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JAMES FLANIGAN

Keep Immigration on the Side of Common Sense

October 30, 1994|JAMES FLANIGAN

If you stick to the facts and use common sense about immigration, answers come clear and readily.

The problem, partly, is timing, not numbers. The number of illegal immigrants--roughly 300,000 a year, half of them to California--is no greater now than in the 1970s and 1980s. But back then the economy was booming and California politicians, from President Ronald Reagan to Sen. Pete Wilson, supported an unhindered flow of illegal immigrants to work in agriculture and industry.

But the economy is not booming today. Therefore, moves to stop illegal immigration are necessary and urgent. That's why the recent recommendations of the federal Commission on Immigration Reform are so important, and why Proposition 187 is such a dangerous distraction.

Thanks to an unprecedented determination to curb illegal immigration, the U.S. Border Patrol has been beefed up at El Paso and San Diego. And in response to a Reform Commission recommendation, a computerized registry to validate employment documents will soon start pilot programs in five states.

The commission, which was set up by the Immigration Act of 1990, also recommended a cutoff of public benefits, such as welfare, to illegal immigrants, but made an exception for education and child nutrition programs.

That contrasts directly with Proposition 187, which targets children by prohibiting education and non-emergency medical care for illegal immigrants. The initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot is an angry measure, designed to send a message of public ire to Washington, which collects federal income taxes from illegal immigrants but lets state and local governments in California pay for their social services. Gov. Wilson's office is seeking $2.4 billion in reimbursement from the federal government.

The state's frustration is understandable, but Proposition 187 is the wrong way to go. If it passes, Washington won't pay California any money. But the state could lose billions in federal funds and be forced to spend hundreds of millions to find, expel and, presumably, deport immigrant students and then to fight countless lawsuits--including a big one with the federal government because 187, targeting "suspected illegals" on what amounts to racial and ethnic grounds, is almost certainly unconstitutional.

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If the initiative is only to send a message, it's one expensive telegram.

The right way to go about it would be to keep pressure on Washington to send back tax money to offset California's extraordinary immigration burden and then to press enforcement efforts to tighten borders and deport illegal immigrants already here.

The emphasis at all times should be on enforcing the law, because not to do so is an injustice to America's legal immigrants, now numbering 750,000 a year plus about 120,000 legal refugees. Not enforcing the law also endangers all immigration, an integral part of the U.S. economy.

Indeed, a backlash against immigration is now growing nationwide, though not to the angry pitch of former times when America excluded Chinese immigrants in the 19th Century, virtually stopped immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the 1920s and deported Mexican laborers in the 1950s.

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Before things get out of hand, we'll see changes in the next few years to make immigration policy flexible, allowing more immigrants in good economic years and fewer in bad years, says Lawrence Fuchs of Brandeis University, vice chairman of today's Immigration Reform Commission and head of the 1979 commission that outlined policies for the immigration acts of 1980, 1986 and 1990.

Immigration has evolved over time--and has included a certain amount of illegal entry ever since the 1920s, when the first laws controlling immigration were passed.

Americans never welcomed immigrants when they arrived, although we always admire groups that came in years past. "At any time, only 8% of Americans said they would favor more immigration," says Rita Simon, a dean at Washington's American University and author of "The Ambivalent Welcome, Public Policy and Immigration."

Immigration's high point, before the present, was the decade 1901-10, when 880,000 people a year came in--in reality more than that, because only steerage passengers were counted, not cabin class.

But immigration slowed in the 1920s and reversed in the 1930s, with as many emigrating from the United States as immigrating to it. A big change came in 1965, notes Dennis Aigner, dean of UC Irvine's graduate school of management, when U.S. policy shifted to admit people fairly from all countries and to allow family reunification as a major reason for admittance.

The effect was profound. Numbers increased from an average 250,000 immigrants a year in the 1950s to 500,000 annually in the 1970s and 700,000-plus in the 1980s. The new people came from Asia and Africa, Latin America and Southern and Eastern Europe.

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