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Robin Abcarian

The Real Issue Is the Color of Their Skin

June 19, 1996|Robin Abcarian

Ostensibly, the news conference was a response to critics of a congressional measure that could, if enacted, result in the permanent expulsion from school of 400,000 California children.

Ostensibly, the half a dozen men and women representing various immigration reform groups came to argue that California can no longer afford to educate children who are in this country illegally.

Ostensibly, they came to urge the U.S. Senate to support an amendment that was approved by the House as part of its tough immigration bill that passed by a huge margin in March.

And to be fair, they did all that.

But as they stood in a small meeting room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, flanked by dogeared posters left over from another anti-immigration campaign, they revealed what seems to me to be the real reason we'd been summoned: that "Hispanics" are destroying California.

Because they are seasoned activists, having been through the bruising but ultimately victorious campaign for Proposition 187, I'd assumed they would be smooth, their arguments sophisticated, their assertions difficult to refute.

But there was no debate-team finesse. There was a graceless verbal bludgeoning of an entire ethnic group.

In many of their written and oral remarks, the reformers failed to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. They even failed to distinguish between immigrants and American citizens.

From a Voices of Citizens Together newsletter included in a press kit:

The increase in school enrollment of Hispanics closely follows the increase in state poverty.

From 1980 to 1990, over 70% of the increase in poverty in California was attributable to Hispanics.

In Los Angeles, over 50% of students do not complete schoold (sic). Statewide, over half of all drop outs are Hispanic.

In a pie chart: Hispanics accounted for about half, or 263,339, of all births in California in 1992. Fifty-eight percent of those mothers reported they were born in Mexico. (Unprovable inference: the mothers were here illegally.)

I may have attended creepier news conferences in my career, but none comes readily to mind.

*

Monday's event was arranged to rebut, among other things, a letter signed by 47 U.S. senators denouncing the House's "kick-em-out-of-school" amendment. The Senate's immigration bill contains no such provision.

President Clinton has said he will veto the bill that eventually lands on his desk if it contains the amendment, which gives states the discretion to deny public education to illegal immigrants. Law enforcement groups have also opposed the amendment, fearing what could happen to public safety if children are dumped onto streets.

"Eighty percent of children who are illegal immigrants reside in 'mixed' families, i.e. families in which at least one member is legal and at least one is not," said the letter, signed by both California senators. "Since some members of the family are U.S. citizens or legal residents, it is likely that the family won't leave if we expel their children from school. Rather than reducing the population of illegal immigrants, we are simply putting innocent children on the street."

Ah, but these are not all innocent children, said Barbara Coe, whose California Coalition for Immigration Reform was a co-sponsor of Proposition 187. They are, many of them, gang members who are "destroying our educational system, sacrificing not only the futures but, in many instances, the very lives of our children."

*

Well-meaning people can and do disagree about the effects of illegal immigration: You say illegal immigrants steal jobs; I say try picking your crops or pruning your bushes without them. You say illegal immigrants overtax public resources; I say it's easy to pick on the poor when the economy is reeling from forces bigger than any single city, county or even nation. You say illegal immigrants have no place in our schools; I say as Americans we have a moral obligation to educate all the children in our midst.

We could go on like this forever.

And we probably will, because as long as the Mexican economy is a shambles and as long as there are low-wage jobs here, there will always be illegal immigration. Even this group of angry reformers acknowledges that. So let's set our sights on schools, they say, where the students who shouldn't be here are depriving "citizen children" of the education they deserve.

"It's not a question of the character of the people who come," said a man from the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Or is it?

"People who come don't come to assimilate," said a high school teacher, trotted out to prove how awful these kids are. "I can't get them to stand up for the pledge, to put down their sports pages, to take off their headphones. . . . The major culture is breaking down; you don't have to be a rocket scientist or a teacher to see that."

Nor do you need to be an Einstein to figure out that behind the charts, the graphs and the economic analyses, there is deep anxiety about the "major culture" being overtaken, as demographers predict, by one with a slightly darker complexion.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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