States governments paralized with fear
Facing a tough re-election campaign in 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson championed a ballot measure that would, if enacted and upheld by the courts, cut off public benefits to illegal immigrants. Proposition 187 passed handily and Wilson won re-election by a landslide, but the measure was later set aside by activist judges. And a decade later, the political fires it ignited are still burning brightly because the issue encapsulates the powerful economic and demographic trends reshaping the state.
Proposition 187 was the first in a string of ballot measures that, in toto, signify a society that's beset by internal cultural upheaval. California's white population is aging and shrinking, and although it continues to wield dominant political power -- as demonstrated by the passage of Proposition 187 and later measures outlawing affirmative action and bilingual education -- many whites fear a loss of cultural power to newcomers. To many, illegal immigrants are simply human beings seeking to better themselves by filling difficult, low-paying jobs in agriculture, construction, restaurants and hotels that are vital to the economy. But to others, they are law-breaking invaders who drain the public treasury and whose ability to gain entry into California should not be rewarded.
It's entirely possible that both views are correct, at least in part, but modern politics don't allow for such nuanced positions. This is the era of us vs. them, blue vs. red, a confrontational attitude that's reflected in the trash-talking talk shows.
Illegal immigration began bleeding again a few years ago when Latino activists and liberal Democrats pressed Wilson successor Gray Davis to sign legislation granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Davis resisted, knowing that it would be a loser among still-dominant white voters, but caved in as he faced a recall election in 2003 and needed Democratic Party support.
Once Davis had been recalled -- mostly because he signed the driver's license bill -- and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger had been elected as his successor, the driver license advocates did an abrupt political retreat, quickly repealing the bill rather than face certain defeat in a referendum being ginned up by anti-illegal immigrant activists.
The issue, however, did not disappear. And if anything, the underlying angst about illegal immigration has intensified -- driven, in part, by widespread economic fears, especially the outsourcing of jobs to other countries. That entanglement poses a delicate problem for both political parties since Republicans tend to oppose illegal immigration more vociferously than Democrats, while Democrats raise fears about job outsourcing and Republicans see it as simply global free trade.
Last weekend, the immigration fires were rekindled when a handful of self-named California Minutemen began patrolling the border with Mexico, supposedly to help the Border Patrol spot illegal immigrants, but in reality to draw media attention and stir up opposition to illegal immigration. The Minutemen likened themselves to a Neighborhood Watch but some apparently were armed and they attracted, as expected, denunciations from Latino rights groups, which branded them as vigilantes.
The Minutemen's appearance also reignited an image problem for Schwarzenegger, who had praised a similar effort in Arizona and had drawn fire from Latino leaders in return. Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman, Margita Thompson, danced on the issue Tuesday, saying that the governor "understands" their concern about illegal immigration but "does not support their being armed."
And right on cue, a conservative group calling itself the California Border Police Committee gained official clearance to gather signatures for a new ballot measure that would create a state police unit to supplement the Border Patrol.
"Californians are fed up with open border policies that invite illegal immigration and threaten national security," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Murrieta, who introduced similar legislation.
"I would hope that the days of anti-immigrant bashing are behind us," Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez responded. "We ought to be celebrating our diversity."