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Critical point in relations with Mexico

Location: Unknown

We've reached what most likely is a critical point in U.S.-Mexico relations. It's important for our future prosperity and that of our neighbor that we do it right.

I support President Bush on most of the issues facing the United States today. But I have serious concerns about the direction the United States is traveling in its relations with Mexico.

Since I was elected to Congress, my primary issues have been the economy, education, health care and criminal justice. They remain my core issues. The one issue that ties them together, particularly in California, is illegal immigration. Illegal immigration alone hurts our ability to provide quality education and health care for U.S. citizens and legal residents, while depressing our economy and clogging our criminal justice system.

Much of the blame for today's problems can be traced back to 1986, when we last implemented the amnesty that was to end all illegal immigration. Once we let it be known that we would reward illegal immigration with citizenship, the flow across our borders tripled.

President Bush isn't promising citizenship. But he is rewarding illegal immigrants-including felons-for breaking our laws. Presenting forged government documents is a felony, which is what illegal immigrants must do to work in the United States. Forgiving lawlessness without penalties is amnesty and very poor policy.

Mexico's interest in perpetuating illegal immigration is easy to discern. Its economy is unable to support its citizens. Last year, Mexico received more than $14 billion from Mexicans living in the United States who sent part of their paychecks to relatives back home. That's more than Mexico earns from tourism and direct foreign investment, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. In fact, Mexico only earns more from the sale of overseas oil than it does from remittances.

At the same time, President Vicente Fox has been unable to push economic reforms through an uncooperative legislature.

We are Mexico's safety valve. And in the process, our economy and our society are forced to suffer. In California, it's to the point of economic default.

An often-stated fallacy declares that illegal immigrants take jobs that U.S. citizens don't want. More than 8 million Americans are out of work. Hotel and restaurant jobs-which used to be filled quite happily by legal U.S. residents and citizens-are now filled by illegal immigrants who are paid a pittance of what U.S. workers were paid. Construction used to be a time-honored profession passed from father to son in the United States. Did U.S. citizens all of sudden decide construction work was beneath them, or were they forced out because illegal immigrants are willing to do the work for minimum wage and no benefits?

But it's not just U.S. jobs imperiled by illegal immigration. In 2001, the latest year for which statistics are available, California and the federal government reimbursed health-care providers for $648 million worth of services extended to illegal immigrants. This is in addition to the roughly $400 million in unpaid bills illegal immigrants walked away from at California hospitals after receiving emergency care.

The burden created by illegal immigrants who use emergency rooms for primary care is so great that hospitals across the state-including in our own front yard, like Santa Paula-are closing at alarming rates. That leaves families legally in the country with nowhere to go when their families face a medical emergency.

Higher education is also impacted. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed a 10 percent in-state tuition increase for California universities and a 20 percent rise in out-of-state tuition. Yet, California allows illegal immigrants to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates. That means if a legal high school student moves out of California for a year, then returns to attend college, he will pay $14,500 a year more than an illegal student-who shouldn't be entitled to attend anyway.

The impact on our criminal justice system is just as damaging. One in seven inmates in California's state prison system is an illegal immigrant, as are more than 29 percent of inmates in federal penitentiaries.

In 1997, I authored a bill in Congress that required the screening of all inmates in Ventura County jails to determine their immigration status. In the first two years of the program, more than 60 percent of all inmates screened by the Immigration and Naturalization Service were found to be criminal aliens and were held for possible deportation. Even more telling-and alarming: About half of all criminal prosecutions in Ventura County today involve an illegal immigrant.

Instead of giving away the store, the United States should be helping Mexico to pull itself up by its bootstraps. Mexico is rich in resources-including its hard-working populace-but burdened by a corrupt government. It is not in our long-term interest, or theirs, for the United States to become the department of social services of Mexico.

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