Considering California's economic performance over the last four years, it is not surprising to see that Gov. Pete Wilson has elected to make immigration a central theme of his re-election bid. Gov. Wilson hopes the controversy surrounding his immigration "reforms" will distract the public's attention
from the state's ongoing fiscal crisis.
The record must be set straight: California's economic woes are not the fault of its immigrants but of its politicians.Gov. Wilson, who has presided over the state's worst economic performance since the Depression, faces a tough re-election campaign next year. During his term, California has been unable to properly manage its financial affairs: The state has posted multibillion dollar deficits since he took office in 1990. Last summer, a protracted battle between the governor and state lawmakers over a $10 billion budget gap forced the state's controller to pay $3 billion of California's bills with IOUs. California continues to resort to deficit spending and "off-the book" financing to make up for huge shortfalls in tax
Fiscal mismanagement and gridlock in the California assembly have damaged the state's credit rating. California's bond rating has fallen to Double A, down from the maximum Triple A ranking it held at the beginning of Gov. Wilson's term. The downgrading essentially means California taxpayers will have to pay higher interest rates for the bonds the state sells to raise money. And California's creditworthiness may be in danger of slipping again; rumors of a second consecutive devaluation have swirled in bond markets since the state announced in June it would carry over $2.7 billion in debt to the coming fiscal year.
If Californians ask themselves "Are we better off now than we were four years ago?" the honest response would be an emphatic no. The state has lost more than 800,000 jobs since late 1990, the worse economic performance since 1938. While much of the job loss is from cuts in military spending, the governor has been indifferent to the unemployed. In 1992, he vetoed a bill authorizing the state's participation in a federal emergency program to provide up to 26 additional weeks of benefits for the thousands of unemployed workers who couldn't find jobs after their regular state benefits expired.
While national unemployment has fallen three times over the past four months, California's jobless rate has risen twice over the same period and now stands at 9 percent, more than 2 percentage points above the national average.
Like most Americans, Californians have their wealth tied up in residential property. However, declining housing prices have made property investments unattractive. Here again, the California economy and the national economy appear to be at odds. U.S. housing prices have risen 2.3 percent from a year ago, while housing prices in California have fallen by more than 4 percent. In some parts of the state, housing prices are off by as much as 25 percent. Millions of homeowners are now much poorer than they were four years ago.
The hard economic times in a place that many thought was recession-proof have helped foster hostile feelings toward foreigners. Paradoxically, many Californians believe immigrants both take jobs from native-born citizens and burden the state's welfare rolls.
Many credible reports show the net impact of immigration on California's economy has been beneficial and that immigrants mostly take jobs Californians shun. California's $18 billion farming industry, which supplies half of all of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S., has been built on generations of undocumented workers.
According to a report published by the Urban Institute, immigrants who arrived in Los Angeles County before 1980 comprise 15 percent of the county's population but pay 18 percent of the total taxes collected.
There is also ample evidence to suggest that California's social services are not being overly burdened by "illegals." Figures based on the 1987-88 Amnesty Program, which allowed undocumented residents to claim full legal citizenship without recrimination, found that at the time of application less than 1 percent of the applicants were currently receiving general assistance, Social Security, Supplemental Income, worker compensation or unemployment insurance. Less than one half of 1 percent obtained food stamps and Aid to
Families With Dependent Children.
Instead of using this information to dispel the myths and negative stereotypes of immigrants, public officials like Gov. Wilson are exploiting the public's fear and anger for political leverage. Collectively, Gov. Wilson's so-called immigration reforms run counter to American tradition, and some are certain to instigate lengthy and expensive court challenges.
One of his proposals would deny citizenship to American children born to undocumented residents. Implementing such a plan would require repealing the Fourteenth Amendment and other federal codes originally designed to guarantee African-Americans citizenship after the Civil War. The governor also has expressed support for a moratorium on all U.S. immigration. Strangely enough, this vulgar assault on immigration has received accolades from politicians of many political persuasions, including Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat, who like Gov. Wilson is up for re-election in 1994.
Government-sponsored immigration hostility is not just another one of the state's trend-setting phenomena. In fact, it seems Californians have lost their renowned sense of innovation and are following Europe's bad example on immigration.
Californians deserve to debate immigration. Unfortunately, the governor's hysterical approach mostly ignores the very positive contribution immigrants (undocumented and otherwise) have made to the state's economy. His proposed measures are also unlikely to control illicit immigration or invigorate California's feeble economy.
It may be premature, however, to dismiss Mr. Wilson's immigration crusade as entirely innocuous. Railing against undocumented residents could trigger
violent attacks on foreigners, much like the brutal assaults against Germany's immigrant communities in recent years.