As I See It: By Cynthia Tucker

If Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano becomes secretary of Homeland Security next year, she'll need to scramble to secure the nation's southern border. Not from terrorists, but from illegal immigrants.

Since the construction industry began hemorrhaging jobs last year, many undocumented workers who helped to build houses, condominiums and office complexes have returned to their native countries. Since they could no longer find work, they left. That's among the reasons that illegal immigration was barely mentioned in the general election campaign.

But President-elect Barack Obama has promised a vast jobs program that will prove tempting to laborers in neighboring countries. And the surest way to wreck Obama's economic recovery plans would be to allow illegal immigrants to take the government-funded jobs intended for Americans.

Even without that added controversy, the civic fabric will become increasingly frayed as the economy grows worse. Whenever people feel threatened or insecure, they retreat to tribal alliances — each ethnic group looking with suspicion on others. That's a primal instinct likely to produce friction in a country as diverse as this. If that instinct is fueled by the presence of illegal workers, scapegoating will explode into savagery.

As Napolitano works to tighten the borders, she will be swimming against a current that has swept Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and other immigrants into this country's labor pool — a current supercharged by lax border security, cheating employers and, yes, choosy Americans who don't like manual labor.

Back when the economy was better, many skilled workers — painters, bricklayers, plumbers — complained that their jobs were being taken by cheaper laborers. There was undoubtedly some truth to that. Many construction bosses and highway paving contractors were eager to use low-cost laborers who wouldn't complain about substandard working conditions. That's why so many of the construction accidents that were frequent during the boom years involved workers with names like Ramirez and Valdez, men who wouldn't be likely to complain to federal safety regulators (if they survived).

However, it's also true that native-born workers have grown accustomed to indoor jobs that don't require backbreaking labor in frigid cold, pouring rain or hellish heat. While our grandparents and parents accepted whatever jobs they could find — digging ditches, planting and harvesting crops, painting houses, pushing wheelbarrows — my generation has believed in an upward mobility that left that sort of work to immigrants.

In December 2006, when construction was still a go-go industry, NBC's Tom Brokaw interviewed Mark Gould, owner of a small Colorado construction company, for a special report on illegal immigration. Gould told Brokaw that he wanted to hire legally, but he struggled to find enough workers for his growing business.

"We are turning down proposals, requests for proposals, every week because we don't have the employees," Gould said.

He also insisted his employees were fairly compensated.

"If you're giving the guy 14 or 15 bucks an hour, (if) you're paying him overtime, you're paying him 50 hours a week, and he's bringing home 7-800 bucks. He is not one of those abused guys," Gould said. But not many Americans wanted those jobs, he told Brokaw.

Perhaps an economy in free fall will spur Americans to take dirty and difficult jobs they wouldn't have considered before. Perhaps the job market has grown so dire and the bills piled up so high that unemployed Americans will take whatever work they can get.

But loose borders could leave those legal workers in stiff competition with illegal labor. Private contractors (who will probably be awarded government contracts for infrastructure development) would likely choose cheaper and more docile workers, putting illegal immigrants at the front of the employment line.

Napolitano should issue a warning to employers about illegal hiring, making it clear that those who hire undocumented workers will face prison. The Bush administration didn't do much of that, given its reluctance to alienate business interests. But there are only three ways to control illegal workers: Keep them out, which we haven't done; have a lousy economy, which we don't want; or prosecute employers who hire them.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.