California Reverts to Its Scapegoating Ways : Immigration: Throughout its history, when economic times got tough, blame was passed on to migrant groups. Mexico is the latest target.

<i> Kevin Starr, professor of planning and development and faculty master of Embassy Residential College at USC, is the author of "The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression," to be published by Oxford University Press. </i>

The California dream, according to the latest Times’ poll: National Guardsmen patrol the border with Mexico, bayonets at the ready. Every resident, citizen and non-citizen alike, carries a tamper-proof identi ty card (You can’t leave home without it). Countless times a day, the card is shown to bureaucrat or police officer to prove citizenship. The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship to the U.S.-born, is abrogated. Truant officers, lists in hand, enter classrooms and pull undocumented children from behind their desks, trundling them into vans for shipment to relocation centers. At hospitals nearby, emergency-room doctorsturn away the sick or injured who do not possess the identity card.

Every now and then, the people of California surrender themselves to a recurrent paranoid delusion that is virtually a badge of Californian identity. Now is such a time. And the combination of a paranoid-delusional populace and demagogic politicians has engendered among Californians a mean-spiritedness, a detachment from reality--and worse, a fear of freedom itself.

It happened in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 1871, when a mob, which included some of the city’s best citizens, tortured and hanged 17 Chinese men from downtown lampposts, among them a teen-age boy, then looted the Chinese quarter.


It happened in the 1930s, in the midst of the mother of all Depressions, to Dust Bowl migrants. In February, 1936, the city of Los Angeles declared both the federal and state constitutions null and void, dispatched 126 police officers to seal off all California’s land borders from entry by migrants--all American citizens--who could not prove their net worth.

It happened most sweepingly in 1942, when American citizens of Japanese descent were shipped off to what were euphemistically called relocation centers.

It happened in June, 1943, when thousands of young servicemen wandered the streets of Los Angeles, beating up young Mexican males, stripping them of their zoot suits, blaming them, implicitly and explicitly, for the fact that they, the Anglos, had to go off to war while the Mexican youths were able to stay home and jitterbug.

As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Just as Californians once believed that the Chinese, the Japanese, the Dust Bowlers, or Mexican youths in zoot suits were the cause of their ills, they now believe, with the full force of mass psychosis, that illegal immigrants--read: illegal Mexicans--constitute the gravest threat to our way of life, in a close third to the economy and crime, to which illegal immigration is intimately linked.

Think of it! Mexican illegals responsible for bloated bureaucracy. Mexican illegals responsible for special-interest-dominated politicians. Mexican illegals responsible for a soaring divorce rate, the breakdown of the family, AIDS, venereal disease, declining standards in culture and education, anti-female violence in rap music, drugs, child abuse, spousal batterings, the loss of religion and personal morality, deferred maintenance of the infrastructure, teen-aged pregnancies, the Inquisition of political correctness, slovenliness in personal dress--or whatever other symptom one might choose to signify the decline of California as a culture.

To say all this is not to deny that California faces a terrible array of problems, including illegal immigrants. As Delmore Schwartz once pointed out, even paranoids have enemies. Illegal immigrants are a drain on the public sector. The underground economy--with its exploitative wages, lack of benefits, forged and perjured documents--corrupts employer and employee alike.

Furthermore, in an economy partly dependent upon illegal immigration, citizenship is devalued. What previous generations struggled for across a lifetime--the chance to live and work in America--is stolen by means of false papers. The ghetto existence of illegal immigrants reinforces an unfortunate tendency in the legal immigrant community not to learn English, not to assimilate, on some level, the language, legal and institutional structures, heritage and historical identities of the United States of America.

As bad as these problems are, however, they are not the whole picture. The state’s current malaise cannot be blamed on the young busboy, far from home, washing dishes late into the night in an upscale restaurant on the Westside. Indeed, in the vast majority of instances, Mexican illegals are doing the work that others--even those on welfare--will not do, yet needs to be done.

How did we lose faith in the premise of America and California, which is freedom and an open society, personal liberty, courage, fairness and, whenever possible, generosity to others who also wish something better for themselves? Why are we talking about bayonets on the border when, every day, there are tens of thousands of legal crossings between Mexico and California crucial to the survival of our economy? Why are we scapegoating obliquely, perhaps, yet with loathsome effectiveness, the fact of Mexican immigration to America, an immigration that was absolutely necessary for the creation of modern California?

Mexican labor built the interurban electrics that made possible modern Los Angeles and its hinterlands. Mexican labor played the major role in the creation of the agricultural economy that still remains the leading component of California’s domestic product.

Californians had it easy in that long arc of prosperity extending from World War II through the ‘80s? When it was taken away--when California began to suffer like the Rust Belt or rural New England or Appalachia--they turned around and blamed the weakest, especially an underclass approaching non-personhood.

Paranoia is intrinsically self-destructive. Paranoids not only blame others; they do damage to themselves. And so it is not surprising that the current paranoid-delusional mind-set, not content with soldiers on the border and identity cards, with kids yanked from classrooms and the sick denied treatment, now seeks to sink the North American Free Trade Agreement. True, the treaty requires some amending, but to kill the entire idea of economic cooperation with Mexico on the ground that Mexico will hijack our economy is to betray in an instant how far our self-esteem has sunk, how far we have devolved into paranoia. We want it both ways: to see the Mexicans as, on the one hand, illegals enervating our social system; and, on the other, to see them back on their own turf, capable of stealing our industrial base.

What a horrible hypocrisy for California to simultaneously exploit and berate those who come only for a better life.