Image: Tim Carroll

Then-Senator Pete Wilson condemns restrictive immigration laws as “utter hypocrisy…terribly inhumane.”
Wilson urges repeal of laws that “make illegal immigrants eligible for health, education, and other benefits.”

In the spring of 1993, voters in financially troubled California gave Gov. Pete Wilson a painfully low 15 percent approval rating. Desperate for a boost, the Republican governor responded by penning an open letter demanding that President Clinton reimburse his state’s immigration costs (to the tune of $2.3 billion) and pass a constitutional amendment denying citizenship to children born to undocumented parents. Less than two weeks later, Wilson’s approval rating had risen almost 50 percent.

Immigration has long been a favored topic of struggling politicians. But Wilson has rejected the rhetoric of past anti-immigration crusaders, who held that undocumented immigrants took American jobs. Instead, he has sounded the alarm that state coffers are being bled dry by immigrants abusing welfare benefits, education, and emergency medical care.

Unfortunately, state Democrats are not taking the high road. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, while criticizing Wilson’s extremist proposals, have advocated immigration controls ranging from assigning the National Guard for border patrol to issuing ID cards for all non-citizens.

While politicians slug it out, the state continues to flounder.

Two Views of Immigrants, Old and New

The U.S. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently analyzed the major obstacles to California’s economic recovery. Immigration is not the problem. Rather, a shrinking tax base and public-sector disinvestment head the list. But as Wilson, Boxer, and Feinstein all know, talk of land assessments and restructuring tax loopholes does not make for sexy campaign ads.

Immigration and labor advocates say that enforcing labor laws–thus removing the lure of jobs–is the most effective way to slow illegal immigration. But critics note that it conveniently serves Wilson’s political fortunes to focus on state benefits and turn a blind eye toward labor violations, since agribusiness–a prime beneficiary of cheap, undocumented labor–tops the list of his special interest contributors.

The Golden State has been a leader for national immigration policy since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and other states are following suit. Already Arizona, Florida, and Texas have filed multibillion-dollar lawsuits to make the federal government pay for their immigrants; New Jersey is considering the same. And the Clinton administration recently pegged $540 million to slow illegal immigration and speed deportation.

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