LOS ANGELES — WITH California still bogged down in its worst recession since the Great Depression, the state is wrestling with the problem of immigration as during no other time in a decade.
The issue has keyed debates here over a declining education system, financially strapped city and state services, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Immigration also promises to be central in the 1994 California gubernatorial race.
When Gov. Pete Wilson (R) saw his statewide approval ratings rise significantly in August, the improvement was largely attributed to his campaign against what the governor described as the $3 billion drag by immigrants on state services.
Using that figure in national advertisements and several speeches, Governor Wilson called on President Clinton to ``repeal the perverse incentives that now exist for people to emigrate to this country illegally.''
While the figure was criticized as exaggerated by pro-immigration forces, a major new study released last week claims the governor's estimate of the costs of illegal aliens was actually conservative.
The study, conducted by Don Huddle, a nationally recognized Rice University economist who has been researching the issue since 1981, concludes that immigration costs the state around $5.1 billion annually.
All told, the 7.4 million legal and illegal immigrants who have settled in California since 1970 cost taxpayers $18 billion more than they paid in taxes, Dr. Huddle asserts. With about 40 percent of all immigrants to the United States coming to the Golden State, Huddle says, ``The costs to California are unprecedented and growing.''
Wilson, busy with fire-related emergencies in southern California, has not yet commented on the study findings. But his spokeswoman, Beth Miller, says: ``Whether the costs of illegals are $3 billion or $5 billion, the study is further evidence that the costs of illegal immigration are out of control.''
Because Huddle's report was commissioned by a new coalition of environmentalists and population-control advocates led by the Carrying Capacity Network, the findings have been immediately criticized by several immigrant-rights groups.
``We question his methodology, because it doesn't look at the economic contributions of immigrants,'' says Angelo Aucheta, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. ``[Huddle's] main approach is the drain on tax revenues and government spending without taking into account the effect of low-immigrant labor on costs of goods and services, [immigrants'] creation of small businesses, and the effect of immigrant demand as consumers.''
Not surprisingly, groups that want to close the border defend Huddle's findings.
``Huddle's figures on the effects of job displacement may be high because of California's long recession,'' says Daniel Stein, executive director of Federation for American Immigration Reform. ``But his assumptions on welfare, entitlements, and tax payments are all plausible. California taxpayers are taking it on the chin.''
The question now is whether Huddle's findings will lead to legislative action. The state Assembly and Senate are considering dozens of measures to constrict immigration and cut off benefits to immigrants already here.
``There has been a great deal of attention paid to the issue of illegal immigration this summer,'' says Ric Oberlink, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization. ``This is entirely appropriate. We must now translate this rhetoric into meaningful, effective measures to stem the flow.''
But Lucas Guttentag, director of the Immigrant Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, counters that such arguments scapegoat immigrants for the state's woes.
Anti-immigrant forces, he argues, ``ignore the other numerous reasons for California's current problems - local recession, the end of the cold war, the housing crisis.''