When Times Are Tough, We Blame the Huddled Masses

September 19, 1993|By JAMES BOCK

It's almost as certain as the tides: When times are tough, immigrants are unwelcome.

Times are tough in California. Corporations are downsizing, especially in defense industries. Unemployment hovers near 10 percent. The state faces multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls year after year. And people want politicians to do something.

One thing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has done is to put the heat on illegal immigrants. Mr. Wilson is up for re-election in 1994 and is mentioned as presidential timber in 1996.

Beef up the Border Patrol, the governor demands. Deny U.S. citizenship to children born in this country to illegal-immigrant parents. Cut off public schooling for the children of ''illegals.'' Issue tamper-proof identification cards.

Never mind that much of what Mr. Wilson proposes could not happen without federal action or even amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Tough talk pays dividends: Last month the governor's approval rating rose for the first time in two years. Three-quarters of Californians surveyed agreed with him that illegal immigrants are a ''very serious problem'' for the state.

Liberal Democrats have boarded the bandwagon. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer wants the National Guard stationed on the U.S.-Mexican border. Her Senate colleague Dianne Feinstein proposes a $1-per-person toll on all border crossings to pay for more enforcement.

The Golden State seems to be slamming immigration's ''golden door.'' An Orange County grand jury recommended a three-year ban on all immigration, even though half the CEOs of the county's top manufacturing companies are foreign-born.

In California, immigrants make a large and inviting target. More than 3.2 million foreigners settled in California alone during the 1980s, according to census figures (which surely missed many illegal immigrants). Nearly 9 million California residents spoke a language other than English at home in 1990.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is growing nationwide, too. A recent Newsweek poll showed that while 59 percent of Americans think immigration was a good thing in the past, fully 60 percent think it's a bad thing now. More than 60 percent say immigrants take jobs away from U.S. workers. Almost as many think immigrants wind up on welfare and raise other Americans' taxes.

''Everyone is looking for scapegoats and someone to blame,'' says Charles Wheeler of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. ''Historically, when it's tough times, we tell the huddled masses to go back where they came from. It's happening again.''

Nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States dates at least to Benjamin Franklin, who argued that Germans would never assimilate and would overrun Pennsylvania. In the mid-19th century, groups such as the Irish, French Canadians and Norwegians all suffered discrimination. The anti-immigrant Know Nothing party won control of several state governments in the 1850s.

Chinese immigrants were warmly welcomed during California's Gold Rush. In 1852, the governor called the Chinese the ''most worthy of our newly adopted citizens.'' A quarter-century later, during the 1870s depression, a California legislative committee concluded the ''Chinese are inferior to any race God ever made.''

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was among the first of a series of congressional curbs on immigration. It was not until 1965 that Congress opened the doors wider to Latin Americans and Asians, who make up the bulk of immigrants today.

However, new laws limited the legal slots available to Mexicans, setting the stage for massive illegal immigration. An estimated 3.2 million undocumented immigrants, mostly Mexicans, live in the United States today -- despite a 1986 amnesty and employer-sanctions law that proponents said would fix the problem.

Now many Californians and other Americans feel there's no more room at the inn. Images of Mexicans streaming across the border at Tijuana, alien smugglers running aground with boatloads of Chinese workers and alleged World Trade Center bombers living among us have fueled the belief that immigration is out of control.

''We're all coming to terms with the image of America we've been born with -- that this is the land of immigrants and we're the children of immigrants and all the rest,'' says George High, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates restricting immigration. ''There's a failure to recognize the numbers we're dealing with today. Immigrants have a much greater cost impact than was the case earlier in the century.''

Too many poorly educated immigrants enter the United States legally not to do the work of a high-tech economy, but because the law entitles their relatives here to sponsor them, Mr. High says. And too many illegal immigrants depend on U.S. taxpayers to pay for the education and medical care of their children, he adds.

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