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Originally published February 16, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified February 17, 2013 at 3:40 PM

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Immigration-reform effort gives hope, but be a little skeptical

Special to The Seattle Times

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PHOENIX — This sprawling metropolis was mile zero for much of the great migration that has left an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Only 179 miles from the border — were it not for the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, Mexico would be at the city limits — Phoenix was a major distribution hub for the human cargo that fed the construction sites, meatpacking plants, hog and poultry operations and other industries across the country.

A large number of Washington’s estimated 2010 population of 230,000 undocumented men, women and children probably passed through here, to be put on buses or to board airplanes at Sky Harbor International Airport.

As many as 250 workers died each year walking through the Arizona desert to reach jobs, literally dying for work. More were held hostage by unscrupulous smugglers demanding more money for their passage from family back in Mexico.

The local economy was heavily dependent on cheap, exploitable labor during the housing boom of the 2000s. Human subprime, if you will. More fed the tourism, housekeeping and lawn-service industries. But most just passed through, often in the hands of smugglers hired by U.S. corporations.

The uncomfortable reality is the size of the illegal population in the United States was largely a result of our appetites: For inexpensive housing and food, for better profit margins and lower labor costs on the part of the private sector. It was also a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which disrupted small farms and factories in Mexico.

However bad things could be in El Norte, the opportunities were much better than staying in Mexico.

In Phoenix, the influx added education and health costs, as well as disrupting Mexican-American barrios. But research indicated that during the 2000s, the result was still a net economic positive, even if the workers themselves often got a raw deal. They paid large proportions of their incomes in sales taxes. Many paid into Social Security with no chance to see a benefit.

The newcomers didn’t take the jobs of Anglos, but of their cousins who came a few years before.

This is why the status quo was allowed to continue, with head-fakes at enforcement but business and government largely looking the other way.

The size of the migration provoked a backlash. Arizona passed its harsh SB 1070, the “show us your papers” law. But this was mostly political theater playing on the fears of Anglos. The horror stories of beheadings were untrue. Violent crime was going down. The victims of crime were usually the illegals themselves.

Few employers were punished. That has changed the past couple of years at the federal level. But Arizona has well earned its reputation for intolerance, even though the city of Phoenix is more diverse and welcoming.

SB 1070 and its imitator laws elsewhere didn’t stop the influx. The Great Recession did, especially the housing bust. And Mexico’s economy has improved, with more jobs and a growing middle class.

Still, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 11 million undocumented aliens remain in the United States and most probably want to stay. At least 6 million are from Mexico, with no other country accounting for more than 500,000.

Now, a broad coalition of Democrats, Republicans, President Obama, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO are pushing what many see as the most promising immigration reform effort yet. It would demand a secure border, but provide a path to citizenship and a guest-worker program.

Although Arizona’s two GOP senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, are among the so-called Gang of Eight advocating the framework in the U.S. Senate, local Republican officials remain defiantly opposed to anything that smacks of ”amnesty.”

Gov. Jan Brewer, who rode SB 1070 measure to election in 2010, reiterated her opposition last week to even allowing students, who would fall under the president’s DREAM Act amnesty, to receive state driver’s licenses. And so it goes. Anti-immigration politics remains profitable here.

For all the hope nationally, I am skeptical, and not only because of grass-roots Republican opposition.

For one thing, previous measures intended to solve the problem failed. The 1986 amnesty for 3 million illegals only caused more to come. NAFTA was sold as a way to stop illegal immigration by bolstering Mexico’s economy; in fact, it sped up the movement of workers north.

The reality here was always that the border was just a line on the map. That didn’t matter as much with fewer people, when comings and goings were frequent. Now, we have a global labor market. This even though $18 billion is spent annually securing the border.

With largely open markets, globalized trade and weak unions, economic forces seek out cheap labor. This is only slightly different for the tech industry’s desire for high-skilled worker visas. The skills are higher, but the desire to capitalize on low labor costs is powerful.

Against this backdrop, U.S. citizens are living through an extended period of high unemployment, fearing a new normal of part-time jobs and work lost to robots.

In addition, the American economy is different from 1890, when it needed large supplies of immigrant labor and could accommodate low-skilled workers who could then rise steadily through a factory system.

We still need immigrants. We need their talent, drive and willingness to pay Social Security. High-skilled immigrants rack up impressive records of company creation and patents filed.

We also need new ladders up for the low-skilled. But slow growth, poorly funded schools and lack of investment in areas such as infrastructure, which would employ large numbers in construction and operating jobs, work against this.

And space doesn’t even allow a discussion of dignity or justice.

However the reform effort turns out, we have a reprieve on immigration because of the weak economy.

Just wait for the human migrations that will hit advanced nations as climate change ravages poorer countries. These will seem like the good old days.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com

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