A BACKLASH is brewing in California - the late 20th century's great melting pot - over illegal immigration, shaping a growing debate nationwide.
Spurred by concerns over the economy, voices are increasingly being raised about the porousness of the nation's southern border and the financial impact of undocumented immigrants who are already here. While critics dismiss such protests as the xenophobia and political opportunism of a small minority, which comes up every time money is tight, the issue is nevertheless bubbling on several fronts:
* At least 20 bills have been introduced in the state Legislature aimed at curbing illegal immigration. They range from deploying troops on the Mexican border to denying undocumented immigrants driver's licenses. While even proponents give the measures little chance of success, they have made immigration an emotional topic here.
* Several candidates are raising the issue in the crowded mayoral race in Los Angeles. One, Tom Houston, a former deputy mayor, blames much of the city's budget crisis and crime on illegals. The Democrat's outspoken comments have resonated with some voters - but also inspired ire in this immigrant capital.
* A network of anti-immigration activists is surfacing in towns up and down the state. Small groups have formed in such places as San Jose and Marin County north of San Francisco. But the core of the movement is in southern California.
One group in the San Fernando Valley here, Voices of Citizens Together, holds regular meetings, publishes a monthly newsletter, and intends to advertise a ranking of mayoral candidates based on their stands on the issue. "I think immigration is the critical issue to the state right now," says Glenn Spencer, the group's president. "We are exporting jobs and importing poverty."
While illegal immigrants are coming to many states, in few places does the issue stir more emotion than in California, which has the nation's most diverse populace and a long history of varying tolerances toward newcomers. Thus the din over immigrants here will help define the national mood.
The state Department of Finance estimates that undocumented immigrants comprise about 1.3 million, or 4 percent, of California's total population. It says another 100,000 are entering the state each year.
The mini-revolt in the state Legislature, led mainly by Republicans, has triggered the most-heated fight over illegal immigration. Some lawmakers want to try to put a finger directly in the dike, by allowing the governor to station the National Guard along the border to back up the United States Border Patrol.
Others are looking to halt the flow indirectly and to stop what they claim is the considerable drain of illegals on the state treasury. One bill, for instance, would deny undocumented immigrants workers' compensation benefits and access to public housing. Another measure would force hospitals to report illegals seeking state-funded health care to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
WHAT we need is for all government entities to work in concert to stop the flow of illegal immigrants," says Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy (R) of Acadia.
But opponents argue that California's economic woes are not the result of immigration and decry making newcomers a "scapegoat" for problems.
Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D) of Los Angeles, chairman of the Legislature's Latino caucus, says the bills would turn state agencies into arms of the INS. He and others argue that some of the measures are unconstitutional - such as a bill that was defeated last week seeking to bar undocumented children from public schools. And they cite studies showing that immigrants contribute more to tax rolls than to welfare rolls.
"Immigrants are here generally because they want to work, not because they're looking for a handout," says Hedy Chang of California Tomorrow, a pro-multiculturalism group.
Therein lies the crux of the debate: Do newcomers help or hurt the state financially?
One of the most widely cited studies, released in November, examined the fiscal impact of immigrants in Los Angeles County. The county-funded study found that recent entrants (legal and illegal) paid $4.3 billion in taxes to all levels of government, while they and their children consumed $947 million in services. Of the $4.3 billion paid in, though, only $139 million went to Los Angeles County, leaving local authorities with a $808 million gap.
The study has bolstered the argument of many Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike that California deserves more money from Washington to cope with immigration pressures.
Others come to different conclusions. Mr. Spencer, the activist, says that when you look at the study's numbers for just the illegal population they show a net drain on public services. Thus, he argues, the answer isn't to look to Washington but to cut off the flow across the southern border.