AMERICA'S war on immigration knows no bounds, and the California ballot initiative code-named "Save Our State" is the most mean-spirited action yet.
Under Proposition 187, undocumented immigrants would not have access to social services. Unless such immigrants can prove citizenship or legal residency, they will be denied access to public schools, colleges, universities and publicly funded health services -- including perinatal and immunization services. Proposition 187 would also turn public employees into snitches. They would be required to report children, students, parents, guardians, crime victims, witnesses and patients who are unable to prove citizenship or legal residency to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the state attorney general.
The reasoning behind the bill ranges from the xenophobic to the absurd. Here are the claims, in brief: All of California's problems can be traced to illegal immigrants. They steal our jobs, pay no taxes, go on welfare, commit crimes, clutter our hospitals with AIDS patients, have babies who can become citizens, breathe up all the good air, lower the quality of our schools and eat all the good vegetables (they get first pick). Some even say that immigrants are responsible for the increased earthquake activity the state.
Anti-immigration forces have already tried a variety of measures to "fix the problem." California passed the first "English-only" initiative in the late 1980's, and recently Gov. Pete Wilson filed suit against the federal government for reimbursement for the costs of incarcerating undocumented immigrants. Proposition 187 has even more support, including Mr. Wilson, the California Republican Party and conservative activist Pat Buchanan.
Not only is the initiative probably unconstitutional, but also it will cost already cash-strapped California schools tens of millions of dollars to initially check the immigration status of all students, with ongoing costs of $10 million yearly. Restricting immunization services will also threaten the public health.
The economic arguments against immigration are spurious, as well. Most immigrants work at low-paying jobs that many citizens will not accept. And 18 percent start new small businesses, helping the economy. According to Business Week, immigrants earn $240 billion a year, pay $90 billion in taxes and receive only $5 billion in services.
In California, where immigrants make up 22 percent of the population, only 12 percent of immigrants receive welfare. Most of these are recent refugees from Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union. And a 1992 U.S. Department of Justice study found that less than 1 percent of immigrants legalized under the 1986 amnesty program had received general assistance, Social Security, SSI, worker's compensation, unemployment insurance, welfare or food stamps.
These are the facts. So why the commotion? Money is part of it. While immigrants do pay substantial taxes, most of this money goes to the federal government; state and local governments aren't adequately reimbursed. However, if this were the only problem, a more equitable reimbursement system could be devised without scapegoating immigrants.
Immigration politics are less about economics than they are about politics, race and culture. Current immigration patterns can be directly traced to failed U.S. foreign policies in Southeast Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. Racially, though immigrants make up only 8 percent of the U.S. population (compared to 15 percent in 1910), immigrants now are largely people of color from Asia, the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. And culturally, California already has a majority of people of color. Polls show that whites, in particular, feel that continued immigration "threatens our culture."
As an African American of Jamaican descent, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Proposition 187 offends me, but that's not all: Such legislation does serious harm. When my grandmother had a stroke, my family hired an undocumented immigrant to be her attendant. The work is difficult, the pay isn't wonderful, yet the care is crucial to my grandmother's health and welfare. And it is the same work my grandmother did when she first came to this country from Jamaica.
About a year ago my grandmother's attendant got sick. She has emphysema and was forced to go into the hospital.
Under Proposition 187, she would be denied treatment. Without treatment, she'll die. And for her to die because her passport says the wrong thing would be morally wrong. I hope that Californians decide it would also beun-American.
Gary Delgado is the director of the Applied Research Center in Oakland, Calif., and is currently a scholar in residence at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley.