For the first time in many years, California has a U.S. senator who seeks a leading role in reshaping national immigration policy and halting the daily influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere.
Democrat Dianne Feinstein has served notice over the past several weeks that she intends to pursue federal immigration reforms aggressively, tackling an emotional issue that has attracted scant attention from Senate leaders in recent years.
Feinstein’s approach reveals a great deal about her emerging legislative style and the growing salience of immigration as a high-octane political issue. The freshman senator said she wants to crack down on illegal immigration because, if not addressed, it is certain to compound the nation’s economic woes and create a public backlash against legal immigrants. By getting out front now, Feinstein hopes to win backing for milder reforms while discouraging more drastic measures advocated by others.
Critics say Feinstein’s focus on her 1994 race has made her eager to jump on an issue certain to resonate with California voters. They add that her proposals amount to little more than a rehash of ideas that have been kicking around for years, some of them unworkable.
Feinstein acknowledged in an interview that her six-point border plan came directly from a review of some 30 immigration bills pending in Congress. Based on these bills, Feinstein’s staff is preparing a legislative package that the senator hopes to introduce soon.
“There isn’t much that is new,” Feinstein said. “We went through bills and took things from bills. . . . I don’t think I have to reinvent the wheel if there is a good solution out there.”
Feinstein’s plan includes proposals to fund a Border Patrol expansion by imposing a $1 or $2 toll on all people entering the United States, stiffen penalties for smugglers of illegal immigrants and amend laws to prevent Medicaid abuse by non-residents.
Her self-described moderate suggestions for reform come at a time when immigration is a top priority in Washington. President Clinton last month approved a new “Alien Smuggling Policy” that pledges to curb the flow of illegal immigrants and close holes in the asylum process. A group of California House Democrats is working to introduce sweeping legislation on the subject.
Feinstein, as a newcomer to the Senate with no seniority to wield, said her strategy will be to use her position to give her views a high profile.
“The degree to which you can use the bully pulpit is the degree to which your words will get across,” Feinstein said in an interview. “After the show I did on immigration (a June 30 speech on the Senate floor), I had four or five senators call to say they were willing to help.”
Some say that politics, pure and simple, is driving Feinstein’s heavy involvement in immigration matters.
Feinstein’s announcement of a border plan was “a calculated move by the senator to posture herself favorably for her reelection in 1994,” said Zeke Hernandez, California director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino rights organization.
Feinstein heatedly denies the accusation. “I spoke to this issue if people cared to listen in my prior race for U.S. Senate. It would be very hard for me to envision a U.S. senator from California who doesn’t know that this is a problem and want to do something about it,” Feinstein said.
There is no question that by calling for action to stem illegal immigration Feinstein taps into a rich vein of public concern. Polls show that growing public hostility makes little or no distinction between legal and illegal newcomers, and that Latinos are nearly as hard-line as the overall population when it comes to cracking down.
Feinstein is the first California senator since immigration reform legislation was unveiled more than a decade ago to thrust herself into the debate, according to Senate aides who specialize in the issue. They recalled frustration with the unwillingness of former Sen. Alan Cranston to support reform legislation that had its greatest impact in large border states such as California.
Former Sens. Pete Wilson and S.I. Hayakawa, both Republicans, used immigration primarily to advance pet causes--Wilson to take care of agricultural interests and Hayakawa to promote English as the nation’s official language, Senate staffers said.
It is not difficult to understand why politicians are reluctant to get caught up in the immigration imbroglio. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), co-author of landmark immigration reform, says that immigration policy is driven by “equal parts emotion, racism, guilt and fear.”
In Feinstein’s case, her temperate approach has drawn rebukes from some immigrant rights activists for promoting immigrant-bashing and from hard-liners for not going far enough in the direction of meaningful reform.
Feinstein said she decided to speak up after receiving so much feedback on the issue from constituents, particularly in Southern California. In June, Feinstein’s office reported receiving more than 2,000 calls and 1,000 letters on immigration--nearly all of them expressing concern about illegal immigrants and their impact on California.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that approves immigration law, Feinstein hopes to join colleagues Simpson and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as a leading voice on immigration.
“She is in a position to be a defining figure,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. “She’s the first individual on the Senate Judiciary Committee that Californians have had to go to in years.”
Over the past two months, Feinstein has raised her profile on immigration issues on no less than half a dozen occasions.
She signaled her interest during a May 18 Senate Judiciary confirmation hearing by urging Deputy Atty. Gen. Philip B. Heymann to help develop a strategy to stem the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States. “It’s up to this government and this (Justice) Department to control the border,” Feinstein told Heymann.
Feinstein followed up with several private discussions with Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, a controversial opinion article published June 16 in the Los Angeles Times and a June 20 appearance on the nationally televised show “This Week With David Brinkley.” After disclosing her six-point plan on June 30, she spent the night of July 7 touring the San Ysidro border.
At the same time, fellow California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has begun addressing the issue, also meeting recently with Reno on the subject.
Boxer called her private session with Reno “a very important meeting” because it reflected the attorney general’s recognition that the issue is critical to California and the nation.
Asked why a liberal Democrat was calling for get-tough measures usually advocated by conservatives, Boxer replied: “Nixon went to China. Sometimes you want to take care of a problem because you see what’s coming is a lot of ugliness.”
Similarly, Feinstein said she believes the nation must take strong action immediately to restrict illegal immigration “to avoid a serious backlash against all immigrants.” She stressed in an interview that she is not endorsing stronger proposals favored by others, such as a constitutional amendment to revoke the right to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born on American soil, or use of a tamper-resistant national identification card for immigrants seeking work as a way to curb pervasive fraud.
“I think what happens is there is not enough effort made to look for a moderate approach,” said Feinstein, 60, whose mother was an immigrant from Russia. “And so both sides become polarized. What I’m trying to do is avoid that.”
For the most part, Feinstein said, the laws are adequate to control illegal entry. But she is concerned that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has not been given proper resources to protect the border.
“The general prevailing thought is we can’t control our borders,” Feinstein said. “I think that it is nonsense to give up without really trying.”
As she becomes more familiar with the complexities of national immigration policy, Feinstein is quickly learning what a political minefield the subject can become.
On the day her opinion piece ran in The Times, representatives of various immigration rights and civil liberties groups gathered for a previously scheduled meeting in Los Angeles with Feinstein and Boxer aides. Several came clutching the Feinstein article, furious about its contents.
Feinstein had noted that 1.3 million Californians are out of work and an estimated 1.3 million undocumented immigrants have settled in California. Although Feinstein did not say so specifically, the activists felt that the implication was unmistakable: The immigrants were pushing citizens out of jobs.
The piece also cited Gov. Wilson’s estimate that the state spends $1.7 billion annually on educational, medical and correctional costs associated with illegal residents. No mention was made of the hundreds of millions of dollars that illegal immigrants pay in income, property, sales, Social Security and business taxes.
“We let it be known that we were very disappointed and concerned with the piece and the implications of where she was heading with the issue,” said Susan Alva, coordinator of the immigration and citizenship project for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “We made it clear to her aides that, while there may be some points that we may not necessarily disagree with, she seems to be slipping into the anti-immigrant, xenophobic kind of mood and seeking to appease that interest group.”
At the same time, other immigrant rights activists applaud Feinstein’s restraint.
Cecelia Munoz, senior immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, said: “It is to her credit that she is making an attempt to be responsible on these issues and to avoid the hysterical rhetoric which is being employed fairly often in this debate.”