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Retreat, Yes, but the Point Remains

April 04, 1993

Gov. Pete Wilson has scaled down the amount of money he is asking the federal government to give California to help pay for services for the many immigrants who have made this state their home. Although necessary, that retreat should not detract from the valid point Wilson tried to make with his initial request.

In January Wilson asked Washington for $1.45 billion to help defray the costs of immigration. That figure represented money set aside by Congress--but never actually spent--to help pay for the education of former illegal immigrants who received amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act; money from existing refugee-assistance programs, and money to help pay for holding illegal immigrants under felony sentences in state prisons.

Roughly $700 million, half of Wilson's request, was what state officials estimate the state is "owed" by the federal government for providing health services to undocumented immigrants in public health clinics and welfare for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

By federal law, as former Sen. Wilson well knows, illegal immigrants are prohibited from receiving public assistance of any kind. But the governor argued that, whether or not Washington likes it, in order to deal with the side effects of immigration California had to spend money far greater than the total allocated under existing federal immigration-impact programs.

One can argue with the governor's estimates. For example, he may be underestimating the financial benefits that immigrants bring California through their low-wage labor. But it's hard to dispute the logic of his position. While immigration laws and policies are set by the federal government, the impact of immigration is most felt in a handful of states. Of the immigrants legalized under IRCA, for instance, 54% reside in California.

Despite such clear statistical evidence, Californians in Congress, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, convinced Wilson that Congress would not vote for any additional immigrant aid at this time. So the governor has wisely decided to take what he can get from Washington and not wage a fruitless fight for the additional $700 million.

But neither the governor nor California's representatives on Capitol Hill should give up their campaign for more immigration aid. One of the encouraging things about this effort was how united the state's congressional delegation was--for once. Democrats and Republicans must continue working together on this important issue. For in helping immigrants assimilate into the life of this country, California is not just creating new Californians but new Americans. And, in all fairness, the rest of America must lend more of a hand.

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