Boardman: Our attitude toward illegal immigrants chock-full of irony |

Boardman: Our attitude toward illegal immigrants chock-full of irony

George Boardman

Gov. Pete Wilson caught a lot of flack during his 1994 re-election campaign for running the "They keep coming" ad, which featured grainy images of illegal immigrants running across Southern California freeways (and presumably into the neighborhoods of God-fearing citizens).

But the ad did help get Wilson re-elected and may have made him a prophet 20 years before his time. Just ask the residents of Murrieta, Calif., not too far from the border crossing where the footage used in that 1994 ad was shot.

In a variation on a continuing theme, America's southern border is now being overrun by children from Central America. So many have showed up in Texas that the feds are off-loading the excess to processing facilities in places like Murrieta, where protesters recently turned away three busloads of migrants.

The protests grew on the Fourth of July — you know, the day we celebrate the freedom of our formerly tired, poor, huddled masses — when people on both sides of the immigration issue shouted and waved fists at each other on opposite sides of police lines.

They reflect the general frustration over the inability of our leaders to solve this problem and the genuine fear of some people that the country is being overrun by unwanted people who will drain resources, commit crimes and spread disease. (Irony Alert No. 1: The illegal immigrants they fear are mainly Hispanics, who already make up 38 percent of California's population.)

There's nothing new about these concerns. As Wilson proved in 1994, illegal immigration is a potent political issue in this state. That's also the year voters passed Proposition 187, establishing a state-run immigration status screening system designed to prohibit undocumented aliens from using health care, education and other government services.

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The federal courts declared the proposition unconstitutional, and Wilson's successor as governor, Gray Davis, declined to pursue any appeals. But that just encouraged movements like the anti-immigration Minuteman Project, a group of armed vigilantes who patrolled border areas looking for illegals.

His work as a Minuteman propelled Tim Donnelly into a state Assembly seat and almost won him the Republican nomination for governor in last month's primary election. (Irony Alert No. 2: Wilson criticized Donnelly for his "bizarre votes and statements" and "his irresponsible personal behavior.")

The latest crisis is apparently fueled by a rumor that children who manage to cross the border will be allowed to stay in the U.S. That has led to more than 40,000 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala being picked up by border patrol officers since October. Another 12,000 unaccompanied Mexican minors have crossed the border since last fall.

This new crisis is fueled in part by high levels of crime and grinding poverty in many countries south of the border. Mexico apparently does nothing to stop illegals from crossing its southern border; they get a free pass if they're headed for the U.S.

This could be Mexico's way of paying back the U.S. for creating the largest illegal drug market in the world, which fuels violence by drug cartels that has come close to destabilizing the country. Of course, the $25 billion in remittances Mexico gets from its citizens working in the U.S. doesn't hurt either.

The rumor that triggered this crisis has some validity for people who are desperate for a better life because, after all, there are 11 million illegal aliens living in this country. And whose fault is that?

The United States had open borders for the first 100 years of its existence, a reflection of our Founding Fathers' antipathy toward policies that restrict the movement of people. The Declaration of Independence charged King George with "Obstructing the Laws for the Naturalization of Foreigners" and "Refusing to encourage their migration hither."

Waves of immigrants from Europe provided the brawn and brains that propelled America's great expansion in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The resulting prosperity fostered resistance to immigrants, who were increasingly seen as burdens instead of benefits.

There's been a lot of high-minded rhetoric about securing our borders and protecting our values while turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants who do the dirty, back-breaking jobs Americans won't perform. If we were ever loony enough to try to deport all of our illegal aliens, California's agricultural industry — a $45 billion part of our economy — would collapse.

Republicans are right when they say we need to do more to secure our borders (imagine Islamic terrorist outfits putting effort into recruiting Hispanic agents), but it would take a Draconian police apparatus conservatives say they fear to find and deport every illegal alien in this country.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that legalizing undocumented aliens would boost federal revenue by $48 billion while costing $23 billion in public services. That's hardly the drain on our economy opponents of immigration reform like to portray.

It's high time we turn the illegal immigrants here into taxpaying citizens. We did it once before with the passage of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill in 1986, which gave asylum to three million people living here illegally.

The Senate was Republican and the House was Democratic then, and the bill was signed into law by (Irony Alert No. 3) the patron of American conservatives, Ronald Reagan. Imagine that.

George Boardman, a member of The Union's Editorial Board, lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays in The Union.

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