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Originally published Friday, June 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

A pragmatic approach to illegal immigration

Sometimes you hear a discussion or debate in which the participants seem to be getting nowhere, don't understand the subject and can't see...

Special to The Times

Sometimes you hear a discussion or debate in which the participants seem to be getting nowhere, don't understand the subject and can't see the obvious. A prime example of this is the illegal-immigration controversy, and the folks making lots of noise are on conservative talk radio.

The conversations on the subject usually revolve around two main themes: The president has sold out his conservative base, and he is ignoring national security by allowing illegal aliens to swarm over the border. Tune in to any of the far-right talk shows, and you can hear variations on these two themes just about any day of the week.

About the only thing they're ever right about on this contentious subject is that if the U.S. government wanted to do something about illegal immigration, it could.

The truth, of course, is that the government doesn't want to do anything about it — and for good reason.

Our somewhat lax and paradoxical border policy is driven by something very basic: money and economics.

A decade ago, there was a big fuss in California when some concerned citizens decided that the illegal immigrants in their state were a big strain on the budget, and were draining billions of dollars from education and health care. The logic went that if the illegal aliens were stopped from sending their kids to school, and using free medicine, the state would save lots of money that it could then spend on its legal citizens.

An interesting thing happened next. Someone else did a follow-up study, and found that what the state saved in economic costs from the use of migrant labor in agriculture was over three times what it cost in health care and education to those same workers. In other words, illegal aliens were not costing the state a thing, but were instead saving the state tens of billions of dollars a year — and, at the same time, were keeping California's agricultural industry competitive with the rest of the world. The big fuss quietly went away and nothing much changed in California.

The right way to look at illegal immigration is with a pragmatic eye. Simple questions need to be asked: Are Americans willing to pay $4 instead of $1 for a head of lettuce? Do we really want to shore up the borders and then watch inflation grow rapidly? The big owners of agribusiness know the answer to these questions, as do the politicians they support.

So we're stuck with this silly issue that won't go away, and with people who talk tough, but really wouldn't want the situation to change if they realized what the true costs to our economy and society would be.

I think I'd even go one step further and speculate that not only do people in high places understand this issue very well, they've probably got it worked out so that the illegal immigration that is happening is happening in just the right amounts.

Consider how our Southern border is currently monitored: The Border Patrol stays close to the big cities and population centers, then thins out in rural areas and the desert. A coincidence? Doubtful. This policy effectively weeds out the weak and makes the trip tough enough that it discourages families and small children (bad for the U.S. economy), and makes the difficult passage overland a journey that mostly young males would be willing to risk (good for the U.S. economy).

In essence, you have a system that encourages the most desirable illegal immigrants, and discourages the rest. Americans then get the best of both worlds: cheap labor to do the backbreaking work that most in this society wouldn't want to do, and a competitive price for fresh fruits, vegetables and many other things dependent on manual labor.

As a bonus, if the "illegals" cause trouble, they can be deported without enjoying any of the rights a U.S. citizen would enjoy. It's really a pretty simple (if somewhat cynical) deal. And this president knows it, as do all the big ranchers, fruit farmers, grocers and restaurant owners who support him.

What's more, it would appear obvious, looking at recent history, that several presidents before George W. Bush figured out the same thing. To care about national security is to often make compromises. In this case, the angry voice of conservatives in his own party is the price this president pays for continuing a policy that, while difficult to actually articulate, really makes quite good sense.

Greg James of Seattle is the CEO of Topics Entertainment, a Washington-based software company. He majored in international studies at the University of Washington, with a focus on Latin America.

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