MotherJones ND93: Nativist Son

As we head into the home stretch of 1993, California Governor Pete Wilson is emerging as a dark horse candidate for evil American politician of the year. Now, evil is not a word to be used lightly, and its application to a moderate, seemingly rational Republican sounds harsh, even hysterical. But Wilson's rationality is feigned, and a thin veil for his malice.

To recap: On August 9th, Wilson called a press conference to publicize a letter he was faxing to President Clinton "on behalf of the people of California." The letter claimed that a massive influx of illegal immigrants lured by welfare was forcing financially strapped states to deny services to their own citizens. Wilson's top solution: "Urge Congress to approve a Constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrant parents."

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The political power of such scapegoating shouldn't be underestimated. Wilson's approval rating, previously at a low for any modern California governor, shot up after his media blitz. California's centrist and liberal senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, were quick to declare that they, too, favor a hard line against illegals.

Almost everyone, of course, is against illegal immigration. It's corrosive to have laws you can't enforce. Furthermore, wanting to slow down legal immigration doesn't make one a racist. Societies naturally have periods (usually coinciding with high unemployment) when they feel they need to limit immigration.

Wilson's racism begins (and his rationality ends) with his attribution of shiftlessness as motive. Immigrants (legal and illegal) don't come here seeking welfare, they come looking for jobs. Wilson knows this. As a U.S. senator he sponsored an amendment on behalf of growers allowing them to import extra "guest workers." Immigrants, whatever their legal status, are generally optimistic, hardworking, adaptive people willing to do the jobs that residents won't touch. Economic studies show that they give far more to the economy than they take away.

To strip citizenship from the U.S.-born children of illegals (or to deprive them of public schooling, another Wilson suggestion) is not only unconstitutional, it's stupid. The few people discouraged from immigrating would be far outnumbered by those who would come anyway, but once here might feel they had no stake in a society where their families were permanently disenfranchised.

Wilson is attacking the American dream. Consider General Shalikashvili, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who immigrated here with his parents at age sixteen. The general's father served as a major in the German SS Waffen and lied about this when immigrating. A clear, documented violation. Punish the son, Wilson says. He would transform our legal principle of citizenship by soil to citizenship by blood. The German system.

I recently visited Germany, where the question of outsiders is very much in the air. Especially in the East, the euphoria of unification has been replaced by self-pity. Do you know who made the East Germans accept Soviet totalitarianism? Who forced them to rat on one another? Who, some believe, are responsible for the economic and moral poverty that now plagues them? The Turkish guest workers in West Germany, of course.

Pete Wilson's evil isn't neo-Nazism, but it is anti-Americanism. One of the charges in our Declaration of Independence was that King George was "obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither." The Founding Fathers envisioned a country without status distinctions based upon heredity. Why does Jefferson's first self-evident truth-- "that all men are created equal"--evoke national pride today despite his omission of women and his acceptance of slavery? Because the phrase implies that the distinctions between people are largely of our own creation, and that a widening gap is a cause for dismay.

Wilson's letter may have been the first volley in what will become an ugly campaign against immigrants. Emboldened by his rise in the polls, the governor wrote another public letter to President Clinton in September urging that California become the test state to require tamper-proof identification cards certifying citizenship. Obviously this will jolt our economy out of its recession!

Pete Wilson doesn't care about the state or the future; he's just interested in the state of his future. In the name of rationality, he is stirring up irrational fears, then denying his virulence like a classic Know-Nothing. At an Orange County border patrol checkpoint press conference, Wilson claimed, "I don't fault the immigrants. If I were down there, I'd undoubtedly be trying to come up here, too." This false empathy is a thinly disguised warning about the hungry southern horde.

Wilson isn't on their side--or ours. The governor is trying to incite in us a hostile outward gaze toward "others." As with the Birchers of the 1950s, who also began in Southern California, the real danger is not that extreme proposals will be enacted, but that they will warp the debate so much that practical, humane solutions to our problems won't be discussed.