Why illegal immigration isn’t to blame for the state budget crisis

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the process of crafting a budget for the coming fiscal year that must close a nearly $21-billion gap between expected revenue and required spending, so a little lashing out is understandable. But he’s seen enough disastrous budget years now to know how readily -- and wrongly -- many people blame the state’s problem on illegal immigration. So it’s a shame that the governor fueled just that sort of thinking in televised comments over the weekend.

It’s probably true, as Schwarzenegger said Sunday on “State of the Union” on CNN, that California pays “approximately a billion dollars for the incarceration of undocumented immigrants” and gets only $100 million in return. The federal government does indeed have an obligation to reimburse the state for part of the cost of the failure to adequately control the nation’s borders, and the governor is right to seek every bit of revenue and reimbursement due to the state, to decrease the damage caused by inevitable cuts.

But illegal immigration didn’t get California into its budget fix, and full federal payment -- an unlikely prospect -- wouldn’t get us out. Playing to the anti-immigrant chorus, even in a quest for federal money, undermines the message every Californian must hear: We cannot currently pay for those programs that we consistently list as our top priorities, including first-rate education, transportation and public safety, and it’s not because of the size of the undocumented population. It’s because of our appetite for services, the structure of our tax system and the dysfunction of our government.

Schwarzenegger knows that. But he often has difficulty delivering the message. He wanders, in statement and in policy, between leading and scapegoating. He has been an outstanding spokesman in the fight to combat greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, dueling with the deniers on the weekend talk shows and touting California’s policy progress around the globe. He has compelled the state to grapple with its lagging infrastructure program and has kept the state’s future viable with programs to update our road and water systems. But perhaps because his career has put him so directly in touch with the popular imagination, he also gives voice to the common wisdom of the day -- even if that wisdom is wrong, as it is when it assigns the state’s troubles to public workers, welfare recipients and illegal immigrants.

The recession has ended on paper, but California faces several years of digging out. We’re more likely to dig out faster, and more successfully, if we focus on the structural problems that got us in trouble instead of playing the more comforting, but less productive, blame game.