Immigration: Sinking Our State

California's "Save Our State" initiative is masquerading as an attack on welfare.


If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the Save Our State immigration initiative on California's November ballot represents a superhighway.

At first glance, the measure, which prevents illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits, might appear quite attractive to opponents of California's overgrown social welfare state. After all, if rolling back the tide of wealth redistribution has to start somewhere, why not with recipients who aren't even legal residents?

Even the staunchest libertarians who believe in open borders don't believe that illegal immigrants should receive financial subsidies from the country they enter. Add to this California's horrendous budget deficit, and support for any measure which purports to save tax money seems assured. Indeed, according to a Field poll, the measure, which will appear as Proposition 187, enjoys 64 percent support.

So much for theory. In practice, Prop. 187 would be an unmitigated disaster for California, with regard both to personal liberty and to state finance.

Consider a few simple facts. Illegal immigrants are already ineligible for state welfare assistance or food stamps, and their estimated use of medical services is quite low, just a small fraction of 1 percent of California's $57 billion budget. The only significant government cost associated with illegal immigration is therefore through the public school system, which immigrant children attend. Illegal immigrants make up perhaps 5 percent of California's total population, and most are in the prime working years of 25 to 40; those with children obviously make use of the public schools, and the sums involved are substantial. So one of the central thrusts of the SOS initiative is to root out these immigrant children (most of whom are actually American-born citizens) from the public schools.

How to do this? By turning public school teachers and administrators into de facto INS agents, forcing them to investigate the family background of each and every child in their school, at enormous effort and expense, and to report to the authorities those whom they suspect may have a father or mother who entered the country illegally. Having schools encourage small children to inform on the status of their parents has heavy totalitarian overtones, and the practice was even abandoned by the Soviet Union soon after Stalin's death. In recent years, there have been scattered reports of American school drug-education programs that have persuaded their elementary school enrollees to turn their parents in to the police. Establishing our public schools as agencies of government law enforcement, as SOS would do, is not a happy precedent.

The initiative only gets worse. Since the authors view immigrant workers with as much alarm as immigrant lay-abouts, the measure mandates a five-year prison sentence (or $25,000 fine) for any illegal immigrant who uses false identity papers in pursuit of gainful employment. Although estimates vary, perhaps upwards of 1 million of the illegal immigrants employed as California's gardeners, housemaids, hotel workers, or construction laborers have some form of false identity documents.

Meanwhile, California's bloated prison system has average annual costs of $23,000 per inmate. Turning hundreds of thousands of hard-working, tax-paying minimum-wage gardeners and busboys into prison inmates—at a cost of tens of billions of dollars—hardly seems a sensible means of solving the state's budget problems. A state that pays generous welfare benefits to those who don't work and imprisons those who do defies rationality.

And Prop. 187's public school provisions make false papers even more likely. To keep the public schools from expelling their 6- or 7-year-old children, many immigrant mothers will undoubtedly acquire false documents and risk a five-year prison sentence. For the land of liberty to flood its prisons with identity-card violators seems an abomination.

How do the principal advocates of the initiative respond to these charges, which I raised with them privately during my recent Republican primary challenge to Gov. Pete Wilson? One prominent SOS supporter claimed that much of the initiative was "obviously unconstitutional" and would be thrown out by the courts. Another felt that judges would refuse to enforce a law so clearly unjust. But one fervent grass-roots activist had the simplest defense, arguing that SOS was intended to be unworkable and bankrupt the state, thereby forcing Washington to finally "do something" to stop illegal immigration—such as planting land mines along our southern border. And these are the views of the initiative's supporters!

Despite its anti-welfare state trappings, then, Prop. 187 is extremely bad law, and is not a measure any sincere conservative or libertarian should support. It also masks the real issue in California and elsewhere, which is not illegal immigration, but immigration period.

Nearly all those groups in the forefront of the crusade against illegal immigration are just as hostile to the legal kind and are simply using the former issue as a stalking horse for the latter. And aside from the environmentalists (who oppose immigration as a source of economic and population growth) and union members (who hate immigrants as much as Japanese cars and for the same reason), most of the opposition to immigration has strong racial overtones, since the majority of America's new (post-1965) immigrants have been Asians and Hispanics.

There is a great unspoken fear that the existence of ethnic separatist policies such as affirmative action and bilingual education combined with large-scale immigration will lead to the balkanization of our society, and that our welfare system will cause lesser-skilled immigrants to follow the black underclass down the path to a seemingly endless cycle of dependency and crime. The future growth of a gigantic and hostile immigrant underclass terrifies white middle-class Californians, living in a state that is already 30 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian.

Those fears are understandable, but unsupported by the facts. The overwhelming majority of California's immigrants are self-reliant and entrepreneurial, with strong families and low welfare-dependency and crime rates. America's Asian and Hispanic population is largely composed of immigrants and their children, and these groups seem more a source of hope than of fear.

Signs of economic advancement and assimilation are widespread. Just recently, a high-school valedictorian from San Diego was discovered to have emigrated illegally from Mexico as a child; this follows a similar case of a Mexican illegal immigrant who graduated at the top of her class in San Francisco. In California the 10 most common names of recent home buyers include Martinez, Rodriguez, Garcia, Nguyen, Lee, and Wong, with the Nguyens outnumbering the Smiths 2 to 1 in affluent, conservative Orange County. In fact, nearly half of California's native-born Asians and Hispanics marry into other ethnic groups, the strongest possible evidence of assimilation at work. Those intermarriage rates are far higher than were those of Jews, Italians, or Poles as recently as the 1950s.

Or consider those places in America where the deepest (usually) unspoken concerns have already been realized, and white Americans of European origin ("Anglos") have already become a minority of the population. San Jose—the third largest city in California and 11th largest in the nation—is one such example. It has a white population of less than 50 percent and contains mostly Asian and Hispanic immigrants—20 percent and 30 percent respectively—including large numbers of impoverished illegal immigrants. San Jose has a flourishing economy, the lowest murder and robbery rates of any major city in America (less than one fifth the rates in Dallas, for example), and no significant ethnic conflict.

Or consider El Paso, Texas, the most heavily Hispanic (70 percent) of any of America's largest 50 cities. It also has one of the lowest rates of serious crime or murder, with a robbery rate just half that of Seattle, an overwhelmingly white city of similar size. The state with the lowest percentage of whites in the population (about one third) is Hawaii, hardly a boiling cauldron of racial hostility. And despite its heavy urbanization, Hawaii has among the lowest crime rates of any state in the nation, with less violent crime than Idaho and Nebraska.

Furthermore, immigration remains crucial to some of the most important sectors of the American economy. Silicon Valley depends upon immigrant professionals to maintain its technological edge. A third of all the engineers and chip designers there are foreign born, and if they left (or if their future inflow were cut off), America's computer industry would probably go with them.

In fact, many of the largest and most important technology companies of the 1980s in California and elsewhere were created by immigrants, including Sun Microsystems, AST, ALR, Applied Materials, Everex, and Gupta. Borland International, a premier software company worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was founded by Philippe Kahn, an illegal immigrant. Those immigrant companies have generated hundreds of thousands of jobs for native Americans and have paid billions of dollars in taxes. Without immigrants, America's unchallenged dominance in such industries as computer hardware and software, telecommunications, and biotechnology would be lost.

Today's unfolding immigration debate amounts to an attempt to snatch economic defeat from the jaws of victory. California's Prop. 187 is an early round in that debate, and it represents a referendum on the concept of immigration. If it wins, America loses.

Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, received over a third of the vote in his Republican primary challenge to Gov. Pete Wilson of California.