Who Foots the Bill for the Immigrants?


Political and press reaction ranged from skeptical to hostile when California's Gov. Pete Wilson last summer picked up the immigration issue, vocally demanding that the federal government reimburse California for the billions the state is spending on services for illegal immigrants.

Governor Wilson, said critics, was desperately reaching for an issue to escape a dismal 13 percent approval rating brought on by California's deep recession and massive tax increases on his watch.

The governor also had to face the suspicion of veiled racism that arises any time an Anglo politician starts blaming a big chunk of a state's ills on people of color.

Yet whatever his motives, Mr. Wilson touched off a political and policy chain reaction with implications for both immigration and federal relations between Washington and the states.

Governor Wilson starts with a political demand that Washington pay the $3.1 billion California claims it will be spending this year to cover California's costs for the education, health care and incarceration of illegal immigrants.

But he's going farther. He's also filing multiple lawsuits against the federal government, trying to recover past costs California has incurred because of Washington's failure to stop a flow of millions of illegal immigrants, most by way of illegal penetration across its Mexican border.

The lawsuit argues California's sovereignty and viability are threatened when federal inaction on immigration forces the state to raise billions of dollars a year to pay the costs. Such a huge unfunded mandate pressed down on the state, the suit claims, turns the Constitution into a "suicide pact."

And now Governor Wilson is not nearly the loner on immigration he looked like last summer. Another Republican governor -- Arizona's Fife Symington -- has filed his own suit, alleging that Arizona could have been spared two new prisons if it weren't obliged to incarcerate 1,760 undocumented immigrant felons.

Any partisan tinge to the issue faded April 12 when Florida's Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles filed his state's suit against Washington, claiming, "Federal immigration policy has created a nightmare for state and local government in Florida." He demands federal compensation for the $1.5 billion Florida expects to spend over the next two years to educate, imprison and provide health care for some 350,000 undocumented immigrants.

In late May, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, another Democrat, joined the push for federal reimbursement. Texas plans legal action demanding reimbursement for education, health and imprisonment costs of illegal immigrants.

"The federal government has really got two choices," says Governor Richards. "One is to enforce the immigration laws. The other is to pay for the costs if they don't."

Now the press for remedial federal action is being taken up by one of America's strongest champions of immigrants and their rights -- New York's Mario Cuomo. He considered but rejected the idea of suing the federal government, even though he had previously complained about the estimated $1 billion yearly cost to his state. Mr. Cuomo said he'd negotiate with the Clinton administration for reimbursement.

Illinois has also chosen to lobby, not sue, Washington for more aid. New Jersey may join Florida's suit.

California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas are home to 85 percent of the nation's estimated 3.2 million illegal immigrants. The five states represent, cumulatively, a massive block of 166 electoral votes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Clinton administration has now mounted a stiffer border-control program, especially adjacent to Mexico.

There's increased talk now in Washington of compensating states more fully for their costs of illegal immigration. But federal outlays of the multibillions required to cover the states' full costs, assuming border enforcement remains as haphazard as it is today, are very doubtful. The likeliest result of the political chain reaction that Governor Wilson set off may be much tougher border controls than this immigrant-founded country -- at least until now -- has been willing to enforce.

The terms of the immigration debate are clearly shifting. We may not like the idea of high fences, klieg lights and semimilitary action along our borders. But the costs of porous borders, the idea that we can be an all-purpose escape valve for the Americas, and to some degree Asia, is finally coming into focus.

"We're moving into the first major national immigration debate in over 100 years," says Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. "Most people," he suggests, "are going to have to bloom where they're planted."

The sadness is that by blindfolding ourselves to illegal immigration for so long, we invited today's fiscal standoff and crisis in federalism. Unfortunately, the debate will provide an opportunity for a lot of racist rhetoric to flourish.

Yet today's illegal immigration flow is simply too great to ignore, our wealth too limited to handle the consequences. A former INS official exaggerates -- but not too greatly -- when he suggests we can "no longer educate, medicate, incarcerate and compensate all the illegals of the world."

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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