Confronting California's Immigration Issue

In a Monitor interview, Gov. Pete Wilson talks about what's behind his proposals to deny social benefits to illegal aliens

THE number of foreigners entering the United States last year reached 1.1 million, the highest since 1907. Nearly 10 million have arrived over the past decade. Since 1970, immigrants have cost all levels of government $45 billion per year more than what they paid in taxes, says a June study by Don Huddle, professor emeritus at Rice University in Houston.

Against this backdrop, several national polls have reflected a renewed interest by Americans in slowing immigration, fueled in part by headlines about Chinese smuggled into New York and California, HIV-positive Haitians released from detention, and Arab nationals arrested in New York's World Trade Center bombing.

In July, a Gallup poll showed 27 percent of respondents felt immigration should stop until the economy improves, and 49 percent said numbers should be curtailed; 69 percent said government can do more to stop illegal immigration; and 90 percent favored stricter border patrols.

``The US is struggling with the question of immigration as no other time this century,'' says Rosemary Jencks, senior analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

In California, the state with the most immigrants, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in August called on President Clinton to ``repeal the perverse incentives that now exist for people to emigrate to this country illegally.'' In open letters reprinted in several national newspapers, he detailed a broad plan 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.

The Monitor recently talked with Governor Wilson in Los Angeles. Some excerpts:

Two years ago, your calls to `minimize the magnetic effect' of California for immigrants won you wide condemnation as a `bigot,' `racist,' and `immigrant basher.' But your tough new proposals to slow illegal immigration have brought you a significant rise in statewide approval ratings. Why this change in public sentiment?

[The public] is required to suffer the losses [brought on by immigration], whether it be social services, employment, or crime. All this has been heightened by recession ... so they welcome someone stepping up to the problem and addressing it. I find among the most outraged by illegal immigration are the most recent legal immigrants who have waited patiently for years, played by the rules, satisfied whatever onerous requirements.... [They] ask why in the world we continue to provide these incentives, that it mocks the whole process.

What are the your greatest concerns?

Enough people to fill a city the size of Oakland [Calif., population 372,242] got past the border patrol over the past four years. 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 [have to] cut, needed services for legal residents.

We are required to provide prenatal care, obstetrics, delivery, and postnatal care to illegals. I asked the Legislature for the same kind of care for working-poor mothers - women who are not eligible to receive Medicaid - and they gave me what I wanted but cannot give me the funding because instead we are spending almost $3 billion on various services for illegals. To me, it is terribly unfair and wrong to be spending state tax dollars for illegal immigrants and declining it to working poor who are legal residents.

Critics respond that the strain on state services is more directly attributable to California's budget woes - declining tax revenues, defense-industry cutbacks, business exodus. Are immigrants a scapegoat?

It is impossible to legitimately make that claim in the face of clear evidence that the [illegal immigrant] problem is not only real, but growing at an alarming rate. Two-thirds of all the babies born in Los Angeles County public hospitals are born to illegals. In Los Angeles alone there is an illegal community half again as big as Washington, D.C.

In four years, we've seen the costs of providing mandated, emergency health care rise from a little under $5 million to well over three quarters of a billion [dollars]. Ignore that at your peril.

You've urged President Clinton to use the ratification of the North American Free Trade Act as a tool to secure Mexico's cooperation in stopping massive illegal immigration. What effect would the treaty have on the problem of illegals?

I agree with [Mexican President Carlos] Salinas that, long term, NAFTA should succeed in achieving for Mexico the kind of economy and employment base that will allow them to retain and employ their own people.

Salinas has said one of his desires in seeking ratification is to permit Mexico to be in a position to export goods and not people. I think that is an entirely legitimate position. I think it's a ... realistic hope.

Your proposal to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented aliens would require a change in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Opponents say they are concerned about tinkering with such basic protections in the `hysteria of the moment' or on a `popular whim.'

It's hardly hysteria or even the political whim of the moment. The vast majority of civilized nations who guard their borders do not permit children born to parents who are illegally in the country to become citizens. They say it makes no sense.

The 14th Amendment was inserted into the Constitution three years after the end of the Civil War for the express purpose of validating the citizenship rights of former slaves and their children. It was never, ever intended as a reward for illegal immigration.

Some have suggested that a Constitutional change could be averted by clarifying existing law or other methods. Have you investigated other ways to deny citizenship to the children of illegals?

No, I haven't. The sort of after-the-fact effort to ``clarify'' laws is not something I am familiar with. If there was a way to avoid a Constitutional amendment and achieve the same end, I'd be all for it.

Other California legislators, such as Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and state Treasurer Kathleen Brown are coming out with ideas to tighten controls at the border. Would these help?

Why even have a border patrol to enforce the basic tenet of our immigration law if you are going to - with every other federal enactment - undercut it?

Henry Cisneros, the top Latino official in the Clinton administration and former mayor of a major border town, agrees that providing these benefits provides a magnetic lure. And I have said before that even if the illegals had no chance whatever of landing employment, they would attempt to bring their families because of the other benefits.

Surely cracking down at the border couldn't hurt?

[Barbara] Boxer's idea is to rotate in National Guard troops at 15-day intervals, which presents problems. They are not trained to be law-enforcement officers, and ... they can't legally make arrests.

Dianne Feinstein's idea [to charge $1 per crossing, doubling the current Immigration and Naturalization Service's budget] is the best idea, and I've supported that publically. It increases the number of agents who will be there full time.

But [Feinstein's idea] makes Californians share disproportionately in the burden as well as San Diegans. It would be fairer to distribute the cost burden nationwide. These are, after all, federal failures that are resulting in undue expenditures by the states.

Many wonder why your recent proposals did not include a call for stricter enforcement of sanctions against employers who hire illegals.

Employer sanctions worked for a while, until they gave rise to a cottage industry of counterfeiters who could sell you a Social Security card for $5. You will never have stricter enforcement of employee sanctions until we have some kind of tamper-proof card, which I have advocated.

Doesn't the same problem exist with documents required for a tamper-proof card?

It raises a legitimate problem. In new California legislation, we are restricting the number of documents that are accepted as proof of citizenship and therefore of eligibility [for the card].

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