AMERICANS - led by California - are struggling with the emotional question of immigration this year as much as at any time this century.
Fueled by widespread anxiety over jobs, crime, and shrinking government revenues, the immigration controversy threatens Democratic election hopes next month and now is drawing President Clinton into the fray.
The most immediate issue: Should California voters approve Proposition 187, a hotly contested ballot issue that would bar illegal immigrants from many government services, including schooling and nonemergency health care.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, locked in a tight race with multimillionaire challenger Michael Huffington, the Republican candidate, put her reelection hopes at risk last week by denouncing Prop 187.
Californians favor the proposition by a 2-to-1 margin, pollsters say. But Senator Feinstein argues that it could result in the loss of $15 billion in federal aid to the state. She says it ``raises state and federal constitutional issues and makes no provision whatsoever to deport illegal aliens and reduce their number.''
Republicans see Prop 187 as important to an election-day sweep on Nov. 8. Gov. Pete Wilson (R), challenged by Democrat Kathleen Brown, says the initiative would weaken incentives that draw people to the United States illegally: free health care, education, and other benefits.
Approximately 40 percent of the 3 million to 4 million illegal immigrants in the US are estimated to live in California. Immigration Drives California Vote
Efforts to reform immigration policies toward both legal and illegal migrants are being led by budget-strapped border states, particularly California, Texas, and Florida.
``The entire country is watching to see how California deals with one of its thorniest issues,'' says Ira Mehlman, West coast director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). If the measure passes, similar moves will be enacted by other states, he predicts. ``If nothing else, this is intended as a wake-up call to the federal government do something or citizens will.''
The issue has already keyed debates here over a declining educational system, financially strapped city and state services, and the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
As pro- and anti-187 forces marshall their manpower for the final two weeks of the campaign, the initiative is getting more coverage in state newspapers than any other election candidate or issue. Last weekend 70,000 protesters - a state record - marched through Los Angeles carrying placards and chanting against the measure. The debate has intensified, in part, over whether 187 will achieve what backers say it will.
Beyond the point/counterpoint over whether the measure is mean-spirited, racist, or divisive, here are the key points of debate:
* Taxpayer savings: Wilson and other proponents have long trumpeted the figure of $3 billion as the yearly cost for services that Californians are required to pay by the federal government for illegals, nearly 100,000 of whom get past the border patrol each year. But state education officials estimate that school enrollment could drop by 300,000 if every illegal child were excised from education rolls. That could cost California up to $2.8 billion in federal education aid alone.
Legislative analyst Elizabeth Hill predicts lost federal aid to schools, public hospitals, and clinics could add up to $15 billion. ``How can 187 proponents sell it as a tax saving?'' asks a Los Angeles Times editorial. ``They really can't.'' Victor Inzunza, director of public policy for the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), adds that illegals are not eligible for Aid to Dependent Families, the state's main welfare program. Touting 187 as a welfare savings, then, is ``clearly a scare tactic to sell it to voters.''
* Employment/economic drain: National experts have long disagreed on bottom-line costs of illegals to the state economy. A recent study by Don Huddle, a Rice University economist, put the figure at $5.1 billion, but several immigrant groups have questioned his methodology. Anti-187 voices counter that illegal, low-wage workers account for the vast majority of migrants that help California produce half the nation's fruits and vegetables.
``California was booming for a long time and immigrants contributed to that growth,'' says Lucas Guttentag of the American Civil Liberties Union. He cites an Urban Institute study claiming $12 billion in benefits from illegals. ``Illegals have helped California retain industries that could not otherwise afford to stay.''
* Job lure: Probably no other premise of Prop. 187 has been attacked so vocally as its implication that social-welfare benefits attract illegals. ``The incentives for illegal immigration are to work in the US, not to sign up for welfare,'' said Doris Meissner, Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service here recently.
* Constitutionality: Even proponents admit that Prop. 187 may be destined for a protracted court test if passed in November. The legal question centers on the US Supreme Court's Plyer vs. Doe decision of 1982, which held that immigrant children are entitled to public education. Opponents say such legal battles are the real, political motivation behind 187 ``to send a message to federal lawmakers'' and will be more costly to taxpayers than illegal immigration itself.