YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Muddling Through Tough Issues Amid the Mud-Slinging

September 05, 2003|Steve Lopez

Before I tell you what I think about giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, I thought I should respond to a raft of complaints about my Wednesday column on Democrat Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's so-called days as a student radical.

A.) As a California-born boy, I am already back where I came from.

B.) Personally, I don't think I'm scum or trash, but I'm biased.

C.) No, I haven't sold out for Bustamante. In fact, my early pick was Republican Peter Ueberroth, but he's been such a mumbling mope so far, he's making me look bad.

D.) You can't compare MEChA to the Ku Klux Klan, and to suggest as much is both naive and insulting. The KKK lynched and terrorized an entire race for decades.

MEChA began as a Chicano rights group with what could be called a militant credo, and some of that language still exists on many of its Web sites. It's fair to suggest Bustamante should have renounced that aspect of MEChA, which is now more of a social club than anything else.

But he said "racial separatism is wrong," and chose not to further indulge the insinuation that he's a racist, or to prolong the focus on something that's got nothing to do with the problems that led to the recall.

There's a virus out there, though, that makes it difficult to focus on the substantive, and to have a discussion rather than a shouting match. Thanks to the drone of talk radio and cable TV blab fests, we've got a nation of parrots who see things in the most simplistic and divisive terms, especially when it comes to race.

Take the bill that will allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

If you think it's a good idea, you're called a commie. If you're against, you're a dinosaur and a bigot.

And where do I fall?

I'm in the murky middle. The bill makes sense in one respect, but I've got problems with it too.

First of all, I've got a problem with Gov. Gray Davis wavering until the recall, and then finally endorsing the bill in a desperate act of political pandering. It's proof positive -- as if any more were needed -- that the man's only true passion is his own survival.

What makes sense about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants is this:

If everyone from the president of the United States on down is going to wink and nod about porous borders so we can continue exploiting cheap labor, why not?

Does it seem rational to tell illegal immigrants, "OK, we'll look the other way when you cross the border, we'll educate your children, we'll take care of you when you're sick, and we'll gladly hire you to mow our lawns and clean our houses, but you can't drive?"

It's preposterous.

But so is the idea of sending out another invitation from California to the world's huddled masses.

Even though the Rand Corp. researcher I recently quoted said immigration produces a net gain for the California and U.S. economies, there are costs, as well, in rampant population growth:

Dirty air, respiratory disease, fouled beaches, depleted fisheries, water shortages, school shortages, housing shortages, and horrendous, hair-pulling, worse-all-the-time traffic.

How can you talk about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants without asking the question: How many people is too many for Los Angeles? How many is too many for California?

With a sour economy, a state budget crisis and low-income residents getting bounced out of work by new arrivals, why isn't anybody talking about controlling growth?

(Full disclosure: I'm not helping matters; my wife and I just had a baby).

Immigration is a federal concern, but that doesn't mean the governor and the state's congressional delegation can't fight for stricter immigration controls or, at the very least, the money to pay for services to illegal immigrants.

Loyola University research fellow David Ayon, who's planning a book on the subject, says politicians and public policy planners tend to focus on the stock of immigrants rather than the flow -- like looking at a single frame instead of the whole movie.

"The entire border region has a population far in excess of what it can sustain," he said, speaking of the stretch from California to Texas on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. "People are living in abject circumstances in regions that are ugly and depressed."

Ayon, who grew up in El Paso to Mexican-born parents, said one way to stem the flow into California and the Southwest would be to encourage and help Mexico create better jobs away from its border cities.

"But we're very far from having any leadership and vision to try to undo the problems," he said. "We've made colossal errors with the bracero program and border industrialization, and at a minimum, we should at least try not to do any more harm."

In the middle of a campaign that's supposed to be about fixing the state's current problems and avoiding future disaster, wouldn't you rather hear this discussion than the one about whether Cruz Bustamante adequately denounced a student organization he joined in the 1970s?

Here's my offer:

Free space to the candidates who've got ideas on the subject worth printing. They know where to find me.


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at

Los Angeles Times Articles