A Nasty Turn On Immigrants

Pete Wilson went to the California Statehouse in 1990 as the quintessential country-club Republican. Affable and urbane, he won a closely-contested governor's race by campaigning as "the compassionate conservative." But there was nothing genteel about Wilson last week as he promoted a hard-line plan to staunch illegal immigration. Declaring the country "under siege" from illegal aliens, he faxed a letter to President Clinton demanding that the federal government end health and educational benefits to illegals and their children. He also called for a constitutional amendment barring citizenship for the offspring of unlawful immigrants. Wilson says his state can't afford the $2.3 billion annual bill for their care. "We do not exaggerate when we say that illegal immigration is eroding the quality of life for legal residents of California"' he said. Wilson got a sympathetic but firm rejection from Clinton. "I don't think we should change the Constitution," Clinton told the Los Angeles Times.

Wilson's immigration offensive is also an attempt to halt the erosion of his own political fortunes. His job-approval rating is an abysmal 15 percent. Up for re-election next year, he'll face voters angry and frightened by the worst economic times since the 1930s. Unemployment is nearly 10 percent. Hard-line conservatives in his own party, upset by an $8 billion tax increase he pushed through Sacramento in 1991, are threatening to embarrass him With a primary challenge. Surveys show him losing a general election to either of two Democrats--state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. Critics in both parties say his proposals have the smell of desperation. "He's beginning to panic," says former GOP assemblyman Tom McClintock. His problems have also exposed a once seldom-seen prickliness. "There's this other side of him that is very much the trigger-tempered marine," says political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of Claremont Graduate School.

But Wilson is only the latest California politician to play the immigration card. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat also facing re-election next year, wants to finance an expansion of the U.S. Border Patrol by levying a $1 toll on all border crossings. She infuriated immigration advocates and civil-liberties groups with a recent op-ed piece noting that 1.3 million Californians are out of work while an estimated 1.3 million undocumented aliens have settled in the state. The article implies, against established evidence, that illegal immigrants are elbowing citizens out of jobs. And Brown, Wilson's likeliest 1994 opponent, drew national attention when she called on Clinton to ship illegal immigrants in U.S. prisons back to their home countries. To get any attention, Wilson had to be even tougher. His proposals would deny health care to pregnant women and expel children from school.

But these days it's hard for elected officials in California to be perceived as too tough on illegal immigration. Voter anger over a porous Mexican border has made the issue a political obsession. It's also leaped into the surreal. For the past several weeks, experimental artists working with a federal grant have caused a furor by handing out $10 bills to undocumented aliens near the Mexican border. One of the artists called the giveaway an experiment in "the interaction of physical space with intellectual space and civic space." Some officials called it outrageous. "I can scarcely imagine a more contemptuous use of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars," Rep. Randy Cunningham wrote to the National Endowment for the Arts, which partly financed the project.

Wilson strongly denies the idea that he's posturing for political benefit. He says he's not blaming immigrants themselves, and praises their "moxie" for taking such risky steps to improve their lives. But he claims dramatic measures are needed to keep aliens from entering the country illegally. "I'm doing it because it's my job," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I would regard it as a dereliction of duty if I did not address this." He'll need more than immigration as an issue to energize voters. He's laboring to put the stronger parts of his record into better focus: Worker Compensation reform, $5 billion in spending cuts over the last three years and increases for schools, law enforcement and infrastructure. He also brought in the budget on time this year after a 1992 fiasco in which law-makers went 64 days past their deadline.

But the ugliness of his immigration politics has made him look more and more like another Republican moderate who tried to deflect attention from a foundering economy by exploiting divisive social issues. It didn't work for George Bush. Next year California voters will decide whether it works for Pete Wilson.