ongress headed back to work last week with immigration reform taking center stage. According to news reports, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter has said that Republicans and Democrats, although far apart, will eventually be able to work out their differences and pass a bill. But first they must agree on a list of amendments to be considered.
Here’s an amendment that should be a part of any version of the bill: Affirmative action on the basis of race, color, or national origin should not be available to any temporary worker–or any recent immigrant, for that matter. In other words, immigrants shouldn’t be given a preference in school admissions, public contracting, and employment on the basis of skin color or ethnicity.
After all, someone who has recently entered the country can hardly claim a right to favored treatment to make up for “historical discrimination” against him by American employers or any unit of government. He just got here.
Yet, amazingly, many recent immigrants are benefiting from our bizarre system of racial and ethnic preferences. Employment preferences present an obvious problem. A recent immigrant (or even a temporary worker) may also benefit when bidding for government contracts for which preferences are frequently awarded on the basis of race and ethnicity. Likewise, he–or a member of his family–might apply to enroll at a university where ethnic preferences are frequently awarded.
The profusion of such preferences is no far-fetched concern. The bean counters at corporations and universities–to say nothing of those in the government–use racial and ethnic preferences extensively, and make no effort to distinguish between new arrivals to this country and those who have been here for generations. Indeed, experience shows that universities are more likely to lower standards for more recent arrivals. At the University of Michigan law school a few years ago, for example, Cuban applicants were treated as “whites,” and therefore were not only ineligible for racial preferences but discriminated against, while those of Mexican ancestry were treated in just the opposite way.
It makes perfect sense that no legal or illegal immigrant–including any of the newly proposed “temporary workers,” their families, and their children–should be eligible for any form of racial or ethnic affirmative action. Unless this ban is a part of the bill the president signs, millions more people will qualify for preferences in education, contracting, and employment simply because of their national origin. It is not too much to expect any new immigrant to our country to compete for jobs, schooling, and contracts on his own qualifications and efforts, rather than skin color or national origin.
We admit we don’t like racial and ethnic preferences for anyone–recent immigrant or not. We suspect many recent immigrants, as well as those already here, would agree that banning affirmative action for them is perfectly legitimate. Polls indicate fewer and fewer Americans believe preferences are fair.
As immigration levels increase and America becomes an increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic country, the division of citizens into favored and unfavored groups becomes more polarizing and untenable. Banning preferences from any immigration-reform bill would send the message to all Americans that there needs to be less emphasis on the superficial characteristics of skin color and ancestry that separate us from one another, and more on the common qualities of character that unite us.
If Congress thinks it is unfair to single out immigrants as ineligible for racial and ethnic preferences, but cannot justify the unjustifiable use of preferences for such recent arrivals, there is an obvious solution: Ban preferences on the basis of skin color and race for anyone here, whether they came over on the Mayflower or last week. That would be the best solution.
–Edward Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.