NEW YORK CITY By Election Day, immigration will emerge as one of the most overrated issues of 2006.
That's because public controversies can't ascend to real prominence unless they feature a clear clash of ideologies and force partisans to adopt entirely different approaches to dealing with the matter.
Neither exists in the case of immigration because voters maintain a series of understandable, but inconsistent, views. Roughly 70 percent of those responding to various polls have agreed with (a) deporting illegal aliens, (b) granting them guest-worker status, (c) giving them a crack at "earned citizenship," (d) imposing major penalties on businesses that knowingly hire them and (e) assimilating them into the American culture by requiring them to know basic civics and to speak and write in passable English.
Even though more than 80 percent of respondents say the government does too little to protect the borders and more than 90 percent consider illegal immigration a serious problem, the issue does not rate among the top three concerns of Americans in any major poll.
This contradictory hash of views naturally produces a muddle when politicians start drafting legislation. The most recent rash of proposed laws pits Democrats versus Democrats, Republicans against Republicans, and both parties in opposition to each other.
Polling aside, immigration lacks traction as a great issue because it doesn't impose clearly quantifiable harms or confer clearly measurable benefits. It's certainly difficult to argue that illegals have wrecked the economy.
The most recent unemployment claims report shows that Americans are filing for unemployment at significantly low levels down 20,000 from last month. The economy has grown for 30 consecutive months, generating a net increase of 5 million jobs. It added 247,000 jobs in the most recent reporting month, and economists expect a growth rate of 4.7 percent in the year's first quarter.
Incomes have begun to grow briskly again, as have tax receipts. Manufacturing activity has jumped to 61.5 in the Institute for Supply Management index (anything above 50 indicates economic expansion) up from 54.8 in January.
The business-creation rate among Hispanic Americans has reached three times the national average, and is growing. While remittances to Mexico hit an estimated $20 billion last year (making American cash the second-largest source of Mexican income, behind oil), tax payments by illegal immigrants from Mexico to local, state and federal governments exceeded the $20 billion mark.
Since the immigration "reforms" of 1986, the number of jobs in the United States has risen a net total of 44 million. The standard of living in the nation has grown to the point that the average welfare recipient has more creature comforts (homes, computers, televisions, cars, air conditioners, etc.) than the average citizen of France.
The crime-wave argument doesn't fly, either: Nationwide crime rates have been trending downward for a decade. (Unfortunately, there are no good data to indicate whether illegal-immigrant crime has risen more rapidly than the average, but there is some sketchy evidence that overall crime rates are lower because illegals don't want to be discovered and thus risk deportation.)
As for the burden on federal resources, the issue poses a weird quandary. The most cogent fiscal argument against legalizing "undocumented" workers is that it would put an end to a scam that helps most Americans. Illegal immigrants contribute billions each year to Social Security and Medicare. If they were to become legal (and hence eligible for benefits), both programs would tumble into catastrophic bankruptcy far earlier than government accountants project.
"Supporters" of illegal immigrants have done their best to turn public opinion against illegals, but not even that has worked. The Mexican-flag-waving rallies have aroused disgust, but not xenophobia. At worst, they have created only a vague sense of menace. Whatever harm illegals may be wreaking, they are not doing it in a concerted or organized manner (with the notable exception of the MS-13 crime gang).
Despite partisans' seething passions on the issue, most of us feel baffled and torn. Immigration isn't a single issue, but a bundle that encompasses everything from border security, to welfare reform, to the necessity of supplying enough workers to keep the economy growing.
Immigration has always been a mixed blessing. It infuses the nation with industrious and idealistic new Americans, and burdens it with scoundrels, slackers and intriguers.
So don't count on any reform's working for long, if at all. The immigration issue will stalk us and frustrate us as long as we remain vibrant enough to attract the globe's big thinkers, and free enough to welcome those who want to add greater luster to the American dream.