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ROBIN ABCARIAN

What Would We Do Without Immigrants to Blame?

September 12, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Overnight, it seems, the illegal immigrant has become an all-purpose culprit, easy to blame for whatever happens to ail you.

Lost your job? Blame an immigrant.

Can't get your street swept? Blame an immigrant.

Local library closed its doors?

You get the picture.

Well, here's a modest proposal: Remember the neutron bomb? It was one of those hideous Defense Department dream weapons that would kill people but leave buildings intact. Kind of a no-fuss, no-muss approach to warfare.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that a different sort of neutron bomb had been perfected, one that would target only illegal immigrants. Let's say the bomb was dropped over Los Angeles County. Poof! Just like that, they'd all be gone--the Mexicans, the Salvadorans, the Guatemalans, the Irish, the English, the South Africans, the Filipinos, the French. Kind of a no-fuss, no-muss approach to defending the borders of the Motherland.

Our property values would rise again. Crime levels would drop. Our taxes would be enough to support the services we want. Teachers could do education instead of crowd control. The welfare rolls would shrink.

Come to think of it, the gray skies would open up and a giant shaft of heavenly sunshine would illuminate the smogless skyline of a gleaming metropolis. No, make that a rainbow--yeah, a rainbow would transect the city, drawing all downcast eyes upward again.

Yes, I can see it now: Los Angeles would once again be Paradise on Earth.

*

We interrupt this fantasy to bring you a message from reality:

Illegal immigrants have always been part of the state's demographic; an estimated 700,000 live in L.A. County today, representing 8% of the 1992 population. Who knows what would happen if they suddenly disappeared? No one seems to have a grasp of the big economic picture, but plenty of people have little bits of it.

Take one 1992 L.A. County study that has been much in the news of late. Ordered up by county supervisors, it found, according to its director Manuel Moreno-Evans, that the county bears "a disproportionately high cost for serving immigrants (because) most tax revenues collected from immigrants go to the federal government."

To Moreno-Evans' chagrin, this conclusion has been snatched out of context and hacked into unrecognizable pieces by people wielding large political axes, despite his caveat that it is only "a snapshot view."

"A lot of the studies that get done by government . . . don't take into account the participation of immigrants in the economy," said Moreno-Evans. "As I said in the report, this was basically an accounting procedure as to government-related taxes and expenditures. But in the future, you have to go beyond this kind of cost-benefit analysis and look at the (other) economic impacts of immigration. It is time to take this issue out of the realm of fiscal impact and take it to an exploration of countywide economic participation of individuals in the economy."

In other words, almost completely overlooked in the cost-of-immigration debate are other kinds of economic contributions by immigrants who, after all, rent apartments, buy groceries and clothing, see movies, eat at restaurants and ride buses, among other things.

"Almost none of the studies even try to get at that," said Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. He has argued that immigrants may cost Los Angeles County more than they pay in revenue, but so do natives .

*

It's curious, this scapegoating business. Obviously, the bad economy spurs it--gotta be someone we can blame for this mess--but the logic is leaky.

Illegal immigrants didn't end the Cold War and dash the aerospace business. Nor did they sneak into the Silicon Valley and steal jobs while natives weren't looking. They did not play a part in the savings and loan fiasco. They are not responsible for the real estate slump. They didn't vote for Proposition 13. All these events, and their negative fallout, happened without any help from illegal immigrants.

But they are convenient, visible and politically powerless.

"Instead of being a burden on our state and local economies," one immigrants' rights advocate told a state Assembly committee earlier this year, "low-wage immigrant labor has allowed the state to stave off the effects of the current economic recession as long as was possible."

It's easy to forget: That reasonable dinner check at your local restaurant is made possible in part by the low wages paid to the immigrants who bus its tables.

The advocate also posed a question that every Californian should remember as election season approaches and the bashing volume rises:

Whom, she asked, do they blame for economic woes in states with few immigrants?

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