CALIFORNIA'S RECENT anti-immigration Proposition 187 and three major pieces of federal legislation introduced last year have sent a clear message: Americans are fed up with illegal aliens taking their jobs and filling the welfare roles to receive taxpayer-funded government handouts without contributing anything in return.

Such sentiments, though they express the view of many if not most Americans, overlook some important facts.

It is true that illegal aliens are here working at jobs that Americans could do. The reality is, however, that, for the most part, illegal aliens do the work that Americans simply won't do. The overwhelming majority of illegal workers are cutting asparagus in the Columbia basin, picking and packing apples in north-central Washington or pruning fruit trees in the Yakima Valley. Illegals in Seattle, Spokane, Portland, and cities throughout California work at jobs like bussing tables in restaurants and making beds at the hotels. Most American citizens would not even consider working at those jobs. The work is hard, the pay is low and the benefits are often non-existent.

The idea that “illegals come here just to get on welfare” is just not borne out by the facts. As an attorney practicing immigration law, it has been my observation in the past 14 years that the latest wave of immigrants who have come to this country are here for the same reason my great-grandparents and yours came to this country: to work hard and make a better life for themselves and their families. Rarely do they seek government handouts. Those who choose to believe the myth of illegals coming to go on the public dole are simply misinformed.

In fact, there are many studies that indicate that illegal aliens actually are a net contributor to the economy. Notwithstanding the fact that these newcomers avail themselves of public programs-principally the public school system and health care services-the taxes they pay often exceed the benefits they obtain. Those taxes are the 8 percent paid on every cash register sale, the property taxes paid by apartment owners whose tenants may be undocumented and the Social Security and other taxes that are routinely deducted from every worker's paycheck. The notion that illegals in this country are getting a “free ride” while contributing nothing in return is just not accurate.

The facts are these: For better or worse the current situation benefits the three major groups involved. It is good for the illegal worker because it provides him steady employment and income, both of which are not available in most Third World countries. It is good for farmers, hotel owners and restaurateurs because it provides an abundant supply of reliable, low-skill, low-wage workers. Finally, the current situation is good for the American consumer, too. Whether the average American wants to believe it or not, this steady supply of low-wage labor is a major factor in keeping the cost of lodging, restaurant meals and food at the grocery store affordable for the average consumer. Americans should not forget that the percentage of their family budget which goes for food ranks among the lowest in the world.

It should also be remembered that the rate of unemployment in the United States has been almost as low the past few years as it has been for decades. By and large, people in American society who want jobs have been able to find them. And those American citizens who are still looking for work are not seeking careers as farm-workers, chambermaids or busboys.

So, why all the alien-bashing? Why the cry about the hordes of aliens inundating America? I think the Russians are to blame. For 50 years we had the Russians to fear, to demonize and to hate. But, now they've fallen on hard times. And human nature, it seems, leads us to seek out scapegoats to serve as the target of our anxieties. I believe aliens-both legal and illegal-have replaced the Russians as the new rallying point for the country's anxieties. They are an easy target for our problems.

But when Americans set out to demonize illegal immigrants they should consider this: Those “illegals aliens” are human beings just struggling to survive and to give their kids a better life than they have had themselves. Seen thus, as they are, those “illegal aliens” seem a lot like most other Americans.

Thomas Roach is an attorney based in Pasco, Wash.