Ruben Navarrette: Getting it wrong on immigrants

SAN DIEGO – Next year, when folks are looking for a grand marshal for a Labor Day parade, they should skip Rep. Lou Barletta.

The Republican congressman is also the former mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, who grabbed headlines in 2006 when he led efforts, later ruled unconstitutional, to deny permits to employers who hire illegal immigrants, fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, and declare English the official language of the city.

Barletta doesn’t seem to have much respect for American workers. Not when he is portraying them as being at the mercy of lowly illegal immigrants who threaten their livelihoods.

The congressman’s solution is to challenge President Barack Obama’s executive action to delay some deportations. The way Barletta sees it, the dirty, dangerous and dead-end jobs done by illegal immigrants are the rightful property of the American workers who avoid this sort of employment.

Listen to what Barletta said recently when Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Obama’s executive action.

“Mr. Secretary, some people say that our economic security is national security,” Barletta said. “Nearly 20 million Americans woke up this morning, either unemployed or underemployed. Now the president didn’t mention these Americans when he announced his plan to grant de facto amnesty and work permits to up to 5 million illegal immigrants. He didn’t discuss the competition this would create for them. Or the impact it would have on their pocketbooks.”

He went on:

“I don’t think it’s fair, especially around the holidays, to put illegal immigrants ahead of the American worker. Secretary Johnson, the president keeps saying that his executive action will boost the economy. So tell me, how will adding at least 5 million new competitors to the workforce make it easier for the unemployed Americans to find a job?”

First of all, who promised Americans that government was going to help them find a job? I’ve had dozens of jobs in my lifetime, and not one of them was ever located for me by the government. I had to find them on my own. And even now, when jobs aren’t always available, I do what millions of other Americans do every day – create my own opportunities.

Next, this whole idea of seeing illegal immigrants as “competitors” with U.S. workers is insulting. If you’re a U.S. citizen who speaks English and you grew up with the right to a free education and other advantages that come from living in a free society full of opportunity, and you suddenly find yourself competing for a job with an illegal immigrant with a sixth-grade education who doesn’t speak the language and can be deported at any time, and you’re on the ropes and losing the fight, you shouldn’t be rescued. You should be embarrassed.

And who said anything about “adding” people to the workforce? Does Barletta really think that those illegal immigrants who might benefit temporarily from Obama’s executive action aren’t already on the job? If so, he needs to get out more. Remember, as the mayor of Hazleton, Barletta went after employers who hired illegal immigrants. Now that he’s in Washington, he doesn’t think anyone is still hiring?

Johnson lives in the real world. This is how he responded to Barletta:

“Congressman, the fact is, as I’m sure you know, that we have lots of undocumented in this country working off the books. And if that’s not apparent, then I suggest you spend some time in a restaurant here in the Washington, D.C., area and see it for yourself. What we want to do is encourage those people to get on the books.”

Johnson is right. These people are already working. And they’re more vulnerable to being exploited now than they would be if they had a work permit. If fear-mongers like Barletta are worried that U.S. workers are at an unfair disadvantage when competing with illegal immigrants, they should wise up and realize that the disadvantage will endure as long as the immigrants remain undocumented.

The goal – for Republicans and Democrats alike – should be to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Then, workers would be on the same level playing field, making the competition fairer. If they really want to show respect for the American worker, that’s a good start.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is