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Confronting the immigration crisis

An ugly era ended with the interim report of the Commission on Immigration Reform and its immediate endorsement by President Clinton: nearly three decades in which immigration enthusiasts have been able to intimidate virtually all critics of America's chaotic immigration policies by alleging racism and extremism.

The so-called Jordan Commission, headed by former Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, effectively concedes the critics' case: that the system is broken and needs fixing. Its key recommendation: a sharp one-third cut in the legal influx.

At last, rational debate about U.S. immigration policy may be about to begin. For those preparing to venture into this previously forbidden territory, four pointers:

This is a government policy we're talking about. The government chooses to let some people in and keep others out. Yet many free-market types, such as Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, are still living in a dream world of open borders.

The federal government re-ignited mass immigration after a 40-year lull, wholly accidentally, through the Immigration Act of 1965. Right now, because of the perverse workings of that act, the government is in effect choosing to let in record numbers of relatively less skilled people from a handful of countries (just 15 have cornered most of the legal inflow) whose populations are racially quite different from most Americans. This is the greatest social engineering experiment in the history of the world. It is determined in every detail, albeit without discussion and often by default, by government policy.

Legal immigration is as much out of control as illegal immigration. We could have an immigration policy like Canada's, which admits potential immigrants according to their skills, fluency in the national languages, prevailing labor market conditions and so on. But we don't. Our immigration policy is inflexibly determined by statutes, which treat immigration as a sort of imitation civil right extended to a randomly selected class of foreigners _ those who already have relatives here.

The numbers are a very big deal. The Census Bureau projects that current immigration policy will drive the U.S. population up to 390-million by 2050, of whom 130-million will be post-1970 immigrants and their descendants. And that's moderate; the Census Bureau's "high series" estimate is 500-million.

This is the short answer to Armey's recent astonishing remark that he would be hard-pressed to think of a single problem that would be alleviated by cutting off immigration. Without immigration, we would not have to build so many schools _ or prisons. We could focus more resources on the Americans who are already here. And population growth is by far the most important pressure on the environment.

Immigration is simply not necessary economically. The best estimate of the current drain seems to be about $20-billion annually, not counting education expenditures. Legal immigrants are now significantly more likely than the native-born to be on welfare.

Immigration enthusiasts have long countered that there is a net benefit to the economy by virtue of the increased labor force. Lately, an unobserved consensus rejecting that theory has developed among scholars who study economic growth: Increases in labor, particularly unskilled labor, are not very important. What counts is innovation. Obviously. How else could Japan outstrip U.S. economic performance since 1955 by a factor of three without any immigration at all?

Right now, in fact, the benefit to native-born Americans from the foreign-born presence seems to be nugatory _ perhaps 0.1 percent of the gross domestic product, according to economist George Borjas at the University of California, San Diego. And that's probably wiped out by the federal loss. So America is being transformed for . . . nothing.

The Jordan Commission implicitly accepts this analysis. It recommends reducing the (relatively few) slots reserved for skilled immigration on the grounds that they are not required.

In the coming debate, immigration enthusiasts will no longer be able to get away with anecdotes about immigrant restaurateurs and computer scientists (never mentioning, of course, immigrant welfare rates and immigrant gangsters). Instead, they will have to start explaining their political motives for wanting to transform America.

Peter Brimelow is the author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster.

Special to the Los Angeles Times