Feinstein Takes Immigration Out of Closet

The loser of the 1990 gubernatorial race ironically is exerting the biggest influence on Sacramento's approach to the explosive issue of illegal immigration.

That approach--timid for months--has become more assertive since U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein began demanding in late May that the nation control its borders and stem the influx of illegal immigrants who are costing taxpayers billions for public services. Her recent proposal to raise money for a beefed-up Border Patrol by levying a $1 toll on anybody entering the country seems to have further prodded state politicians.

The Democratic senator has inspired Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to become more aggressive. She has provided "cover" for politicians of both parties, lending respectability to a sensitive area where it is easy to be branded a demagogue and a bigot.

Feinstein has made this a legitimate issue of scarce tax money and fairness. Nobody is charging racism.

"In economic hard times, getting tough on illegal immigrants is popular. It's probably where a majority of Californians are coming from," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

Ken Khachigian, a veteran Republican strategist, contends that "Democrats are jumping on it for inoculation. They see coming down the pike an issue meant to bite them."

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Wilson, who narrowly beat Feinstein in 1990, began dabbling in immigration a year later by observing in a Time magazine interview that "the changing demographics of California (are) very much a mixed blessing. At the same time we are renewed and enriched and refreshed by . . . a new generation of immigrants . . . there's a great increase in consumers of expensive governmental services--of education, of health care and welfare."

Wilson got tagged as a closet racist by liberal critics and thereafter basically confined his comments to exhortations that Washington pay its promised share of service costs for immigrants. He asked for $1.45 billion, and President Clinton agreed to $550 million.

But last week, after much debate within his Administration, the governor ventured into the arena of illegal immigration with Feinstein. He invited U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to join him on a future border tour and a prison visit to see firsthand the weak patrol and the burden on California taxpayers of incarcerating illegal immigrants convicted of felonies. He said these illegal immigrants account for 15% of state prison inmates and cost $350 million annually.

Unlike Feinstein and many legislators, however, Wilson wants to keep the illegal immigrants in California prisons instead of returning them to their native lands for incarceration. He fears they merely would sneak back to California and commit more crimes.

The governor's immediate aim is to propose sweeping reforms in federal immigration law by the end of summer. He is not sure exactly what. Most aides are advising caution.

But one key appointee, in public speeches, has been advocating dramatic changes in legal immigration. He would give preference to foreigners who possess job skills needed for the changing U.S. economy.

Richard Sybert, the state planning director, says: "We ought to be focusing less on unskilled labor and more on people, to be blunt about it, who have been educated at somebody else's expense--skilled workers and professionals who add value. But the main theme of our immigration policy is 'extended-family unification.' We're bringing in large numbers of people who don't contribute to the economy. In fact, they take from the economy."

That view clearly has the potential for controversy.

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In the Legislature, Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia) continues to crusade against public services for illegal immigrants. His efforts on the floor are quickly quashed, but Democrats no longer hoot him down. They have acquired a respect for the issue.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) has created a Committee on Immigration Impact, chaired by new Assemblywoman Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk), who says "there are figures flying around all over the place. One of our goals is to garner all the available information and deal with it honestly." The Senate has a similar project.

Says Brown: "You clearly ought not to be providing a safe haven for illegal immigrants anyplace, period. . . . We better deal with this quickly. Otherwise, it will engulf us into the kind of ethnic bashing that is not healthy."

That is Feinstein's point. "There's a reason there hasn't been a solution," she says. "People have been afraid to speak out."

But now less so, largely because of her.

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