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The State : How California Contributes to Its Own Immigration Problems

July 10, 1994|Edward J. Lynch | Edward J. Lynch, who teaches at the Institute of World Politics, directed the office of strategic planning at the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1989-93

WASHINGTON — Gov. Pete Wilson's recurrent request that the federal government compensate California for its spending on illegal immigrants is certainly appealing. But immigration is rarely so simple, and before Congress con siders reimbursing California, it should analyze the role various Californians have played in mitigating, or exacerbating, the local effects of immigration.

The state's recent record begins with an amendment to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that was sponsored by Wilson when he was a U.S. senator. The provision enabled immigrant agricultural workers to apply for legalization if they had entered the United States as late as 1986. By contrast, amnesty was granted to other foreign-born nationals only if they had resided continuously in the United States since 1982. More than one million "special agricultural workers" took advantage of the amendment's offer; the overwhelming majority of them now reside in California.

Other California congressional members have supported measures to ensure that their state benefits from immigrants. In March, 1990, several House members, including Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), Don Edwards (D-San Jose) and Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), participated in a meeting in the office of Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio), during which Gene McNary, then commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was asked to suspend enforcement activities while the 1990 census was under way. This would strengthen the possibility of a "full and accurate" count, the congressmen contended. At the time, it should be noted, legislation passed by the Senate and pending before the House would have instructed the Census Bureau to count only people legally in the United States. The inclusion of illegal immigrants in the 1990 census contributed to California's gain of seven congressional seats.

Washington is not the only place where Californians' actions affect the state's appeal for immigrants. San Francisco, for example, enacted city and county resolutions that prohibited spending to assist immigration enforcement. These provisions were part of "sanctuary" ordinances passed, at least in part, to protest U.S. foreign policies. Los Angeles and San Diego also adopted resolutions restricting cooperation with immigration-law enforcement until the Legislature repealed all such measures last fall. Although some dispute the constitutionally of the local resolutions, their symbolic message for immigrants seemed clear: "welcome."

Many of California's public and private institutions, as a result of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, serve migrants regardless of legal status. Wilson has seized on this to claim that two-thirds of the babies born in Los Angeles County hospitals are children of illegal immigrants. But the National Center for Vital Health Statistics, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, reports that births to citizens of other nations are declining--even in the four states that border Mexico. Where these states annually reported more than 10,000 such births in the late 1970s, in 1990 they counted fewer than 5,000. Discrepancies in the data are difficult to evaluate, to be sure, because California (and nearly all other) hospitals do not inquire about the legal status of patients.

Similarly, when Los Angeles County tried to calculate the costs of illegal immigration, directors of local housing and education agencies informed county supervisors that they do not, under current legal guidelines, seek the immigration status of any students and/or residents. As a result, all such estimates must be based, at best, on secondhand sources, all of whom share interests in securing additional resources to extend their operations to additional clients.

California's bureaucratic support for illegal immigration is reinforced by its courts, which have ruled that illegal immigrants admitted to the state's college system can qualify for in-state tuition. This curious legal reasoning extends to citizens of Tijuana benefits that are unavailable to residents of Tucson.

Illegal immigrants undoubtedly travel to California in greater numbers because the state, for many years, provided more employment opportunities. But who provided the jobs to illegal immigrants who became California residents? Federal agencies require background checks on applicants, a substantial barrier to employment for illegal immigrants. The market for nannies, gardeners, fruit pickers, waiters, busboys and similar personnel is overwhelmingly a private (if not underground) market.

Wilson is right to support more funding for the Border Patrol. But to adequately address California's problems, enforcing employer sanctions and prosecuting visa violators will require a backup to the patrol. He is also right to seek repeal of federal mandates that extend benefits to illegal immigrants, but this, too, would fall short of addressing the core problem.

Before asking Washington for financial help, California should take strong measures to eliminate any incentives in its own back yard that might attract illegal immigrants. Curiously, Wilson never mentions deportation of anyone but criminal immigrants, but effective action against illegal immigrants must eventually include such responses, or illegal entry becomes merely a first step in a legal war of attrition aimed at securing a place here.

As long as U.S. citizens continue to provide jobs for those who enter illegally or overstay their visas, policy changes in Washington will never compensate for the burdens that illegal immigration can impose on communities. Authorizing funds that Washington doesn't have might ease California's budget problems, but it will also reduce Californians' incentives to do something themselves. No enforcement program mandated from Washington can effectively close doors that citizens in local communities decide, in myriad daily actions, to keep open.*

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