Sunday, October 07, 2007

Speaking of immigration

One of the highlights of last week’s Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference was a panel discussion of the nation’s immigration problem and what should be done about it. Discussion, debate, argument—why get hung up on semantics?

And yet semantics, as the panelists noted, is often what keeps tempers burning when the topic arises in any public forum. As National Restaurant Association chairman Dick Rivera observed, a hardliner on the panel referred to “legal immigrants” but “illegal aliens.” Clearly “aliens” is a more pejorative and loaded word, applied more often to mutant invaders from space than foreign students who over-stay their visas.

Rivera was brilliant in arguing for a moderate approach to resolving the issue of illegal immigration. And, perhaps not surprisingly, he suggested the process begin with the adoption of a new glossary. A key point of contention is whether the 12 million illegal aliens estimated to be in the country right now should be forced back to their countries of origin before they can begin to seek legal residence within the United States. To do otherwise, conservatives argue, would be granting amnesty to obvious lawbreakers.

“I prefer the term ‘plea bargain,’” said Rivera. The illegals should have to pay taxes and perhaps fees or fines, rather than get away scot-free, he explained. But they should also be allowed to stay, which he defined as “being on parole.” As long as their behavior remains lawful, why not let them continue to work and live here while they seek legal residence?

It was a dash of reason and level-headedness, elements that sorely seem to be missing from the discussion of immigration, if you can even call that screaming match a discussion.

One other interesting tidbit that emerged during the panel: One expert noted that about 7 million of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants are currently working. The restaurant industry has estimated that it alone employs about 1.4 million of that illegal workforce, or 20 percent of the tally.

Clearly the “problem,” to use another loaded word, is a major one for the trade. It’s fortunate that Rivera has suggested a vocabulary that will serve the business well in its attempt to foster an actual discussion on immigration. And, thanks to that presentation at MUFSO, it’s a give-and-take that shouldn’t be alien to the trade.

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