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Immigration debacle

The idea of stripping Latino children of their rights as Americans is the first of probably many reprehensible measures to crawl out of the vacuum of Sacramento politics.

July 15, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

No less than nature, politics abhors a vacuum.

The manifest irresponsibility that all parties in Sacramento continue to demonstrate toward the state budget already has had obvious economic and social consequences. The worst, however, probably is yet to come. The headlong flight by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the elected representatives of both political parties away from responsibility and into self-indulgent delusion also has created a dysfunctional vacuum in California's politics.

It's not a space that will remain empty for very long, and some of the ugliest currents in state politics already are seeping in. They'll soon have permission to function freely. The state's illegal immigrants -- 70% of them from Mexico -- are usually the target of choice when times get tough here, and this year is no exception. Some of the same people who tore California apart with Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative that would have denied illegal aliens state services had it not been held unconstitutional, are back for another turn at the wheel.

This time, as The Times' Teresa Watanabe reported Monday, they're raising funds to begin gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would deny welfare benefits to the 100,000 U.S.-born children of immigrant parents who would be poor enough to qualify for public assistance if they weren't in the country illegally. The children, of course, are U.S. citizens, and the proposal is almost certainly unconstitutional. Even so, it's probably only the first such measure that's going to surface. Given our dysfunctional initiative system -- which allows anyone with a few million dollars to hire professional signature gatherers to qualify virtually any measure for the ballot -- one or more of these dangerous and divisive measures is going to be decided in some future election.

Even the campaign to qualify the sort of initiative the anti-immigration factions now propose will be a wretched affair. In the state that is home to America's largest Latino population, such an effort to deprive mostly Mexican American children of their rights as U.S citizens is bound to engender understandable resentment and fear. In some ways, it could be an even uglier affair than the Republican-backed campaign for Proposition 187, which alienated Latino voters from the GOP in ways that have reverberated through our state's politics ever since.

It's a prospect made all the more pointless by the fact that in one of the places where government still functions -- Washington, believe it or not -- realistic steps are being taken to address the actual issues involved with illegal immigration. The fact is, there's little appetite in most quarters to uproot and deport the 11 million immigrants estimated to be living in the U.S. without papers. It takes very little imagination to foresee just how laced with multiple indecencies such a process would be. That's why most serious polls continue to show that a majority of Americans would favor some sort of "path to citizenship" for the 11 million without papers -- if the government simultaneously takes responsibility for seeing that their numbers are not constantly replenished.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he will introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill sometime in the fall. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has begun a low-key crackdown on employers, as opposed to mass roundups of their mostly blue-collar workers. The White House recently said it would require companies seeking federal contracts to check their workers' status against the computerized E-Verify database, which contains Social Security and other personal records. At the same time, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun systematically examining the records of firms in industries known to make regular use of illegal immigrants. The $150,000 fine recently leveled against L.A.-based American Apparel for employing 1,800 illegals among its 5,600 factory workers was part of that effort.

In other words, what we're likely to see is proposed immigration reform that addresses both the human reality of the illegal immigrants already inside the U.S. and popular anxiety over the issue's dimensions.

There will doubtless be a fight over Schumer's proposal; there always is when the question involves immigration. Still, it's something of a relief to see government actually working, as opposed to the willfully feckless mess that both parties have made of things here in California.

And the debate over Schumer's bill may take many turns, but none will be as bad as the viciously loony idea of stripping children of their rights as American citizens, a proposal that has crawled out of the inexcusable political sinkhole where Sacramento used to be.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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