Tamperproof ID Cards? Bush Must Be Dreaming

When the President gave his little immigration speech, he wanted his listeners to be clear on one point: Americans speak English, and if you don’t speak English, you aren’t an American.

“I believe that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should … learn English,” he said and then, in case you didn’t get it: “Americans are bound together by our shared ideals, an appreciation of our history, respect for the flag we fly, and an ability to speak and write the English language. English is also the key to unlocking the opportunity of America. English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery … from cleaning offices to running offices … from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career and a home of their own.”

We do not know how many uninvited guests we have, and we have even less of a grasp of how many do not speak English. But if a walk around many American communities is any guide, the numbers are very large. Regardless of exactly how many millions cannot speak the language of Chaucer, Milton, Swift and Snoop Doggy Dogg, there’s a contradiction in what the President says that he evidently does not see or does not wish to discuss in public.

Most of us well-established Anglophones have no particular interest in Mexicans getting diplomas, careers and homes of their own; we’re interested in their cheap labor. An important reason for their labor being cheap is that they cannot speak English. They are isolated and apart from the larger English-speaking labor market. They are less able or not able to get what’s coming to them under the labor laws, both because they are illegals and because they can’t speak the local lingo. Once they can speak English, they are immediately less tractable—so, fancy talk aside, it’s not in the interest of those who benefit from the low wages paid the non-English-speaking workers to teach them anything.

But what price cheap labor? Implicit in the President’s remarks is the fear of a large body of non-English speakers harboring other loyalties, other beliefs and, conceivably, other political objectives than those of the here-first Americans. It’s a puzzle: If they learn English and integrate, they will charge what everybody else charges for their labor, but if they remain apart, working for scraps and scrapings, they will remain distant, somewhat mysterious and possibly even dangerous.

In many jurisdictions, English classes are available for immigrants, the legal ones at least. Even where illegals are welcome, it stands to reason that few of the estimated 11 million have the time and energy to attend classes.

In the mid-1930’s, The New Yorker ran a series of stories about “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N,” an immigrant attending an English class for immigrants. The stories were funny, warmhearted, entertainingly human and, though fiction, tell us much about a time when immigration was down to a trickle and was all legal, and when both the receiving society and the entrants were on the same page. The newcomers were non-threatening, suitably humble and devoid of the truculent squawkishness of the immigrant-rights professionals now crowding our television screens.

That was then and this is now. Then, there was no job too poorly paid for native-born Americans to do. They’d pick your apples for 75 cents a day and split your kindling for a sandwich and a glass of water. Young people didn’t go to school aiming to be filmmakers, publicists or Wall Street thieves. Cheap native labor abounded; Mexicans were not needed.

It is safe to say that the American appetite for cheap labor won’t be slaked in the near future and that the illegals won’t learn much English. There’s no will for that—and if there were, where are the teachers to come from? Our schools are hard-pressed to find competent teachers for American children, much less for foreign adults.

Another major point in the President’s speech that will not happen: He said employers should be held accountable when they hire illegal immigrants. That’s against the law, he noted. Therefore, he proposed “a new identification card for every legal foreign worker. This card should use biometric technology, such as digital fingerprints, to make it tamperproof.” That would leave businesses with no excuse when they were found to have hired illegals.

The President makes it sound as though businesspeople are being duped daily by wily Mexican fraudsters with fake ID cards. Whether or not the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy works in the military, it works like a charm at the employment office. Nobody is fooling anybody about anything.

As the President would have it, there’s a way around employer collusion with fake ID’s: the “tamperproof card.” That sounds good—very high-tech—and it would seem the perfect means to force employers into compliance, except for one thing: No reason exists to believe that this government can produce such a card within the next 10 years, during which time another five or six million illegals will have arrived here, doubtless breathless to learn English and study the works of John Locke.

The assertion that there can be no ID card isn’t simply the grumpy effusion of some old curmudgeon. A recent story in The New York Times notes that after investing tens of millions of dollars, the Department of Homeland Security still hasn’t been able to produce a “tamperproof identification card for airport, rail and maritime workers.”

The story goes on to describe how the identification-card program has meandered off into zombie-land, thanks to Harold Rogers, a grafting Kentucky Republican Congressman who owns the Homeland Security Department budget. In a contest between homeland security and free vacations, golf outings and jobs for his relatives, the Congressman sold out his country’s safety. His indifference to making sure that saboteurs don’t infiltrate the nation’s transportation network may be based on his assumption that no Scotch-Irish Presbyterians died on 9/11, but we do not know that for a fact.

Other factors in the Department of Homeland Security have made their contribution toward the card program’s failure. In the end, the lesson is that once again, the federal government didn’t get the job done. If it cannot provide tamperproof identification cards for some 300,000 to 400,000 transportation workers, how in Sam Hill is it going to make and distribute tamperproof cards for millions of non-English-speaking persons whom it knows nothing about? It will not happen. It will never be.

People such as Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, who are most determined to stop immigrants from entering illegally are counting on the card system to do what border patrols cannot. Their hope is that with tamperproof cards, employers aren’t going to take on illegals and will let those whom they now have working for them go. It’s logical, but there will be no card, Congressman.

Graft, boodle, special pleading and nepotism—all the things we look down on the Russians and Egyptians for—decimated the American war effort even before the first fires at Ground Zero were put out. For going on five years, our public figures (and this goes for the Democrats, too) have talked sacrifice and enriched themselves. The lack of urgency, the floating along, the flaccid taking care of No. 1 first, has made a marvelous background contrast to the patriotic persiflage that is the staple of our politics.

One thing we can do: petition the President to appoint a commission to study whether or not the tamperproof card should be Spanish-English or English only. Once we get that worked out, there’s no telling what we can do.