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Why Some of L.A.'s Latino Leaders Take a Walk on Immigration : Politics: Mexican-American politicians not only condone high numbers of migrants, they are dependent upon them for visibility and influence.

August 22, 1993|Peter Skerry | Peter Skerry, who teaches political science at UCLA, is author of "Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority" (The Free Press)

WASHINGTON — Gov. Pete Wilson's proposals to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants and to cut off their social benefits are imprudent in the extreme. Unfortunately, when it comes to immigration, there is plenty of imprudence and opportunism to go around.

Consider the record of Mexican-American leaders and politicians in Los Angeles. While most Angelenos have grown increasingly anxious about the growing number of immigrants in the city, these leaders have, with few exceptions, clung to a de facto open-border position. Furthermore, they would rather push for more money for overburdened programs than address the source of the burden--the largest influx of immigrants in California's history.

Mexican-American leaders have also consistently opposed the one option likely to have any impact: sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Claiming that such sanctions would result in job discrimination against Latinos, they have, nonetheless, rejected all proposals for a secure identity card that would help prospective employers distinguish legal from illegal applicants. Pressed for their ideas, Mexican-American leaders have made faint noises about increased funding for border-enforcement efforts. Or, more grandiosely, they have called for the promotion of economic growth in Mexico-as if that were a near-term solution.

This imprudence is all the more remarkable in light of Latino attitudes toward immigration. Typical of surveys taken throughout the 1980s was a 1983 poll sponsored by the Urban Institute. It found that more than 54% of Latinos in Southern California felt illegal immigrants were having an unfavorable impact. Other polls show similar percentages of Latinos urging tougher restrictions on immigration--legal and illegal.

Such sentiments are not surprising: Studies consistently report that immigrants compete for jobs with more recently settled Mexican-Americans. Still, it would be obtuse to conclude that Mexican-Americans are enthusiastic about curtailing immigration. Their uneasiness about job competition is usually accompanied by empathy for the newcomers, who are, after all, relatives and neighbors. Given their history of easy movement back and forth across the border, Mexican-Americans also tend not to regard the current immigrant wave as an "invasion."

This history, however, has not kept Mexican-American leaders from favoring restriction in the past. University of Texas political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza notes that, during the 1950s and 1960s, "Mexican-American leaders were among the most vociferous of the opponents to continued Mexican immigration." In 1966, educator and political activist George I. Sanchez contended that: "Time and time again, just as we have been on the verge of cutting our bicultural problems to manageable proportions, uncontrolled mass migrations from Mexico have erased the gains and accentuated the cultural indigestion."

Today, there is no comparable voice among Mexican-American leaders. How are we to account for this sea-change?

One critical factor is the Voting Rights Act, along with other initiatives, that reward Mexican-American leaders not for their clout at the polls but for Latino population totals at census time. The affirmative-action logic pervading America's political culture means that steadily increasing numbers of Mexican immigrants translate into demands for steadily increasing quotas for Latino employees and Latino-majority electoral districts. Thus, Mexican-American leaders have become not only acclimated to high numbers of immigrants, but are also dependent upon them as a source of visibility and influence.

This numbers game has another dimension. The benefits and protections of the Voting Rights Act and other affirmative-action efforts have been extended to Mexican-Americans on the ground that they, like African-Americans, are a victimized racial minority. Yet, social and economic indicators show that Mexican-Americans climb up the economic ladder, marry outside their ethnic group and move to the suburbs at rates for exceeding those of blacks. Whether such upward mobility is occurring fast enough to satisfy all Mexican-Americans is another matter. But it's occurring fast enough to arouse concern among some leaders who complain that many Latinos have "forgotten their roots."

This is where immigration comes in. The problems and dislocations accompanying the continuous arrival of relatively poor, uneducated immigrants reinforces the false impression that Mexican-Americans are not assimilating--and that, as a victimized racial minority, they need and merit affirmative action. The proliferation of overcrowded barrios, where English is not spoken, masks the assimilation that is, in fact, occurring.

Immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, make ideal constituents. Their needs and interests are obvious. Yet, they are passive, indeed, ineligible to vote.

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