responsibility. It distorts reality in order to provide a scapegoat for larger economic ills. It’s ugly, unfair, and fuels prejudices. Just as previous generations of Republican presidential candidates inveighed against welfare while feigning outrage that anyone thought they might be scapegoating blacks, this year’s field has conveniently landed on a Hispanic target.


“For every household of an American citizen, it costs us $1,000 a year,’’ thundered Michele Bachmann, spewing a bevy of unsourced statistics. “We are robbing the household of Americans who can’t afford that.’’

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

This issue also gives Rick Santorum a chance to righteously invoke his own immigrant ancestors who played by the rules - without noting that, until the 1920s, there really weren’t many rules. It allows almost the whole field to lash out at Texas Governor Rick Perry for creating the “magnet’’ of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants attending Texas universities, as if raising tuition would dissuade Mexicans from risking their lives to cross the Rio Grande.

Then there’s Perry himself, an abuse victim becoming an abuser, who rages about the federal government’s failure to secure the border, though the number of guards has risen sharply and crime in most areas has declined. And then Romney comes back with a wild claim that 40 percent of the new jobs in Texas are going to illegal immigrants.

Extrapolating such outrageous statistics from dubious studies has a real cost. It fans distrust of Hispanics. It makes a real solution to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country much more difficult, because a guest-worker program - the only way to flush people out of the shadows - isn’t sufficiently punitive to satisfy voters who are whipped into a frenzy.

Even more significantly, it distorts the overall picture of immigration, creating a climate in which the government limits legal immigration. The loss of skilled workers and entrepreneurs from other countries — bona fide job creators — is not only a missed opportunity for America, but a boon for its competitors.


Romney, it must be said, didn’t know at first that his gardening contractor was using illegal labor. Then, he thought the firm had stopped. When he discovered it hadn’t, he stopped using it. This isn’t an especially serious offense. To Romney, the criticism he’s getting probably feels overblown, alarmist, unfair, and depressingly political. But then, that’s also how the rest of the country should regard the entire Halloween-like “debate’’ over illegal immigration among the Republican candidates — including Romney. ¿Qué pasa, governor?