Let's be up front about it. Immigration hasn't been a big issue in this year's presidential campaign. But that doesn't mean many voters haven't been thinking about it.
In fact, in Southern California immigration is regarded by political professionals as a "hot button" issue, one of those topics that gets such a strong response among voters that it can even be used to elect or defeat candidates. Unfortunately, that also makes it an issue whose complexities can be distorted in the often simplistic rhetoric of a campaign. It is an issue that requires calm, thoughtful leadership on the national level, including the White House. So although it hasn't come up much in the campaign, the next President--whether Bill Clinton, George Bush or Ross Perot--must be prepared to deal with immigration issues.
An Issue That Is Rarely Discussed With Objectivity
The most egregious example of how the discussion of immigration has been distorted in the 1992 campaign came early in the Republican presidential race, when Patrick J. Buchanan tried to mount an insurgent challenge against President Bush. The right-wing commentator viewed immigration, particularly illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, as an issue he could use to win support for his "America First" campaign. He aimed his appeal at GOP voters fed up with problems created by illegal immigrants, problems presumably unaddressed by the Bush Administration. As Buchanan often does, he cast the issue in vivid (his harshest critics say racist and nativist) terms.
Buchanan's appeal failed to resonate with enough voters to make him a major force in the presidential campaign. But he was right about one thing: Bush, as the incumbent, has a record on handling immigration issues that is decidedly mixed.
Bush and Clinton Seem Generally to Agree, Except on Haiti
Bush did help push through Congress, and did sign into law, a major modification of U.S. immigration rules in 1990 that made it easier for foreigners with relatives already living in this country to immigrate. Clinton supported that measure. Bush also pushed through increased funding and manpower for the U.S. Border Patrol, mainly to help stem the flow of drugs into this country. Clinton too has said he supports a stronger Border Patrol.
Where the two candidates differ most dramatically is on the Bush Administration's handling of the latest upsurge in refugees from Haiti. They have been fleeing their country for south Florida, in small, often leaky boats, since popularly elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in September, 1991. Clinton says that if Bush had been firmer with the military thugs who ousted Aristide, the crisis would not have lasted so long and thousands of Haitians would not have fled. He has a point. Though poor Haitians long have tried to enter the United States illegally to find jobs, the coup caused a dramatic upsurge in the refugee flow that has not fully subsided. And, despite continued U.S. diplomatic pressure, Aristide's legitimate government has yet to be reinstated.
Bush Asked a Lot of California --but Provided Little Help
From a California point of view, the biggest flaw in Bush's record on immigration is his failure to push Congress to provide more money to help this state provide services for the 1.3 million immigrants who live here under legal status granted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. IRCA, as it is commonly known, offered amnesty to illegal immigrants who were already living in this country. It was a generous gesture, but like so many reforms the new law had unintended consequences. Those legalized immigrants and their families are of course now using schools, hospitals and other public facilities in cities like Los Angeles and Santa Ana and the federal government simply isn't paying its share of the bills. IRCA set aside a modest amount of money ($4 billion over five years) for such use, but the fund was raided by Congress--with the connivance of the Administration--to pay for other federal programs when the budget tightened with the onset of the recession. The next President must at the very least insist that IRCA's legalization funds be used for the intended purpose in California and other impacted states. We would urge a hefty increase in the funds set aside for legalization as well.
The Bush Vision: 'From the Yukon to the Yucatan'