FORUM -- Politicos eager to debate the issue of undocumented workers

On a very warm morning last Friday, about 15 people in town for Pacific University's reunion weekend took the time to tackle a sizzling topic: immigration.

In all its forms and for all its complexities, immigration is a hot-button issue across the country right now.

Those who showed up for 'American Borders: The Immigrant and Immigration Policy,' a forum led by two Pacific professors and a local police chief, wanted to learn.

Some were eager to weigh in.

For nearly two hours, they joined a national discussion that has polarized those who openly welcome immigrants and those who see them as a drain on America's education system, its social and health services agencies and the recovering job market.

'For 35 years we essentially had an open border,' said Michael Adams, a 1962 Pacific graduate who lives in southern California. 'When 911 happened, the government shut it down.'

Russ Dondero, professor emeritus of politics and government, moderated the event, held in Marsh Hall. He was joined at the table by Alfonso Lopez-Vasquez, director of community partnerships and an assistant professor of education, and Hillsboro Police Chief Ron Louie.

For Adams, who works as an advocate for the American Association of Retired Persons in San Diego, the question of undocumented workers coming across the border from Mexico is mostly a matter of politics.

'The politicians are going to push the immigration issue into the 2008 presidential election,' said Adams. 'We are not discussing our deficits.

'We need to address education and our near-bankrupt economy. The poor and the elderly also need our attention.'

While those topics languish and people continue to argue, Adams said, many would-be immigrants die in the California, Arizona and Texas deserts during desperate attempts to reach America.

'It gets to be 109 to 115 degrees out there in the summer,' Adams pointed out.

A million a year

About a million migrants enter the U.S. every year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the public remains largely divided about whether immigration is good or bad for America.

Despite the ideological schism, government officials estimate there are between 11 and 12 million undocumented workers living here now, Lopez-Vasquez said.

'This is a cross-cultural conflict that has no easy resolution,' he said. A sociologist/educator, Lopez-Vasquez was 10 when his father moved the family to Oregon from Mexico.

He insisted that Mexican and Latin American laborers 'have become the replacement for black (slave) labor in this country.'

In post-World War II America, he said, GIs returning from conflict pursued their educations while 'cheap Mexican labor' kept the homeland farm economy going.

At that time, Lopez-Vasquez said, 'the borders became very open, and very selectively open.'

Dondero, the grandson of Italian immigrants from Sicily, said that it wasn't until 1991 that Pacific University hired its first Latino worker, a man he met at Centro Cultural in Cornelius.

'He's been here ever since as part of our grounds crew,' Dondero said. 'The Latino community is arriving at middle class status in Washington County after 20 to 30 years as migrant workers who have raised their families here.'

Immigration likely will become 'a major issue' in the Oregon governor's race this fall, the panelists agreed.

'There are a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around out there,' said Lopez-Vasquez. 'It's a divisive thing.'

While the candidates duke it out over whether the federal government should redefine immigration rules, scores of undocumented workers continue to live and work under the radar.

'What we should look for is a proximate solution to an impossible problem,' Dondero said. 'That's exactly what this is.'

To some degree, he noted, 'we are all blended Americans' - and the split in the Republican Party over President George W. Bush's proposed immigration policy is a metaphor for a star-crossed cultural landscape.

Calling the border an 'artificial artifact of history,' Dondero said the Democrats would 'probably take a much less clear, much more benign approach to the issue' as general election races heat up in the months ahead.

Bush wants National Guard troops to shore up the U.S.-Mexican border while his three-tiered policy on migrant labor has a chance to take hold.

The U.S. Senate is wrestling with a Bush plan that calls for temporary work visas for migrants who have been in the country fewer than five years. Those who have lived here between five and 10 years and whose taxes are paid up can apply for future citizenship, Dondero said.

'All the others are simply gone - goodbye.'

Ask but don't tell

However, any law, new or old, probably won't supersede the existing 'don't ask, don't tell' climate for farm and nursery owners and their migrant workers.

'If I'm an owner and I want to recruit laborers, I should be documenting them,' Dondero said. 'There's some responsibility on the part of the employer and the employee.

'Right now we ask, but we don't check - so it's not working.'

Finding ways to 'routinize and regularize' the process could help, said Dondero.

Louie, a Chinese American whose law enforcement career spans 33 years, prefers the term 'undocumented worker' to the more derogatory 'illegal alien.'

A frequent speaker in Pacific's Ethics and Public Policy program, Louie said he views immigration as an opportunity for workers to contribute to American society by boosting its struggling economy.

'When I see immigration happening, I get happy,' said Louie. 'In Hillsboro, we take these bright little kids - the Latino boys and Latina girls - and put them in programs where they build robots out of Legos. They're our future engineers.'

Sealing the border would cut the heart out of agriculturally oriented industries that proliferate throughout the county, he added.

'It would be devastating to close the border, and it won't happen,' Louie said. 'The bottom line is, you can't do that. Administratively, it's not possible.

'We don't have the workforce to replace the vacuum that would be created by the migrants' absence.'

While previous immigration policies 'stank' of racism, Lopez-Vasquez said, Americans involved in today's dialogue have a chance to 'do it better this time.'

People from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Spanish-speaking countries, anxious for a better life, will continue to flee to the U.S.

If they make it across the border, they'll be hoping for some sort of asylum.

'It used to be that people claimed political and religious persecution in their own countries,' said Dondero. 'Now the reason du jour is economic persecution.

'Why do we make a distinction?' he asked. 'I think there's a lot of hypocrisy on this issue.'

Alumnus David Qualls, who graduated from Pacific in 1956, worried about an 'underground economy' fed by undocumented workers.

Landscapers and housekeepers who are often paid in cash 'place a burden on our basic services' by avoiding taxation, said Qualls, who lives in Gresham.

'If they're not paying income tax on money they receive but they're still using our hospitals to have their babies in, that's a problem,' he said.

An Oregon sales tax could provide at least part of the answer, said Dondero. That way, he said 'people who are taking their money in cash are paying tax of some sort.'

Lopez-Vasquez shunned the money discussion and took a more we-are-the-world tack.

'What if we started to look at the people we think of as part of the problem as part of the solution?' he asked. 'Immigration will continue to be a reality and a necessity in this country.'

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