With the Fourth of July coming up, here's a great idea: Let's round up and deport some illegal house-painters, mess up their families, scare their children and make anyone else with brown skin generally uncomfortable about being here. Let's send a clear message: The great American melting pot was swell when the resulting fondue was mostly white; now that it's turned toward brown, we're going to stop adding ingredients.
On Monday, 75 federal agents and 50 Anne Arundel County police officers conducted an early-morning raid on an Annapolis painting company and about 15 homes. The federales and police detained 45 men and women suspected of being illegal immigrants.
Suddenly we have a safer world. Many of these suspects were probably armed with putty knives, paint scrapers, rollers and brushes. It might not seem like much - 45 illegals randomly selected out of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants from sea to shining sea - but it's a good start.
John Leopold, the Republican Anne Arundel County executive, says, "Illegal means illegal in Anne Arundel County," and, literally speaking, it's impossible to argue that point. But there was a time, not long ago, when the government basically looked the other way.
Everyone knew this cheap labor force existed; no one did much about it. There was a time, when most of us, Republicans and Democrats, bragged about and celebrated the fact that so many of the world's poor and oppressed wanted to come here. In the past two decades, this whole matter has been politicized, and undocumented workers demonized, by politicians who exploit fears and prejudices.
But aside from Republican hard-liners, the reactionary talk-show crowd, the alien-obsessed and various bigots, most Americans do not see this as such a black-and-white (or brown-and-white) issue, and they do not see the vast majority of foreigners trying to make a life here as threats to the democracy. They don't see 12 million deportations as plausible or desirable.
"We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone's fears or exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain," George W. Bush said in 2006, when he proposed a common-sense compromise for the nation's illegal residents - a "path to citizenship" for those who are already here and tougher enforcement along the boarders. Of course, a bipartisan effort to get that proposal through Congress collapsed, and we still have a mess of an immigration policy.
Here's an example of how messed-up it is: While the immigration federales are out to round up illegals, there is another branch of government more than happy to take their money and share it with the rest of us.
Many Americans - I would wager, the majority of Americans - probably believe that the millions of undocumented workers are part of an underground economy that delivers no tax revenue while extracting gobs of benefits from our social services system. But most illegals pay taxes. In fact, experts believe they've paid billions in taxes and helped to shore up Social Security for the rest of us.
This explains why we don't see Internal Revenue Service agents chasing Guatemalan drywall-hangers through alleys in Baltimore.
Since 1996, foreigners have been able to obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Illegal immigrants have snapped up the vast majority of these ITINs and lined up to file tax returns in record numbers. "We have a financial literacy program, and every month we see an increase in applications for ITINs," says Kim Propeack of Casa de Maryland, the nonprofit group that supports immigrants here.
In 2001, then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan estimated that undocumented immigrants paid about $70 billion annually in taxes and received about $43 billion in government services. Revenue has grown since then. Between 2004 and 2005, the number of tax returns filed with ITINs jumped 30 percent, according to The New York Times. There was another spike in ITINs in 2006. In 2005, the Times estimated that undocumented workers contributed about $7 billion to the Social Security system. Three months ago, the trustees of the SSA noted the importance of revenue from "other than legal" workers, many of whom are young and won't be around to collect federal retirement benefits.
A Times editorial asked: "Would the people who want to deport all undocumented workers be willing to make up the difference and pay the taxes that the undocumented are currently paying?"
I asked Propeack, Casa's director of community organizing, why illegal immigrants would want to get ITINs - or even phony Social Security numbers - and pay taxes at a time when the feds are trying to round them up and deport them.
She said undocumented workers want to show a record of having paid taxes when - or if - they are allowed to apply for legal status or even citizenship. "Most [undocumented workers] hope that someday there's a program in the United States that will allow them to become citizens," Propeack says. "And they want to be able to show that they are a person of good moral character, and paying your taxes is a big part of that, one of the first things [naturalization officials] look at.
"There are some clear areas where expenses are associated with the undocumented," Propeak says. "Emergency room visits, for instance. ... K-through-12 education. But still, at the end of the day, they are ineligible for every other government program you can name. Every piece of research on this shows that [undocumented workers] are paying far more than their fair share."
They even help pay for the federal agents who raid their houses and scare their children.
Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.