Washington Post, May 3, 2000, Page A23

2000 The Washington Post Company

Ignoring Immigration

By Robert J. Samuelson

The Elian Gonzalez case reminds us, in a curious and unintended way, of the great forgotten issue of the 2000 presidential campaign--immigration. It is forgotten because hardly anyone seriously discusses it, certainly not Al Gore or George Bush. It is an issue because, more than most of what they are discussing, immigration will shape America in the 21st century.

The Census Bureau issued a long report the other day ("Profile of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 1997") that catalogs immigration's already immense effects:

* In 1997, almost 10 percent of the population was foreign-born, double the level of 1970 (4.7 percent) and the highest since 1930 (11.6 percent).

* Today's immigrants come mainly from Latin America (51 percent in 1997) and Asia (27 percent), a huge change from 1970, when most came from Europe (62 percent) and Canada (9 percent).

* Although some immigrants do well, many do not. For households headed by immigrants, the poverty rate among children under 18 (32 percent) in 1997 was almost twice as high as among households headed by native-born Americans (18 percent).

* A smaller proportion of immigrants are citizens. In 1997, about 35 percent were, down from about two-thirds in 1970.

* Of today's immigrants (25.8 million in 1997), about half have congregated in five metropolitan areas--Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County (4.8 million); New York-New Jersey-Connecticut (4.6 million); Miami-Fort Lauderdale (1.4 million); San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose (1.4 million); and Chicago-Gary-Kenosha (1.1 million).

The Elian Gonzalez controversy has taught--if nothing else--that immigration issues quickly become inflamed. Social statistics are drab and impersonal. Each immigrant's story is unique and, often, intensely moving. What is one person's glorious "multiculturalism" is another's abrasive social conflict. The whole issue is a thicket of ethnic, racial, national and ethical passions. This almost certainly means that the hard questions won't be asked in the campaign, even though the next president can--at least in theory--influence immigration policy.

The hardest questions are these: Are we getting the "right kind" of immigrants? Can we do anything about it?

In "Heaven's Door" George Borjas--a Harvard economist who immigrated to the United States from Cuba at age 12 with his mother--argues that present immigration policy courts disaster. It tends to result in poor, unskilled immigrants. Poorer immigrants, he says, assimilate slowly into the larger society. They tend to cluster in ethnic ghettos. They are heavy users of government services. The United States would be better off, Borjas contends, favoring better-educated immigrants.

Borjas's message has a common-sense appeal. Don't stop immigration--but be more selective. To some extent, the Census Bureau report corroborates his portrait of immigrants. They have lower earnings than native-born Americans: 25 percent lower for men, 14 percent for women. About 20 percent of people without private or government health insurance are immigrants. About 25 percent of immigrants receive some sort of income-related federal assistance, from food stamps to Medicaid.

There's also a connection with an aging America. Baby boomers feel entitled to government benefits, mainly Social Security and Medicare. On the one hand, immigration should make it easier for the country to pay for these benefits. It increases the number of workers and taxpayers. On the other hand, many of these workers--and their families--may be poor and in need of their own government benefits. There could be a collision between the needy young and the expectant old.

Canada has a point system that gives preference to better-educated immigrants. Borjas is suggesting something like this for the United States. Though this is a reasonable proposal, it is unlikely to be debated. To discuss immigration in anything but the blandest terms is to risk sounding like a bigot. In practice, Borjas's plan would discriminate against Hispanics. More than 25 percent of today's immigrants are from Mexico; they are among the poorest and least skilled. They would suffer under any plan promoting skills-based immigration.

Both Bush and Gore are pursuing Hispanic votes. Neither wants to sound like Pat Buchanan. Even Borjas concedes that his proposal is easily dismissed as "racist." Practical and ethical issues also loom. Can we better police our borders to limit illegal immigration? Then there's the present policy on legal immigration. It gives preferences to family members--the children, spouses, parents and siblings of U.S. citizens or "permanent residents" (holders of "green cards"). Everyone favors some family preferences. It's simple humanity. But how far should they go? There are real conflicts between uniting families and favoring skilled immigrants.

We evade choices. High-tech companies are now clamoring for more software programmers and computer specialists who they say can't be found in the United States. The response has been to raise the number of visas allowed under the H-1B program, which permits foreigners temporarily to fill vacancies. The number of H-1B visas was raised from 65,000 to 115,000 for 1999 and 2000--and now there are congressional proposals to raise it to 200,000 annually. The visas typically last six years; but many of these workers want to remain permanently. Estimates by B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University show that immigration quotas can't accommodate all of them.

America has a huge social and economic capacity to absorb newcomers; but that capacity is not unlimited. As long as immigration quotas exist, questions of who and how many are unavoidable. By 2025, the Census Bureau projects immigrants to be 12 percent of the population; their American-born children will probably represent an equal number. That's one-quarter of the population. Perhaps it is naive to expect presidential candidates to address an issue fraught with political hazards, ethical ambiguities and uncertain social consequences. But if this isn't about the future, what would be?