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Wilson Blames the U.S., Not Illegal Immigrants : Migration: In O.C., he lauds 'moxie' of those seeking a better life, but says state suffers from federal inaction.


SAN CLEMENTE — One day after he proposed a sweeping reform of federal immigration laws, Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday defended himself against accusations of immigrant bashing by saying he isn't blaming California's problems on newcomers with "the moxie to come up for a better life," but rather federal inaction.

In a series of Orange County appearances, Wilson reiterated his complaint that illegal immigration has become a major burden to the state government and contributed to a decline in California's quality of life.

But in a press conference Tuesday at the Border Patrol checkpoint in San Clemente, Wilson said: "I don't fault the immigrants. If I were down there, I'd undoubtedly be trying to come up here too. That isn't the point. It's not about race, it's about status and the failure of the federal government to have a responsible immigration policy."

Wilson outlined a sweeping immigration reform plan in Los Angeles on Monday that called for a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of unlawful residents. He also recommended in an open letter to President Clinton that the federal government cut off health and education benefits for illegal immigrants and prepare a tamper-proof identification card to ensure that public services are provided only to legal residents.

Wilson said his reforms are aimed at eliminating the incentive for foreign residents to move illegally to the United States. But he also faced questions Tuesday about whether his public posturing on the issue--one that is not in the state's jurisdiction--was inspired by his sagging poll ratings.

"I'm doing it because it's my job," Wilson said in an interview with The Times in Orange County. "I would regard it as a dereliction of duty if I did not address this."

Wilson's message treaded delicately through an explosive issue, however, since he juxtaposed the state's burgeoning problems against the desires of immigrants to seek a better life. Asked whether debate over the issue could prove racially divisive, the governor said: "The first time I ever discussed this I was accused of immigrant bashing and being a racist. I can't be deterred by that."

Wilson said California spends $3 billion annually to provide health care, education and other services to illegal immigrants, money that could be used for many unfunded programs for citizens. For example, Wilson said because of the illegal immigration costs, the state has been unable to provide prenatal care for 40,000 pregnant women who are eligible for the program.

The governor's office also released a report outlining funds for schools and other social programs that might be available if illegal immigration was not burdening the state.

Immigration has recently emerged as one of the hottest political issues in the country and it looms as a decisive point in the 1994 elections. The parameters of the debate are still evolving, however, as many elected officials continue to examine their positions.

Tuesday, California's two U.S. senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, said they saw some merit in parts of the Republican governor's plan. Both senators have offered their own reform plans.

"I believe that the proposals Gov. Wilson has outlined warrant serious consideration," said Boxer.

Feinstein questioned Wilson's plan to deny citizenship to the babies of unlawful residents, but she added that the idea of a tamper-proof identification card "makes some sense." She noted that national health-care plans will also likely require some form of identification.

In his interview at The Times on Tuesday, Wilson also said he agreed with a controversial recommendation by the Orange County Grand Jury to temporarily halt immigration. While the grand jury called for a three-year moratorium, the governor said he was undecided about how long the suspension should last.

The jury's report, which also linked illegal immigration to housing shortages and crime problems, continued to spark controversy in Orange County on Tuesday as one group of community leaders spoke in support of the moratorium at the Board of Supervisors meeting.

The report, issued two months ago, has been assailed by local Latino leaders, but Tuesday the California Coalition for Immigration provided the first public support since the jury's findings were made public.

"Why are those who have violated the immigration laws being rewarded for their crimes?" coalition chairman Barbara Coe said. "The vast numbers of these people are grabbing welfare checks in one hand while dealing drugs out of the other. We will no longer stand by while Orange County is destroyed by these lawbreakers."

Anaheim resident David Kendrick, who also spoke for the group, said the coalition's support should not be misinterpreted as "racist" but as "realistic."

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