LOS ANGELES — LIKE people in the rest of the nation, Californians are worried about crime, their state's economy, and the state of their schools. But as high-profile election campaigns for the governorship and a Senate seat warm up, the impact that immigration has on these problems is emerging as a dominant issue.
``Immigration keeps cropping up again and again and again,'' says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in Pomona. ``When voters look at everything they care most about, one of the first things they see is the impact of immigration.''
Taking a cue from both state and nationwide polls showing more concern about immigration than at anytime in half a century, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has been leading the charge in blaming immigration for some of the state's economic, educational, and crime problems.
``The almost $3 billion in state tax dollars we are required to spend by federal law on services for illegal immigrants is causing us to be unable to spend [on], and in some cases to cut, needed services for legal residents,'' he says.
The number of foreigners entering the US reached 1.1 million last year, the highest since 1907, and nearly 10 million have arrived over the past decade. Forty percent have come to California. Now that the state is mired in recession, and budget cuts are being forced at state, city, and county levels, voters have become highly sensitive to footing welfare bills, the competition for too few jobs, additional strain on schools caused by non-English-speaking students, and a surge in hate crimes against foreigners.
Last September, Wilson detailed a sweeping proposal - requiring changes in the US Constitution - for the federal government to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented aliens, cut off health and education benefits, and create a legal-resident eligibility card that would be required for anyone seeking such benefits. His stance resulted in the first upward blip in his historically low approval rating, and it is still rising.
Another surge has been attributed in part to Wilson's stance on holding off benefits for illegal aliens in the $8.6 billion earthquake relief package signed this week by President Clinton.
Wilson's immigration initiative was followed by several others by California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Ms. Boxer suggested putting National Guard troops on the border. Ms. Feinstein, who must defend her Senate seat this fall, proposed charging $1 for each person crossing the border, and doubling the current budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Immigration-related proposals from state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, who will likely be the Democratic frontrunner in the race for governor this fall, are based on an approach that differs from Wilson's. Whereas the governor focuses on cutting health and education benefits as a way of eliminating incentives, Brown zeroes in on jobs.
``The knowledge that employment laws are easy to get around is what brings them here illegally. That's what we've got to stop,'' Brown says. She proposes increasing penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegals, creating a tamper-proof social security card, and hiring additional federal inspectors to be financed through fines.
Because the state has been lagging far behind the nation in recovery, and been been hit hard by disasters, voters are expected to be more sensitive than usual to their own pocketbooks in the fall elections.
``No politician in the state will let [immigration] go away because they need a scapegoat for why the California budget is so far out of whack,'' says Jeffe.
Yet another budget battle looms in May, as Wilson and legislators begin their annual look for ways to trim billions. As a consequence, a November 1993 study by Rice University sociologist Don Huddle is drawing attention. The study argues 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.