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Facing Up to It in California: We Must Leap the 'Third Rail' of Illegal Immigration



For the last two decades the issue of massive illegal immigration has been the third rail of California politics. Most state residents -- of all backgrounds -- were against it privately, yet precious few would say so publicly. Who wished to be vilified as a racist -- especially in the lotus-eating years of a booming economy, and a new middle-class lifestyle made possible by the hiring of cheap, undocumented gardeners, housekeepers, and nannies?


A brief example: Recently I gave a small luncheon presentation about some of the issues and paradoxes of illegal immigration in California to a group of congressional staffers in Washington. The first questioner, Federico de Jesus, a press aide for Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader from California, actually posed no question, but offered a long rant to the effect that by questioning the current policy of de facto open borders I was promoting racism and xenophobia. He then stormed out -- but not before attempting to steal a pizza at the rear of the room. What exactly had set Mr. de Jesus off? "You admitted you were a classist," he yelled -- apparently thinking that a "classicist," who studies the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, is synonymous with a "classist," who, I suppose, might advocate class divisions. In explanation, Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Pelosi, chose to ignore Mr. de Jesus's slander, offering instead the bland statement: "A staffer thought a racially insensitive remark was made. He objected and left the briefing."


So in such a charged atmosphere, the explosive issue has mostly been left to state referenda, in which voters in the privacy of the ballot booth have periodically passed laws on the subject -- eliminating state aid to illegal aliens, and ending bilingual education and affirmative action. (Yet another referendum -- which would end the state's collection of racial data altogether -- is on the October 7 ballot.) In most cases, its anger vented, the electorate shrugged when a) liberal federal judges threw out the ballot propositions or b) state agencies stealthily ignored the newly enacted laws, pleading that they were subject to contravening higher federal statutes.


Public sentiment is one thing, political discourse another -- especially when the latter is guided by demography. Forty percent of the state's population now claims some sort of Mexican heritage. An entire class of racial shepherds in our universities, legislature, and media owes its very existence to a permanent constituency of unassimilated voters -- in the same manner that our contractors, agribusinessmen, and restaurateurs depend on a perennial supply of hard-working but inexpensive undocumented workers who live in the shadows of California civic life.




But money (or lack of it) and the quest for power are strong historical forces and they have now combined to weaken the code of silence. The $38 billion budget deficit, along with the fact that three prominent gubernatorial candidates -- Cruz Bustamante, Arianna Huffington, and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- are either immigrants themselves or consciously have identified with immigrants, has at long last prompted a raucous, indeed demagogic, debate.


Bustamante has managed to portray himself as an up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant, representative of the ordeal of the entire Mexican diaspora. In fact, he is a successful third-generation, middle-class Californian, who grew up speaking English in a typical San Joaquin Valley suburb as the son of a city councilman -- and is himself a lifelong bureaucrat and political insider who has never really had to work outside government. In other words, he is a fine example of how legal and measured immigration, assimilation, and the melting pot make all of us more or less ordinary and indistinguishable Americans. In contrast, Schwarzenegger came here penniless from postwar Austria with a spooky accent right out of Hogan's Heroes , and really did embody the first- generation American immigrant success story of creating a new autonomous and prosperous life ex nihilo . Only in California could the former be dubbed a triumphant underdog and the latter a privileged nativist. If Arnold had immigrated from Mexico in the 1970s, and Cruz's grandfather from Austria . . . well, you get the picture.


The race has been narrowing to a contest between Bustamante and Schwarzenegger, and each is having problems with illegal immigration and the assorted landmines of identity politics that surround it. Bustamante remains unapologetic about his youthful, rite-of-passage membership in the separatist and patently racist MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) student organization. Fair enough; we all do dumb things when we are young, and -- despite conservatives' comparisons to the Klan -- the self-inflated, goofy MEChA was never as dangerous in the concrete as it was lunatic in the abstract. But the rules of politics are unforgiving.


So before this campaign is over, Bustamante will probably have to address the present -- not the past -- official policy of MEChA, which is actually antithetical to the idea of a multiracial and tolerant society. It will not do to say simply that MEChA embodies the high- flying rhetoric of the 1960s, was basically a benevolent student organization, or uses allegorical rather than concrete language -- not with the odious proclamations in its current manifesto, including "We are a bronze people with a bronze culture" and "For the race everything; for those outside the race, nothing." This is a silly group, but it is separatist nonetheless, calling for the "liberation of AZTLAN, meaning self-determination of our people in this occupied state and the physical liberation of our land." "Gringos" are endemic in MEChA literature, along with incendiary phraseology and emblems of the Mexican eagle clutching dynamite.


Ideas, even puerile ones, do have consequences. If we put aside the pernicious philosophical effects of inculcating a racialist identity (in this regard "La Raza" is analogous to the old German concept of Volk ), the logical wages of racist lobbying organizations like MEChA have been separate graduation ceremonies, bilingual education, and ethnic chauvinism in our college curricula. Decades of that have done quite a lot for an activist elite, but almost nothing to prepare the children of immigrants for the breakneck competition of American culture -- not when 40 percent of students of Mexican heritage fail to graduate from high school and when fewer than 10 percent of Mexican- Americans hold bachelor's degrees.


Bustamante so far has evaded the tough questions, reciting instead the mantra of thousands of impressive second- and third-generation Mexican- American success stories. Such therapeutics perhaps will work for a while; but millions of black, Asian, and white Californians wonder what is so difficult about a simple disclaimer, perhaps something like, "Once MEChA may have sought to instill pride in young Mexican-American youth, but its racist and separatist language has no place in present- day California." Californians, of course, do not fear newcomers from Mexico -- only the cynical exploitation of illegal mass immigration, coupled with organizations like MEChA that exist to maximize their own interests at the expense of the public good.


Bustamante, like most aging-yuppie former Mechistas, hardly believes in a reemergence of a mythical, separatist "bronze" AZTLAN -- not with a bustling popular culture of Tiger Woods, Sammy Sosa, Jennifer Lopez, Penelope Cruz, and so on. But the fact that he has offered no such mea culpa suggests that he either does not wish to offend his politicized Latino base, or believes that he can pass off MEChA as a service organization analogous to the Kiwanis or Lions Club -- or, still more likely, thinks the growing storm over his MEChA past is merely a weird sort of wedge issue in which he can play a beleaguered Hispanic politician hammered by "reactionaries." Still, the problem will not go away in the minds of millions of moderate voters of all heritages until Bustamante and prominent Latino politicians renounce the present MEChA charter. In the meantime, his rallies are increasingly shrill, and appealing primarily to Latino voters. The old theme of "no on the recall, yes on Bustamante" has been replaced by "vote Bustamante" -- to the exasperation of Davis supporters and mainstream Democrats, who don't want the recall to become a primary and a general election all at once.




Schwarzenegger confronts a different sort of dilemma. He knows that Californians voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 187 -- ending state aid to illegals -- and would do so again. (Almost a third of the Latino voters supported it.) But much of the Prop. 187 campaign was seen as deeply offensive by citizens of Mexican heritage, ranging from the scary pictures of aliens swarming over our freeways to the specter of children being denied entrance to schools and access to emergency medical care. In the current demagogic climate, it will be hard for Schwarzenegger to continue to oppose today's essentially open borders without being called a racist. His challenge is to focus on the poor and exploited, and explain the dimensions of the problem to state voters in starkly moral terms. Illegality and the failure to assimilate are the inevitable results of a system of de facto helotage that encourages millions of impoverished and uneducated people to enter California to work among the affluent, but live in apartheid communities. If Californians are told that it is neither wise nor moral to traffic in human capital -- hand in glove with a corrupt Mexican government -- most will realize that we must return to the more sensible policy of times past -- when immigrants came in fewer numbers, legally, and were assimilated through English immersion and traditional civic education. In this regard, Schwarzenegger's natural constituency is a growing Mexican-American middle class, who could appreciate his empathy and respect for its own distinguished record of achievement and playing by the rules. (Republicans have to be very careful, though, because much of the impetus for open borders came from deep-pocket cynical employers who wanted the laborers and expected the state to subsidize the costs of entitlements when the laborers aged, became injured, or were sick.)


The best solution to the problem of illegal immigration -- at the level of both politics and policy -- may be amnesty; but amnesty would work only if it were not rolling and perpetual, but instead coupled with a real crackdown in enforcement to close the border and return the immigration process to a legal and workable system. Unfortunately, Democrats who unthinkingly support massive reprieves refuse to discuss the necessary immigration reforms, and thus betray their real preference for an open border ratified by periodic blanket forgiveness to those who ignored the law. The restrictionists who stridently oppose amnesty also have a problem: They have not yet explained to us how -- either practically or morally -- we can expect border-patrol vans to crisscross the barrio, apprehending retirees in their 60s and 70s who have not set foot in Oaxaca in 40 years.


In short, the illegal-immigration problem won't become easier to solve any time soon. When once asked about his position, Bustamante snapped to reporters that "My district requires it," and cut off the questioning. The more principled Schwarzenegger has the greater burden of explaining to all Californians why the present system must, for both pragmatic and ethical reasons, be abolished. Somehow he must, with real empathy, decry the illegal exploitation of the poor and the immigrants, warn of the dangers of racial chauvinism, decry the amorality of trafficking in human capital, and preach the need to respect the law -- in order to return the California immigrant experience to within the norms of past American law and practice -- all without playing into Bustamante's hands as a nativist or gratuitously offending the corporate or libertarian Right that has so profited from the present chaos.


The truth alone will set him free -- and will determine whether we in the state will evolve into a truly multiracial society united by traditional common American beliefs and values or go the route of a separatist and strife-torn Balkans or Rwanda. The stakes in this election are really as high as all that.


Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and the author of Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter).
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