CALIFORNIA Gov. Pete Wilson is a durable politician. In 25 years he has moved from state assemblyman to mayor of San Diego, United States senator, and governor. As mayor for a dozen years, Mr. Wilson saw the tide of immigrants, legal and illegal, sweep into his city.
Now the governor wants the federal government to plug a number of holes in what he considers to be a too-liberal immigration and naturalization process:
* Repeal federal programs that make health care, education, and other social benefits available to illegal immigrants.
* Provide more money and personnel for the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (How many times has this plea been acted upon, to little apparent effect?)
* Do away with the policy that grants citizenship to children born in the US to parents who are illegal immigrants, which would require changes in the 14th Amendment.
Wilson sent these and other proposals to President Clinton in an "open letter" that also was placed in magazine advertisements. He said: "It's time to amend the Constitution so that citizenship belongs only to the children of legal residents of the United States, not to every child whose mother can make it to an American hospital."
This tack evoked instant, negative responses from civil libertarians. Some critics note that Wilson, presiding over a big, rich state that has run into some major economic and social problems lately, is seeking re-election next year and may see the immigration issue as a means for deflecting voter dissatisfaction.
Perhaps. But it doesn't take demagoguery to make people in states such as Florida, New York, Illinois, New Mexico, and Texas uneasy about the steady influx of illegal immigrants. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, some 300,000 illegal aliens filter into the US each year; about half wind up in California.
Wilson's motives and reelection possibilities aside, illegal immigration is a national problem that should concern all Americans. At the end of July, Mr. Clinton proposed a $172.5 million immigration-law enforcement program. But it fails to deal with the underlying issues that Wilson emphasized. The melting pot still holds a lot of promise for those seeking better lives. Somewhere between Wilson's ideas and Clinton's plan, a way must be found to ensure that this promise can be fulfilled in a controlled, humane, and legal manner.