With the tears of a housekeeper who claimed she was wronged by a candidate for governor, the issue of illegal immigration came roaring back into California's political landscape this week, like a blast of uncomfortable deja vu.
After two news conferences by Republican Meg Whitman and two by her former housekeeper's attorney, Gloria Allred, voters were left to sort through questions, some of which may be aired in a debate Saturday between the gubernatorial candidates:
Did Whitman do the right thing, or not, when she fired her housekeeper after being told the woman was an undocumented worker? Did she do the wrong thing, or not, by declining to alert immigration authorities? Legalities aside, did she have some sort of moral responsibility to help out a woman whom Whitman herself described as a member of her extended family, or was it appropriate to banish the woman with no further contact after firing her?
The answers may affect Whitman's campaign for governor, but more broadly the whole emotional, televised, confusing mess was a perfect metaphor for the jumbled and contradictory views that Californians hold on illegal immigration.
The nation has been here before. Several of President Clinton's early Cabinet choices were derailed because they had either employed illegal immigrants or neglected to pay taxes on them, or both.
California too has revisited similar situations time and again. In 1994, the state fought its way through a debate over Proposition 187, the measure that would have denied most taxpayer-financed government services, including schools, to illegal immigrants. That year, a Senate race between incumbent Dianne Feinstein and Republican challenger Mike Huffington exploded when he was found to have knowingly employed an undocumented nanny. The matter went nuclear because Huffington had argued that he would be tougher than Feinstein on illegal immigrants.
A year later, while preparing to run for president, then-Gov. Pete Wilson was stung by reports that he too had once employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper. Wilson, now the campaign chairman for Whitman, had been the chief proponent of Proposition 187. (His presidential campaign whimpered to an early end, for a host of reasons).
Part of the propellant for the 1990s fixation on illegal immigration was economic. The state was reeling from a recession and the shrinking number of military and aerospace jobs and facing a massive budget deficit. Conditions are arguably worse now, but the anger has been focused less on illegal immigrants than on politicians.
California has generally been moving toward greater acceptance of immigrants, even illegal ones. In 1982, the Field Poll found that only 19% of voters thought illegal immigrants had a favorable effect on the state. By this July, 34% felt that way. The proportion of voters who felt illegal immigrants had a negative impact had dropped from 75% to 56%. In 1982, 52% of voters felt illegal immigrants were taking jobs away from legal Californians; by this July, only 34% felt that way.
Some of the movement has come from the demographics of California, which is growing less white by the year. Part of it is sociological: People tend to become more understanding of illegal immigrants when they live with or near them. (The exception: A sudden influx of illegal immigrants or public focus on them tends to increase disapproval, which in part explains Arizona's recent adoption of strict anti-immigrant measures).
"People who live in more diverse regions tend to be more positive" about illegal immigrants, said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California. Although he said he did not want to "paint a Pollyanna picture of California … Arizona is now at the forefront of those types of legislation and California is not. Maybe what's happened is in California, people feel we passed out of those things with some changes in perception and attitudes."
The shift has been reflected in the race for governor. Both Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee, and GOP nominee Whitman have, from opposite political poles, genuflected deeply toward the moderate middle. When asked in Tuesday's debate if he favored a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants, Brown said yes, with a caveat.
"At the end of the day, we have a couple million people in the shadows and there has to be some process," Brown said. Yet he added that, as attorney general, he forwarded the fingerprints of those arrested in California to immigration officials for deportation. "If we're going to work on illegal immigration, let's start with those who break the law."
Whitman declined to support a legalization process but still emphasized she was not a 1990s Republican.