THE governor of America's most immigrant-populous state has added high-octane fuel to the nationwide debate over immigration. The new category of concern: illegals.
"We must repeal the perverse incentives that now exist for people to immigrate to this country illegally," California Gov. Pete Wilson said in a widely promoted Monday press conference.
Via an open letter to the White House "on behalf of the people of California," he detailed a broad plan to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented aliens and to cut off health and education benefits as well. The plan, faxed to the White House, calls for Congress to create a legal-resident eligibility card that would be required for all legal residents seeking benefits.
The program, which also urges using the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as "a tool to secure the cooperation of the Mexican government" has also been reprinted in full-page ads in several national newspapers.
Wilson said in his statement, "it is hard not to sympathize with and even admire illegal immigrants in their struggle to come to a better life."
But Wilson cited statistics estimating 2 million of the state's 31.5 million residents are in the state illegally, costing $2.3 billion in state funds annually in services mandated by Congress or the Supreme Court.
"It is also no longer possible to ignore or accept the magnitude of [illegals'] success in achieving illegal entry ... or its costs to the American people," he said.
Critics immediately accused the governor of weighing in on the immigration question as a means of boosting his historically low approval rating in time for the 1994 election. In May, a Field Poll found only 15 percent of Californians feel Wilson is doing a good or excellent job.
Dan Schnur, the governor's chief spokesman, says the capitol offices have been inundated with calls and letters, "virtually 100 percent behind the governor's proposals." Jim Sanders, news director of KOVR-TV, says he got virtually the same response in dozens of street interviews for a program entitled, "Your Turn."
Such response is the reverse of that which Wilson received two years ago when he made an offhand remark about the cost of illegals.
"The governor was vilified in public and press alike as a bigot, racist, and immigrant basher," recalls Mr. Schnur. "But now, even his critics are muted."
A national backlash against immigration has come in recent weeks with the release of numbers showing the highest rates of immigration this century. New waves of public concern have been shored up by headlines about Chinese being smuggled into New York and California, as well as Arabs arrested in the World Trade Center Bombing.
But the plan itself still is not without its critics.
"The plan is premised on the notion that illegals come here to get health care and go on welfare," says Charles Wheeler, directing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles-based group representing immigrants. "But studies show they come here to work at subsistence jobs American's don't want ... this state is more dependent on immigrant labor than any time it its history."
Mr. Wheeler says Wilson is trying to capitalize on nativist fears as a way of scapegoating the state's other problems that are rooted in recession, crime, and a shrinking tax base.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who recently forwarded a plan to double the US border patrol budget and stiffen penalties for smuggling illegals, was also cautious about embracing the new proposals.
"The senator is withholding judgment on the idea of withholding citizenship from children of illegals," says Senator Feinstein's press secretary, Bill Chandler. "She feels it makes better sense to reinforce borders and stop the flow of illegal immigrants altogether."
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says his group is encouraged by the ideas from someone with "a bird's-eye view of the problems" but that illegal immigration represents only about "25 percent of the problem." Pointing out that keeping anyone born on US soil from achieving citizenship would require a change in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, Mr. Mehlman says, "That move is long overdue. The law's intent was to grant citizenship to freed slaves and their
children ... not to reward illegal immigration."
State Sen. Art Torres (D) of Los Angeles said the program glosses over the real problem of preventing employers from hiring illegals. "[Wilson] doesn't want to go after his friends in big business or in agriculture, because that's where the real problem is," he said.