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Looking the other way on immigration policy

Like any other big-city mayor, New York's Michael Bloomberg wants to crack down on lawbreakers, depending on which laws they break.

In that spirit, Bloomberg gave a big Bronx cheer to the amendment recently passed by the House to take away millions in federal law enforcement funds from local authorities that fail to step up their immigration enforcement.

Whadya-tawkin-about?, da Mare said.

The Big Apple would fall out of its economic tree, the mayor told a Senate hearing on immigration in Philadelphia, were it not for the estimated half-million illegal immigrants among the city's — million immigrants.

"Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders, our city's economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported," he testified. "The same holds true for the nation." — Credit good old-fashioned Big Apple chutzpah for Bloomberg's candor on the thorny issue of immigration, candor that is not often heard in the genteel confines of the nation's capital.

No one can say for sure whether New York's economy would collapse, but it almost certainly would be a lot more expensive, which could amount to the same thing.

If experts on both sides of the immigration divide agree on anything, it is that illegal immigrants provide a pool of cheap and eager labor, which employers cherish. So do the politicians whose campaign coffers those employers fill.

Besides the restaurants and other businesses whose costs they have helped to keep down, illegal immigrants have helped spur flower delivery, fresh produce and other small business development to revive old urban neighborhoods in New York and across America.

I don't begrudge them any of this. I only ask Mayor Bloomberg and other great civic leaders, what happens to the unemployed and underemployed Americans who are already here?

President Bush used to refer to illegal immigrants as taking "jobs Americans don't want." He more recently adjusted his rhetoric to refer more accurately to "jobs Americans are not taking." If the jobs paid more, more Americans probably would take them. But that runs the risk of reducing profits for employers or raising prices for consumers. Rather than risk a price hike in their lettuce, many Americans prefer to look the other way. The result is what I call a make-believe immigration policy of laws that few people feel bound to respect.

Ironically, the issue is one that President Bush cares passionately about, yet it is dividing his base. The president prefers a Senate bill that would allow a majority of the illegal immigrants to take a path to permanent residency and citizenship, after learning English and paying fines, fees and back taxes. The harsh House bill emphasizes enforcement and offers no provision for illegal immigrants or future guest workers.

The very fact that the hearings are being held around the country is a signal that we are probably not going to see any reconciliation of the two bills into something the president can sign this year. By the time the hearings are over, it will be fall and time for mid-term election campaigns to begin, which is a time when little of consequence happens in Congress.

Meanwhile, the burdens that our make-believe immigration policy imposes on low-wage earners, immigrant and nonimmigrant alike, continue. Their labors are devalued in a crowded labor market. The gap between highest and lowest earners continues to grow, as the real income of low-wage earners continues to stagnate.

Raising the minimum wage would help, just for starters. Raising the Earned Income Tax Credit would help more.

If reasonableness were to set in, Congress would come up with a compromise. They would strengthen border enforcement and restore some more order to our immigration laws. They would then work on helping those workers who are already here, legal and illegal, to get a decent wage and better working conditions.

That's what reasonableness might bring. At least Mayor Bloomberg is speaking with candor. He knows when our immigration policy is a joke. The rest of us are still figuring it out.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail him at cpage@tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.