The Immigrant Issue Arises a Decade Too Late

While sightseeing and visiting my family in Israel recently, I took some time out to pursue a longstanding interest, immigration.

My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and I've found that their early 20th-Century experiences are paralleled by the lives of today's newcomers from Asia, Mexico, Central America and other places. Like the United States, Israel is a nation of immigrants. I thought they might handle the immigration process differently, as indeed they do.

When I returned from Israel, I found the interviews were particularly relevant to what was happening at home. Immigration had become an issue in the campaign for mayor of L.A. and the debate centered on how government should deal with immigrants, particularly those here illegally.

The debate is cast in the angry, extreme terms you find in political campaigns. In fact, it goes to the heart of the racial tension gripping the city.

First of all, there are limits to what we can learn. Israel's immigrants are overwhelmingly Jewish and there legally. Of the 460,000 arriving since 1989, about 400,000 are Jews from the old Soviet Union, according to a recent report by Yehuda Weinraub of the Jewish Agency, a non-government organization which brings newcomers to Israel. Most of these are professionals or skilled technicians. And, each immigrant family marks another victory in the Jewish demographic battle with the Palestinians.

L.A. is the Ellis Island of the late 20th Century, with immigrants from many nations, ranging from the poorest country people to immensely rich business owners. Nobody has an accurate count of how many are here illegally.

I understood these differences as I talked in Jerusalem to Weinraub and two other Jewish Agency workers, Akiva Werber and Kalya Gelles. Still, there was something useful in the national philosophy toward immigrants.

In Israel, immigrants are considered a national resource. In the face of substantial unemployment, the government and the Jewish Agency make a top priority of absorbing the immigrants into Israeli society. I visited a job fair at an immigrant absorption center outside Tel Aviv one night and watched them line up for information about jobs, loans, housing and schools. Jobs don't always materialize. A substantial number of immigrants have trouble finding work. But there was information about government retraining programs. "Come Join The Family," is how one brochure put it.

What I've heard in L.A. since coming home doesn't sound so upbeat.

On Dec. 5, at a mayoral candidates' forum, a member of the audience asked a question about illegal immigrants. One of the candidates, former Deputy Mayor Tom Houston, said that while "I am a very strong supporter of legal immigration, what I am not a supporter of is illegal aliens. What I am not a supporter of is continuing to provide ongoing benefits . . . it's like overloading the lifeboats of a sinking ship."

Houston's solution is to ask the federal government for $350 million to pay for local services, such as the county hospitals, used by illegal immigrants. "Los Angeles needs a mayor with the courage to march on Washington and get the money," he told another candidates' forum last week.

Although he says he didn't mean to, Houston's words strike an anti-immigrant tone. From what I've seen, many people don't make his distinction between legals and illegals when they criticize immigrants. Whether he wants to or not, Houston is tapping into sentiment against all immigrants.

And Houston knows as well as anyone that financially strapped Washington won't pay attention if he ever gets a chance to make his march.

Instead, Houston should have talked about missed opportunities. He was Tom Bradley's second-in-command from 1984 to 1987, when L.A. was stuffed with rising tax revenues. The Bradley Administration and the City Council handed the money out to the most influential supplicants, to the squeakiest wheels, with little thought to the future.

Only extreme right-wingers and zero population growth fanatics complained about the immigrants then. Mainstream L.A. hailed them in fancy celebrations of a multicultural city.

Nobody planned for the possibility of bad times. The good times are when Houston could have persuaded Bradley and the council to come up with a plan to combine city resources--available in the 80s--with those of the multitude of private agencies working with immigrants on housing, education and employment.

Immigrants should have been a top City Hall priority a decade ago.

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