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Wednesday, February 4, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ruben Navarrette Jr. / Syndicated columnist

America's mixed messages to foreigners at the gate

DALLAS — Those Americans who crusade against illegal immigration often say they want to send the people of other countries a message: Come legally, or don't come at all.

The word isn't getting through. One reason could be that illegal immigrants — especially those from Mexico and the rest of Latin America — get tons of messages from the United States, and most are mixed.

I recently heard Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a vocal opponent of illegal immigration, express concern that too many immigrants no longer seem interested in becoming U.S. citizens and involving themselves in the political process.

Just a few weeks earlier, I watched talk show host Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, another vocal foe of illegal immigration, express a different concern — that too many immigrants might become U.S. citizens and involve themselves in the political process.

So what is it that folks are really worried about — that immigrants won't become an active part of our society, or that they will and in the process change that society?

Mixed messages are nothing new, and they start even before the immigrants get to the United States.

The fences and border guards say: Stay out. If you don't come legally, you're not welcome.

But once they get here, most immigrants — even the illegal kind — never lack for jobs in the United States. The willingness of American employers to hire the undocumented and the desire of some politicians to give employers new batches of guest workers all say: Come right in. We're glad to have you. Tell your friends.

Then there is the thorny issue of language. English-only laws and the popularity of fire-breathing politicians who push linguistic homogeneity send the message: In the United States, we speak English and we demand the same of you. Don't expect us to cater to you in your native tongue.

But bilingual education, bilingual ballots and our willingness to translate everything from government documents to menus at fast-food restaurants tell people: Don't bother learning English. Keep your native language.

Demands that immigrants blend into their surroundings, and the way that many Americans cling to the fantasy that earlier waves of newcomers shed their culture when they arrived on these shores, sends the message: You must assimilate! You have to change your ways and adapt to the ways of your new country.

Yet the efficiency with which many U.S. businesses — eager to get their share of more than $600 billion in annual spending by Latino consumers — helped build the multibillion-dollar industry of Spanish-language billboards, newspapers, radio and television says: You can come to this country and feel like you never left your own. What's important is that you buy our products.

And of course, voters in various states are always threatening to deprive illegal immigrants of education, health care and other services, as if to say: You don't deserve anything. After all, you shouldn't even be here.

Yet illegal immigrants still pay their fair share of taxes — sales, property, municipal, payroll and even (for those who want to become legal residents) federal income tax. That the tax collector isn't so choosy about who pays the tax sends the message: If you want to live here — and consume goods here — legal or not, you'll have to pay up.

It's politically fashionable for Americans and those politicians who pander to them to beat their chests and demand that we get tough on illegal immigration.

As I have written many times, I'm all for it — as long as we begin by cracking down on the root cause: the employers without whom there would be no illegal immigration.

But being tough isn't enough. Americans also have to be crystal clear. First, they have to be clear in their own minds that they're prepared to live without the conveniences, bargain prices and higher standard of living afforded them by a ready abundance of cheap labor.

And then they have to be clear in what they communicate to immigrants themselves. After all, Americans want the people of the world to respect their authority and not question their resolve when it comes to protecting U.S. borders. That's hard to do without first being consistent, credible and clear.

Got the message?

Ruben Navarrette's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is rnavarrette@dallasnews.com

Copyright 2004, The Dallas Morning News

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