A Borderline Proposal

LIKE many of its border-state counterparts, California is struggling to deal with the budget impact of providing social services to illegal immigrants. For the Golden State, the cost of providing such services has been estimated to range from $3 billion to $5 billion a year, out of a roughly $100 billion budget.

Backers of an initiative-petition drive called Save Our State hope to reduce that figure substantially; their plan would prevent illegal immigrants from attending public schools and would deny them access to non-emergency public health services and care.

In addition, the measure would mandate that teachers, social-service workers, and police report any ``apparent illegal immigrants'' with whom they come in contact.

Frustration with Washington's inability to adequately enforce immigration laws is understandable. Moreover, some studies indicate that California attracts more low-skilled migrants with lower earning capacity than do other states. But this measure is not the answer.

The main ``benefit'' that draws illegal immigrants is a job, or at least the prospect of one. Public education and health care don't offset the dissuasive effect of standing on a street corner waiting for a day job that never comes. This has been the experience of many of California's illegal immigrants lately, given the state's sluggish recovery and an overall unemployment rate between 8 and 10 percent. The lack of work and, ironically, high crime rates are prompting some illegals to return home - particularly those with children.

Denying all but emergency medical care to illegals may be more expensive in the long run, given the high cost of emergency treatment. And the US Supreme Court held in 1982 that the denial of education benefits to illegal immigrants was unconstitutional; the ruling marked the first time that the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause was extended to ``anyone, citizen or stranger,'' regardless of immigration status.

Moreover, the requirement that teachers, social workers, and police report ``apparent illegal aliens'' is a recipe for harassment and discrimination against citizens or legal residents who happen to have a particular complexion or hair color.

US immigration laws must be enforced. But frustration over lack of enforcement, poor economic performance, and tight state budgets should not be allowed to give rise to laws that fail the ``equal protection'' test.

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