Image: Tim Carroll

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


1982:
Then-Senator Pete Wilson condemns restrictive immigration laws as “utter hypocrisy…terribly inhumane.”
1994:
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.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate