Washington. -- If today's California is any measure of where the other 49 states are headed on the immigration issue, stormy seas lie ahead.
The tide of immigration, legal and illegal, flooding across the once-Golden State is tossing up a political backlash of some proportions and raising some deep and troublesome questions about the American character, and where the country may be headed.
California's population is expanding by some 700,000 people a year, mostly immigrants, some 100,000 of them illegal. Seven million of California's 30 million people today are immigrants, heavily Hispanic and Asian. Fueled by growth of immigrant populations and their children, the number of Californians could more than double, to 63 million, in 2040.
Can or should California accept such a tidal wave of people? Isn't there a limit to the carrying capacity of California's land -- its water supply, its soil, its natural areas?
The more immediate -- and explosive -- issue seems to be fiscal and racial. In 1992 the California Legislature had two bills before it to stem immigration; this year there are 21. Pushed mostly by conservative Republicans with right-wing affiliations, they would deny school or college admittance to any young person who can't produce documentary evidence of being a legal resident or citizen.
Other bills would make it illegal to provide emergency or prenatal care, access to public housing, driver's licenses or job training to undocumented aliens.
There's surely a mean-spirited edge to the bills. Says Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy of Arcadia, near Los Angeles: ''I would hope that through this type of legislation, entire families would go back to where they came from.''
None of the bills is likely to pass, though they could surface as voter initiatives. There's voluble opposition. Immigrants, asserts Los Angeles Assemblyman Richard Polanco, have become ''the fashionable scapegoats for California's economic problems,'' just as Chinese were vilely treated in the last century, or Japanese in the 1940s.
California, of course, has always welcomed immigrants to tend its fields. In Europe, too, affluent majority populations welcome ''guest workers'' and other immigrants when times are good -- and then despise them when economies sour and jobs are suddenly scarce.
But today's California can also measure its immigrant phenomenon in raw dollars. The state auditor general estimates that illegal immigrants alone are costing California state and local governments some $3 billion a year. The bill for their medical care is said to be $1 billion a year, for welfare almost $500 million, for K-12 education $1.1 billion a year -- in a state that has been suffering paralyzing, multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls.
Defenders say immigrants bring youth, vitality, entrepreneurial vigor to the society. But a study recently done for Los Angeles County reveals a disturbing dichotomy. The taxes paid by immigrants in the county produce $4.3 billion a year (including sales, income and other taxes). But the lion's share goes to the federal and state governments -- with only $139 million for Los Angeles County. And it's Washington, in turn, that's being accused of reneging on the commitments it made, under the 1986 immigration act, to pay for the health, welfare, prison and other costs states incur when immigration is heavy.
President Bush sought to zero out federal appropriations for immigration assistance; President Clinton says he'd like to help. But California is expected to get just a fraction of the $1.45 billion in federal immigration aid it's requesting this year. The issue is also a hot one in other heavy immigration states, such as Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois. Bills to deny benefits to illegal aliens have also sprung up in Georgia and New Jersey.
At the same time Washington is doing precious little to stem the flow of illegal immigration. There's even a bill in the California Legislature this year to allow the governor to call out the National Guard to patrol the California-Mexico border. ''California must act on its own to stop the invasion across our borders,'' said the sponsor, Assemblyman Pat Nolan of Glendale.
Anyone who pretends this is a straightforward or easily resolved issue is dead wrong. No political party today has a coherent immigrant policy. Environmental concerns lead one to seek limits. Yet it seems cruel and wrong-headed to blame the youngsters -- children of immigrants, legal or illegal -- for society's dilemma.
Indeed, in the fast-approaching day when only 25 percent of California's work force will be white males, the productivity and contribution of today's immigrant children will be critical.
A commentator for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote recently: ''There are undoubtedly bigots who want immigration stopped for racial reasons. But opposition to racial bigotry should not blind us to the facts: There are limits to population size, in a theater or in a state, in a phone booth or on the planet.''
The question of limits overlaid by race is the unspeakable issue. Now California, our lead social experiment station, is having to face it. As Americans, we're deeply mired in our ambivalence about the issue. What's certain is that it will not go away.
Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column on state and urban affairs.