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State Puts New Edge on Immigration Debate : Border: Residents increasingly see illegal influx as a source of California's woes. Pressure for action grows.


America, the Land of Immigrants, has always been ambivalent about just what that mantle should mean, but that ambivalence has taken on an edge. The middle ground has shifted, decidedly to the right.

And California, characteristically, is ahead of the trend.

Now, when liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer suggests that National Guard troops be stationed along the southern border, only immigrant-rights activists are publicly aghast. When Gov. Pete Wilson says the Constitution should be changed to deny citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, a Field poll shows that half of all Californians like the idea.

"This is a state of siege in California," says an observer from Washington, immigration expert Demetrios Papademetriou of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"There is an enormous bombardment out there. There is always something new about immigration. One's senses get bombarded every day, which is the worst possible moment for trying to make fundamental decisions regarding immigration. I am delighted that they will be made in Washington, rather than California."

Yet California is where the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates 52% of all illegal immigrants live, where dueling studies constantly argue the benefits and costs of the immigrant mix, and where, increasingly, many see an immigration apocalypse born of neglect.

Even the membership of the Sierra Club is in the midst of an emotional debate about whether to take a public stand on the hot button topic of the day.

"It's not as simple as clean air, or like pollution, where less is better," said Executive Director Carl Pope.

But millions of other Americans seem to have made up their minds. The polls say most Americans believe illegal immigration is out of control, that the country has too many immigrants, illegal or otherwise, and that this is very bad news for the economy and for our national quality of life.

Every day, Americans are clamoring that something should be done. So everyone from the President of the United States to the president of the local homeowners association is offering suggestions.

Hire more Border Patrol agents and get them equipment that works. Issue tamper-proof identity cards. End taxpayer-funded medical care and schooling for anyone in the country illegally. Seize the assets of employers who hire illegal immigrants. And get serious, finally, about welfare fraud. The list goes on.

"Under bold, centrist political leadership, California could have been avoided," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, the grandfather of a growing family of groups calling for a moratorium on immigration.

"What is happening in California is the direct result of the isolated and removed nature of immigration policy decisions in Washington."

Many call this brouhaha a backlash against immigrants, scapegoating during an economic recession and a shortsighted repudiation of the principles that made America great.

Others call it unadorned common sense.

"If you set your table for five people in your home and then 15 people show up unexpectedly, you aren't prepared, and you've got problems," said Fred Vines, a retired state policeman who lives with his wife, a teacher, on Los Angeles' Westside.

"We're billions in the hole," he said. "This has never happened before. It's got to be overpopulation. You've got people coming here who shouldn't be here.

"Put up a Berlin Wall!" cried Vines, an African-American who denies that racism has anything to do with his get-tough stand. He says that any fool can see it: Immigration is bringing this country down.


The organizers of this night meeting of Citizens for Action Now, an 18-month-old immigration reform group in Orange County, have called for more folding chairs to accommodate an overflow crowd of about 60 mostly middle-aged, mostly white citizens or legal immigrants.

Barbara Coe, a police records clerk and co-director of the group, has made a point of emphasizing the legal immigrant component to the newcomers in the room.

It is not immigrants the group is against, she says, but illegal immigrants. She stressed that racism has no place here.

"We decided that the only way we are literally going to save our heritage is to put the focus on the illegal alien problem," she said.

Early arrivals at the meeting talk among themselves. A middle-aged woman tells of the "marauders" who take over the streets at night. A man who lives and works in Santa Ana, the county seat that is now 70% Latino, says of the city: "It's gone! It's gone!"

Before everyone stands to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, sheets of blue cards are passed around. Citizens for Action Now, part of the 15-member California Coalition for Immigration Reform, asks its members to carry the cards with them and leave them in businesses such as restaurants, "where it seems fairly apparent" that illegal immigrants are employed.

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