Bashing ‘them’ again

Just when it looked as if California had gotten beyond its immigrant-bashing past, we hear Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner vowing to stop illegal immigration and toss all illegal immigrant children out of the public schools.

Coming from Poizner, who’s skimming the bottom in the polls, the immigration ploy looks more like a desperate last gasp than a serious proposal. Still, Poizner -- not long ago an unabashed moderate -- has plenty of reasons to believe that there’s enough potential in the bloody shirt to wave it without embarrassment.

Illegal immigrants, he said last week, are a major cause of California’s budget problems, something you hear a lot from the anti-immigration, restrictionist camp. Get them off the taxpayers’ backs and the state would save billions. “Our public school system is deteriorating, collapsing,” Poizner said. “We’re being overwhelmed.”

A lot of Californians will recall -- as some worried Republicans already have -- that we’ve heard all this before, most recently in the arguments for Proposition 187 and in the 1994 reelection campaign that Gov. Pete Wilson linked to it. Wilson’s refrain was “they keep coming.” We all knew who “they” were.

Proposition 187, which sought to deny all public services to illegal immigrants, passed with 59% of the vote but was soon thrown out by a federal judge. Yet while Wilson, who had been badly trailing his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Brown, was reelected, his campaign drove hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants to the naturalization process and then into the welcoming arms of the Democratic Party, where most of them have remained.

At least some Republicans have come to understand that in a state where non-Latino whites are now just another minority, and where the fastest-growing percentage of voters are Latinos -- many of them immigrants or their children -- this is not a way to grow your party. George W. Bush and Karl Rove, who had fairly good relations with Latinos in Texas, understood that, which is why they supported immigration reform and, at least until 9/11, tried hard to work with then-Mexican President Vicente Fox.

But if Poizner, who polling says trails Meg Whitman in the GOP primary by nearly 50 points, hoped to use immigration as a wedge, as Wilson did in 1994, Whitman’s position, while shaded to a little more moderation, isn’t all that different from Poizner’s red meat.

“I’m not in the business of holding kids accountable for the sins of their parents,” she said. But she’s “100% against amnesty, no exceptions.” She also would exclude undocumented immigrants from the state’s public colleges and universities, “eliminate sanctuary cities,” conduct inspections of “suspected businesses” and, if the feds don’t tighten immigration controls, send the National Guard to patrol the border.

The real echoes here, however, go back much further than Proposition 187 and 1994. They bring back everything from the California Alien Land Law of 1913 aimed at prohibiting Japanese immigrants from owning property; to a long string of laws designed to keep the Chinese from entering California or to drive them out; and to the widespread American belief of a century ago that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe -- Italians, Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Jews -- were biologically inferior, more prone to disease, crime, poverty, insanity and feeble-mindedness than the hardy stocks who came before them. Where today’s restrictionists say “terrorist,” their predecessors said “Mafia.”

The new immigrants, it was argued, took good jobs from Americans, depressed wages, filled the jails and poorhouses, turned tenements into slums, wouldn’t learn English, were marched to the polls by city political machines (mostly Democratic), had children who didn’t learn and would never be good Americans. Sound familiar?

It’s a great old American pattern: The fears of one generation about the next are taken up by its erstwhile targets and applied to those who arrive after them. It goes back at least to 1741, when Benjamin Franklin worried that the “Palatine boors” then arriving in Pennsylvania would so “Germanize” the colony that “we will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”

Franklin later changed his opinion. In fact, few of the restrictionists’ nightmares have ever come true. That’s not to say that immigration problems aren’t real. And in hard times in particular, Poizner can mine a still-rich vein, especially among conservatives who vote in California primaries.

Yet Poizner isn’t likely to become the next governor of California. Whitman, in a general election, will probably throttle back even her less-desperate rhetoric. And a proposed initiative that would require Californians to show a government ID in order to vote probably won’t become law. So, besides the ugliness of the bashing -- and for the GOP, its negative impact on party membership -- where’s the real harm?

It’s in what isn’t being debated. With the decline in the Mexican birthrate and the retirement of millions of baby boomers, the demand for labor will eventually exceed supply again and the hot-button issue of illegal workers will become a thing of the past. In the meantime, however, much more pressing border issues go begging: continental security, the control of drugs and crime, transportation, the environment, health concerns and, perhaps most important of all, development of the Mexican economy to the point at which there’s less pressure on workers to move north.

If there is one lesson that can be drawn from our long history of immigration, and the equally long backlash against it, it’s this: Bumper sticker politics -- like the kind infusing the GOP governor’s race -- aren’t good enough. They’re almost as old as America, and they usually turn out to be wrong.

Peter Schrag’s latest book, “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America,” will be published in May.