Those kinds of people

November 01, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

Los Angeles -- WHEN GUIDO Calabresi was sworn in as a judge in Connecticut on the 55th anniversary of the day his family arrived in the United States, his speech included this assessment of America: "Our tragic moments -- for which we are still paying and will long pay -- are those times when our laws furthered bigotry and discrimination."

The words of the immigrant boy, once dean of Yale Law School, now sitting on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, describe well Proposition 187, which Californians will consider on Election Day.

The measure would attack the very real crisis the state faces because of its enormous influx of illegal immigrants by denying them most government services, including medical care and public schooling, systematically creating an underclass of illiterate and unhealthy residents and turning doctors and teachers into moles for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Proponents of the measure argue that this would dissuade Mexicans from swarming over California borders. If they really believe that, they are blind to why generation upon generation of the optimistic unwelcome have decided to adopt America while America has derided them.

Our nation is a coast-to-coast contradiction, a country populated by a potpourri of one-time outsiders that has nevertheless always harbored a deep-seated xenophobia. "They keep coming," said one of Gov. Pete Wilson's re-election commercials. Yep, and they always have. If they hadn't, half of me would be in Italy, the other half in Ireland.

Mr. Wilson says there is "a real sense of rage" about immigration. Surely he must know that rage is as old as our history, as old as this 1830 ad from the New York Evening Post: "Wanted -- a cook or chambermaid. She must be American Scotch, Swiss or African -- no Irish."

When my Italian grandparents arrived in this country, their English was poor and they poorer. Some of their daughter's most vivid memories of her childhood were of being called

"dago" and "guinea" by other children. Yet somehow their descendants prospered, just as the grocery store Cuomos became the governor's mansion Cuomos, the hot-dog stand Iacoccas the Chrysler Corporation Iacoccas.

The word on today's new immigrants is that they are different, that they want only to get on the American dole. The word on immigrants 100 years ago was that they expected to survive through crime, everything from bootlegging to petty thievery. The conclusion has never changed: the worst sort of people come here for the worst sort of reasons and put upon those of us who have conveniently forgotten where we came from and how we got here.

Unchanging, too, is the hypocrisy. The aristocracy of 19th-century Manhattan derided the new arrivals but were happy to have them wash their linens, butcher their beef, build their bridges. A decade ago Mr. Wilson, then a senator, insisted that any immigration reform act include a provision allowing hundreds of thousands of immigrants into the country to harvest crops. It was a provision that benefited California's growers -- and led to an enormous influx of immigrants. Yet Mr. Wilson has made anti-immigrant fervor a centerpiece of his campaign. His slogan might as well be "Pick our grapes, but don't dare eat 'em."

The state's Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Michael Huffington, was forced to admit last week that for five years his daughters were cared for by an illegal immigrant employed by his family. "The only phone number my 5-year-old knows by heart is Marisela's," said Mrs. Huffington plaintively. Yet her husband supports the proposition that the woman who cared for his children should be barred from health care or schooling for her own, as though politics were not about people, the Mariselas of the world.

Proposition 187 is a simplistic answer to a complex problem. And it makes a mockery of everything that has ever lured people to this country. Sure, they came here to strike it rich. But many of them believed that America was in some deeper sense a better place, a place that had elevated the dignity of man to a governmental art form.

"Rewards in freedom, first of all," was how Judge Calabresi described it, "and in service and capacity to grow and do good." dTC Perhaps the only people still idealistic enough to believe that are those who come in boats, on rafts, scrambling across our borders.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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