Illegal immigrants: The lesson learned in California

08/18/2007 9:39 AM

08/18/2007 9:41 AM

For anyone who remembers California's immigration politics of the early 1990s, this year's national illegal-immigration furor will seem like deja vu all over again.

Once again, as in Gov. Pete Wilson's re-election campaign in 1994, Republicans (and some Democrats as well) are trying to ratchet illegal immigration into a major campaign issue for 2008.

In 1994, California's Proposition 187, which sought to deny all public services, including education, to illegal aliens, passed with 59 percent of the vote, but was quickly overturned by a federal court.

Like Proposition 187, the new state and local campaigns to deny illegals jobs and housing aim to make their life miserable enough that they'll just go away.

The pressure this year comes from the South and Midwest, places that had rarely seen a brown face, but, like California a generation ago, are now seeing them all around.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Campaign Committee is targeting some 40 swing-district congressmen, among them freshman Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton as Democrats who "go the extra mile for illegal immigrants."

To help make the case, Republicans have been attaching irrelevant or redundant anti-illegal-immigrant riders to all manner of bills in an effort to make Democrats vote no and thus look flabby on the issue.

Because CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program, allows states to set eligibility requirements, votes to extend it have been tarred as going that extra mile -- even though CHIP bars illegal immigrants from receiving health services.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration, which had pushed a combination of guest-worker programs, legalization and employer sanctions as the only real solution, is cracking down on employers of workers whose documents don't match the feds' error-riddled records.

It thus joins the hard-liners who beat the reform program that the administration backed only a couple of months ago.

Is that election-year politics to appease hard-liners? Is it an attempt to create enough backlash from employers and the communities that, like many Central Valley towns, depend on illegal workers, so that more moderate reforms will be revived? Whichever it is, coming at the same time as the imminent departure of Karl Rove, President Bush's master strategist, it's surely a sign that the long-term Bush-Rove hope of attracting the nation's growing number of Latino voters to the GOP base has been deferred and maybe abandoned.

Bush and Rove understood the stakes. In 1994, Wilson based much of his re-election campaign on his embrace of Proposition 187 and his famous "they keep coming" TV commercials. Wilson won, but the campaign set off a backlash among Latinos that, in the view of many observers, has been a major factor in reducing the GOP to a minority party in California ever since.

In the view of people such as Tony Quinn, who was a leading GOP strategist at the time, even Wilson's victory in 1994 may have benefited more from the weakness of his opponent, Treasurer Kathleen Brown, and from the big Republican tide that year -- the year Newt Gingrich's Republicans captured the House -- than from his stance on immigration.

Bush, who, as governor of Texas, cultivated Latinos and pursued good relations with Mexico, was the un-Wilson in 2000. Latinos, as he and Rove saw it, were conservative enough on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage to make many of them likely GOP voters.

Bush's effort to open the door to legalization sought to lay the groundwork for that strategy.

But for many in the GOP this year, the lesson of 1994 seems to have been forgotten. The failure of the "comprehensive" immigration bill to survive a Senate filibuster in June left the vacuum that set off that wave of state and local immigration bills.

For the most part, California seems to have gotten past the worst of its anti-immigrant fevers. We're a majority-minority state; in another 30 years we'll have a Latino majority -- assuming that the high rates of ethnic intermarriage make any accurate count still possible.

A large part of that majority -- the voters of the next generation -- will be children of illegal immigrants. We no longer notice the browning of our collective complexion. Our Latino Assembly speakers and big-city mayors are just another bunch of pols.

Here, as in so many other things, the country could learn something from us.

In trades such as construction, Americans are still being displaced and undercut by illegal immigrants. But we also seem to understand that our economy depends on immigrants, legal and illegal, and that removing those workers may drive whole industries over the border or underground and make illegal-immigrant labor still cheaper. Importing labor is better than off-shoring jobs.

There are immigration compromises that might make sense. But the attempt to drive out 12 million illegals, many of them with legal spouses and citizen children, as the hard-liners want and the feds are pretending to do, is the quick road to still more anger and frustration.

Peter Schrag is the retired editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. Write him at pschrag@sacbee.com.

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