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Proposed Texas law to immigrants: Keep out ... or clean my house

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr. says many in U.S. oppose illegal immigration, but they like the cheap labor
  • He says law proposed by Texas lawmaker is a tortured attempt to have it both ways
  • Navarrette says law has penalties for hiring unless it's for domestic work in private homes
  • Navarrette: Americans ignore that immigrants work harder in low-wage jobs than we do
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego (CNN) -- A lot of Americans don't like illegal immigration. But what they like even less is the idea of having to live without the labor provided by illegal immigrants.

There you have the great contradiction that lies at the heart of the U.S. immigration debate -- one that must be confronted and reconciled if it is ever going to be resolved.

Speaking of solutions, I heard a whopper a while back. I had just given a speech to a group of retirees in a well-to-do town near San Diego. After complaining that Mexican immigrants were hurting the quality of life and changing the culture, a woman suggested a high-speed rail that could, every morning, carry men and women from Tijuana, Mexico, 20 miles into San Diego County, where they would work as nannies, housekeepers and gardeners in wealthy neighborhoods before boarding the train at dusk to head back into Mexico.

It was a goofy and obscene idea. But I was glad to hear it because it illustrates clearly how some Americans see Mexico as a giant temp agency that exists to make their lives easier.

Now, a Texas state representative offers more clarity. Republican Debbie Riddle has proposed a bill that creates harsh punishments for those who hire illegal immigrants. House Bill 1202 calls for up to two years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.

So far, so good. We'll never stop illegal immigration until we start tackling it at the root by going after U.S. employers.

But wait. There's a loophole in Riddle's bill: The person doing the hiring has to be acting "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly." That's too many adverbs for me. You'll note that hiring an illegal immigrant is already a federal offense under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, but one of the reasons that the law's employer sanctions are rarely enforced is because -- under the statute -- an employer has to act "knowingly," and that's hard for a prosecutor to prove.

So, for 25 years, employers caught red-handed hiring illegal immigrants have claimed not to know what they were doing.

And, in the provision of Riddle's proposal that is causing the most outrage, there is also an odd exemption: The person hiring an illegal immigrant is in the clear if he or she is doing so "for the purpose of obtaining labor or other work to be performed exclusively or primarily at a single-family residence."

Come again? So people who own businesses -- restaurants, homeowners, hotels, farms, construction firms, etc -- can't hire illegal immigrants, but homeowners, housewives or soccer dads can hire as many as they like.

Why the exemption? Riddle has said it's only fair since -- unlike businesses -- homeowners don't have access to E-Verify, the controversial U.S. government-run database that supposedly helps employers determine whether prospective employees are legally eligible to work in the United States.

But even some Texas Republicans insist there is another reason: reality. One of them told CNN that if the law passed without the exemption, "a large segment of the Texas population would end up in prison."

And why is that? It's because America is addicted to the same illegal immigrants about whom Americans love to complain.

It's as if the United States has two neon signs on the U.S.-Mexico border: "Keep Out" and "Help Wanted." Americans can't decide what they want to protect more -- the border or their standard of living. Usually, the latter wins out.

Our national schizophrenia must be awfully confusing to the immigrants themselves. At the border, they see walls, agents, floodlights and barbed wire. But an hour's drive north, as they wait in front of a neighborhood big-box store, they see a much different sight -- homeowners and soccer moms rushing to the curb to pick up two or three of them at a time to do the kind of household chores that our teenagers used to do before the precious little darlings discovered they were the center of the universe and too good to dirty their hands with such tasks.

That reminds me. Let's have a word about illegal immigrant labor. The myth persists that the only reason Americans hire illegal immigrants is because the undocumented will work for lower wages than American workers demand to do the same jobs. It's a popular narrative because it makes U.S. natives seem almost noble, as if they won't let themselves be exploited.

But, in truth, it's only half the reason that illegal immigrants are in such great demand in the United States. There is also the little-discussed fact that they're dependable and work hard, qualities that many Americans have unfortunately long since abandoned.

Talk to the friend of mine in Austin, Texas, who needed to hire a few guys to build a fence. He called three or four handymen who either never got back to him or promised to show up but didn't. And then he settled on immigrant labor. Don't ask him if the workers were undocumented. I don't think he knows because, like millions of Americans, he doesn't want to know.

Now, a bill in the Texas Legislature makes it plain that lawmakers don't want to know either.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.