Long exiled to the shadows of society, illegal immigrants have emerged this year as never before as a topic of intense and sometimes ugly debate under the Capitol dome.
Prodded by the slumping California economy and the belief that undocumented immigrants are draining the state treasury, a zealous group of Sacramento lawmakers is carrying an uncommonly large slate of legislation designed to make the state less hospitable to such newcomers.
Mostly conservative Republicans from the suburbs of Los Angeles and Orange counties, they have been pushing nearly two dozen bills--everything from a ban on undocumented children in public schools to a prohibition on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Last year, there were only two such measures.
Gov. Pete Wilson has also waded in. He has backed one controversial bill in hopes of symbolically boosting efforts to capture federal money to defray the cost of illegal immigration.
“This is the hottest button going,” said Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who sponsored two of the bills. “As people hear about job losses and the state deficit, the backlash against illegal aliens grows.”
Although the bills’ authors say they are reacting to the complaints of constituents, critics contend that the burst of attention springs from political opportunism--namely, a desire to use the issue in upcoming campaigns.
During last year’s elections, tough talk on illegal immigration became a standard stump speech for many Republican candidates and a few Democrats.
The legislative success of the measures seems for some lawmakers to be less important than being seen as doing something about the volatile issue.
Although Republicans take pains to say they are not targeting Latin American immigrants, some Democrats charge that the move has a racist element aimed at Latinos.
Assemblyman Richard Polanco, a Los Angeles Democrat who captains the Assembly Latino Caucus, has fended off most of the legislation so far. Polanco is supported by liberal lobbyists and Latino activists who pick apart the proposals as illegal, ill-conceived and unworkable.
Several bills have been killed in committees controlled by Democrats, who contend that the issue is a federal problem. They say illegal immigration cannot be stemmed until there is more development in Mexico and until U.S. employers stop seeking cheap labor. Polanco and his colleagues have also launched a counteroffensive, sponsoring bills that would ease the burden on immigrants and speed the naturalization of arrivals.
“We (as a society) have been willing accomplices (to illegal immigration) for the last 200 years,” said Assemblyman Louis Caldera, a freshman Democrat from Los Angeles. “Now in the last five years, when we have tough economic times, we point the finger.”
It all is a reminder of eras past, when California had economic downturns and waves of immigrants. In 1855, the Legislature imposed a $50 “head tax” per Chinese immigrant on ship captains. For much of this century, the state had an Alien Land Law prohibiting Japanese from owning land. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, 400,000 Mexican immigrants, including some citizens, were deported from the Southwest.
“You have the same thrust in our government now,” said UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Ronald Takaki. “It’s the economy--that’s why immigrants are being singled out.”
The California bills also mirror reactions in other parts of the country where immigrants have settled. Last year, New York sued to force the feds to take custody of 3,000 illegal immigrants in that state’s jails. In Georgia, which is in the spotlight as it prepares to host the 1996 Olympics, debate erupted after the Legislature proposed making English the official language and denying public assistance to illegal immigrants.
The debate is more intense here because California has absorbed more immigrants by far than any other state in the past decade. Of the 3 million illegal immigrants who applied for amnesty under the 1986 federal immigration law, more than half settled in California.
No one knows how many illegal immigrants live in the state, but officials estimate the number is upward of 1.3 million, with a net increase of perhaps 100,000 a year.
“These bills are symbolic gestures,” said Wayne Cornelius, a UC San Diego political scientist. “They are symbolic of public frustration over everything, with the sorry state of the economy, the apparent lack of control at the border, the indifference in Washington.”
Conservatives contend that illegal immigrants are one cause of the recession. People living here illegally are taking services at a time when the state cannot care for its legal residents, they say.
“We’re to the point now where we’re making our own citizens suffer to pay for the illegals,” fumed Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), author of three of the bills.
As conservatives sponsor tough anti-illegal immigrant bills and liberals react by labeling the discussion as racist, moderates largely have been left scratching their heads.
“This effectively cuts off any rational debate,” said lobbyist Arnoldo Torres, who once headed the liberal League of United Latin American Citizens. Torres said the conservative rhetoric is “so offensive,” while the liberals are worried about seeming “politically incorrect” that the result is that no serious discussion takes place.
While lawmakers waffle in chaos, Torres said, the millions who immigrated legally are suffering most; they crowd into crime-plagued neighborhoods and must make do with substandard schooling.
Torres said: “How can we assume that by having more people come in that anybody is going to be better off, including the people who are coming?”
Democrats and Republicans are so far apart that they cannot agree on the cost of illegal immigrants, or even if they are a problem. Liberals cite statistics that illegal immigrants benefit the economy and point to Los Angeles research showing they were contributing $4.3 billion in federal, state and local taxes, four times more than they were using in county public services.
Republican lawmakers, insisting that their efforts are fueled by budgetary concerns, contend that illegal immigrants cost California $3 billion annually. They rely on a state auditor general study of San Diego County that reported that, while illegal immigrants contribute $60 million in taxes, they cost state and local government $206 million annually in that county--the costs of processing illegal immigrants through the criminal justice system and providing them health care, public schooling and other social services.
Some researchers gripe that such studies fail to calculate the benefits of immigrants to the overall economy. The newcomers fill bottom-rung jobs that many legal residents reject--maids, gardeners, janitors, farm workers, restaurant kitchen help.
It is clear, however, that there are costs, and that they are rising. The state estimates that the cost of providing medical care to illegal immigrants this fiscal year will be $1 billion.
Federal and state laws give illegal immigrants certain minimal rights, although in recent years, California has become progressively less generous with its welfare dollar.
Federal law also requires that states provide emergency health care for illegal immigrants. California provides only what the law requires--with one exception. Medi-Cal, the state health program for the poor, allows undocumented pregnant women to receive prenatal care, something not given by other states or required by state law.
California’s reasoning is that it is better to pay $1,000 in prenatal care than tens of thousands or more in intensive neonatal care.
Much of the anti-immigrant legislation is big on symbolism, the sort of “wedge bills” that can come back to haunt Democrats around election time, although it has been used with mixed results in recent elections. Los Angeles mayoral candidate Tom Houston built his campaign around illegal immigration but ended up with a mere 1% of the vote.
“We’re going to test the will of the Legislature,” said Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), who has authored five of the anti-illegal immigrant bills.
He vows to use parliamentary procedures to bypass hostile committees and bring some issues directly to the floor this year.
Failing legislative success, some lawmakers say they will try to put the matters on statewide ballot initiatives.
Meanwhile, conservative groups are finding new riches by tapping anti-immigrant sentiments with direct mail solicitations that are sometimes histrionic.
In a piece that recently hit mailboxes, the American Immigration Control Foundation, a direct mail operation based in Virginia, called illegal immigration a “national security threat.” It urged that the military be called upon to guard the border and claimed that illegal immigrants are voting in presidential elections.
Organizations trying to curtail immigration are also a growing lobbying presence in Sacramento. Large and small, these groups have set up phone banks, held rallies and buttonholed lawmakers.
“We want to make it an election issue,” said Rick Oltman, who runs the newly formed Citizens Committee on Immigration Policy.
After one of Mountjoy’s bills died, Oltman emerged from the committee hearing surprisingly invigorated, saying he should have brought a video camera to capture the arguments of opponents. Concluded Oltman: “I’m thinking this is some excellent stuff to use on these people next year.”
Alan Nelson, Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner under President Ronald Reagan, registered with the state in January as a lobbyist on behalf of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington-based organization that wants legal immigration curtailed as well.
“This is where a good deal of the action is on immigration, and illegal immigration,” Nelson said, adding that the bills introduced this year reflect a “tremendous ground swell.”
Several of the anti-immigrant measures are of dubious legality. One by Mountjoy--to deny money for public schooling of children without documentation--violates a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits schools from expelling illegal immigrants.
Some bills are more moderate but suffer because they are tagged as “anti-immigrant” by liberal lobbyists.
Assemblyman Bill Morrow, a freshman Republican from Oceanside who campaigned hard against illegal immigration last year, presented a watered-down bill that asked school districts to tally the number of undocumented children, a census that could be used by Democrats and Republicans alike to lobby for federal education money. The measure was killed last week.
"(Democrats are) convinced that California is in a state of hysteria over something that’s not really a problem,” Morrow said. “The last thing they want is an accurate, reliable census that might prove them wrong.”
Polanco and others say it is Republicans who are worried about the numbers, in particular the prospect that immigrants, once they become citizens, will send Democratic voter rolls skyrocketing.
With as many as 5.6 million resident immigrants in California who could be eligible to become citizens, “it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity,” Polanco said wryly.
The reality, he said, is that immigrants are going to stay. They must be brought into what he calls the “new emerging California” in which, if trends continue, Latinos will become the largest ethnic group by 2020.
He and others worry that the anti-immigrant legislation only serves to fuel an undercurrent of racism.
“There is a thin veil over what they are saying,” said Richard Garcia, executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance, which serves an immigrant clientele. “They are saying undocumented equals Latino equals gangs equals drugs equals crime in the streets. The whole immigrant population is affected.”
A large number of bills have been introduced in the California Legislature this year seeking to address the problems stemming from illegal immigration. Here are the bills favored by those dedicated to limiting immigration and generally opposed by liberal and Latino lobbies. Bills that die in committee can be revived later in the year.
AB 86--Mickey Conroy (R-Orange): Would make it a state crime to be in California illegally. First offense, a misdemeanor; second offense, a felony. Status: Pending
AB 1525--Pat Nolan (R-Glendale): Allows governor to call out the National Guard to patrol the California-Mexico border. Status: Died in Governmental Organization Committee on a 4-3 vote.
SB 691--Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco): Prohibits local government from passing ordinances barring police and other municipal officials from helping the INS locate and arrest illegal immigrants. Status: Hearing set for Tuesday.
Assembly Resolution 16--Doris Allen (R-Cypress): Urges that only legal residents be allowed to use public services. Status: Pending.
AB 149--Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia): Denies public funds to educate children who are illegal immigrants. Status: Died in Assembly Education on a 4-10 vote.
AB 1801 (Conroy) and AB 2228 (Mountjoy): Bars illegal immigrants from attending state colleges and universities. Status: Pending
AB 1968--Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside): Requires the Department of Education to report on the number of school children who are not legal residents. Status: Died in Assembly Education on a 5-8 vote.
HEALTH AND WELFARE
AB 150--Mountjoy: Denies Medi-Cal payments to hospitals that treat illegal immigrants unless they turn the person in to the INS. Status: Died in Assembly Health on a 6-10 vote.
SB 284--Sen. Newton Russell (R-Glendale): Allows hospitals to report illegal immigrants to the INS. Status: Hearing set for Tuesday.
SB 1131--Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay): Requires people seeking emergency Medi-Cal treatment to produce proof of legal residency. Status: Cleared Senate Health 6-0, pending in Senate Appropriations.
AB 263--Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach): Lowers welfare payments to legal immigrants who have lived in California for less than a year to the national average, $396 for a mother and her two children. Status: Died in Assembly Human Services, on a 2-4 vote.
AB 299--Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena): Requires people applying for public housing to prove they are legal residents. Status: Pending
AB 151--Mountjoy: Denies workers’ compensation to illegal immigrants. Status: Pending in Assembly Finance & Insurance.
SB 406--Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier): Denies workers’ compensation to illegal immigrant workers who claim stress injuries when they lose their jobs. Status: Died Senate Industrial Relations on a 3-4 vote.
SB 733--Russell: Requires that local agencies demand proof that job seekers at tax-supported employment centers are legal residents. Status: Approved by Senate Industrial Relations Committee 4-0, pending in Senate Appropriations.
AB 87--Conroy: Commissions a study of the possibility of building a prison in Baja California, Mexico, to house illegal immigrants who have committed crimes in California. Status: Pending
SB 345--Hill: Requires the Department of Corrections to help the INS in any deportation proceeding against prisoners who are here illegally. Status: Approved unanimously by Senate Judiciary, pending in Appropriations.
SB 976--Alfred Alquist (D-San Jose), AB 983 (Allen), AB 2171 (Mountjoy): Similar bills would require people to prove they are legal residents to get a drivers license or renew their licenses. Status: Assembly bills died in Assembly Transportation. Senate bill approved by Senate Transportation on a 7-1 vote, pending in Appropriations.