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Illegal Immigrant Debate Fails to Reach Heights

September 24, 1993|KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Promising to take the divisive issue of illegal immigration to a more intellectual level, a panel of California officials instead engaged in a rowdy exchange of statistics Thursday night over the cost of the nation's failed border policy.

The wide-ranging panel discussion at Orange Coast College continually pitted reformists against immigrant rights advocates who asked a raucous audience to give more consideration to the economic contributions of illegal immigrants.

"Illegal immigrants give more than they receive," said John Palacio, an Orange County director of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Illegal immigrants pay sales taxes, they pay property taxes. . . . They work jobs nobody else wants. That's the reason that goods and services are so cheap in this country."

But Palacio, one of nine panelists representing varied interests from throughout the state, was immediately challenged by audience members and officials quoting an array of government reports showing how illegal immigration has drained state and local government resources.

"Law enforcement is under siege in California," San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith said, adding that California is expected to spend nearly $500 million to prosecute and house illegal immigrant felons in the state system. "The statistics alone are overwhelming. In human terms, we face a profound crisis."

Smith, waging a campaign for the post of California attorney general, said that 15% of convicted felons in the California prison system are illegal immigrants.

"In the simplest terms, we in California must demand relief from the federal government and must expect nations that exported these criminals to share the costs and the consequences of their crimes here in the United States."

Diego Ruiz, district director for U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), said that more than 30% of the Orange County Jail population are illegal immigrants.

"I don't know that we can agree on where we are headed (on this issue)," Ruiz said, "but maybe we can agree on where we are now. You simply cannot disagree that illegal immigration is illegal and should not be allowed to go on."

The Thursday evening forum comes a month after a frustrated California Gov. Pete Wilson outlined broad reforms for federal immigration policy, including a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of unlawful residents.

Wilson also called on the federal government to cut off health and education benefits for illegal immigrants and prepare an identification card to ensure that public services are provided only to legal residents.

The governor has said that California spends $3 billion annually to provide health care, education, legal services and other resources to illegal immigrants.

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