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Keeping Peso: The answer to the United States' immigration troubles may lie less with border patrols and more with support for the Mexican economy.

Border Run

As the governor's popularity has gone south, so has his attention. A little bit of California history shows why he may be making immigration his newest crusade.

By R. V. Scheide

EVER SINCE GOV. Arnold Schwarzenegger began attacking nurses, teachers and other public-sector employees last fall, his poll numbers have plummeted. The November special election he just announced features initiatives that promise more of the same, from tampering with teacher tenure to cutting already overburdened school budgets. So far, it's gone over like a lead balloon. Suddenly, people don't seem so happy with the self-proclaimed "people's governor," and the career of the man once talked about as the possible first foreign-born president seems to be on the wane.

In short, Schwarzenegger is in dire need of a diversion, something akin to the wrestling move known as the "forehead tap." In this tactic, the experienced grappler faces off with his opponent and quickly taps him on the forehead, creating a distraction, while in the same instant dropping to one knee, wrapping his arms around the opponent's legs and throwing him to the mat. Wham! It works every time—as long as the opponent isn't expecting it.

But what could possibly take the public's mind off the governor's troubles? In a radio interview in late April, Schwarzenegger revealed what could quite possibly be his next big move when he endorsed the Minuteman Project, the controversial group of untrained volunteer vigilantes who recently began patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants.

"I think they've done a terrific job," the governor remarked. "They've cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage. So it just shows that it works when you go and make an effort and when you work hard. It's a doable thing."

Taking a page out of his political mentor Gov. Pete Wilson's playbook, Schwarzenegger went after immigration, and why not? As recent California history has shown, it's a doable thing. In 1994, Arnold voted for the Wilson-endorsed Proposition 187, the controversial initiative that sought to deny undocumented immigrants such basic amenities as education and emergency health care. The proposition won with 59 percent of the vote, but was later declared unconstitutional by the courts. That mattered little to Wilson, who used the issue to gain his second term as governor and to launch a failed bid for the presidency.

Whether Schwarzenegger uses the illegal immigration issue to jump-start his 2006 gubernatorial bid will depend on the outcome of November's special election. Clearly, he was testing the waters with his radio remarks. If he fares badly in the special election, the anti-illegal immigration rhetoric will undoubtedly heat up. But there will be significant obstacles should Schwarzenegger choose such a strategy. For one thing, the Latino electorate has grown in both size and cohesion in the decade since Proposition 187, and may simply be too powerful to take for granted. There's also the question of whether voters will believe Schwarzenegger cares about solving the real problems surrounding illegal immigration, or suspect he's just furthering his own political career.

Hispanic Panic

"The first thing I tell people is that this is a very useful political tool for people in the United States," says Francisco Vazquez, a Sonoma State University professor and director of the Hutchins Institute for Public Policy Studies and Community Action. "When Pete Wilson fanned anti-immigrant sentiments for political purposes, it was nothing new. It's always been used to rile Americans up. Mexicans are the perfect scapegoat when things go wrong in the United States."

Vazquez, 55, knows this from his own family's personal experience. His grandparents fled the Mexican Revolution and emigrated to the United States in 1914, where they migrated between Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri, picking beats and working coal mines. Vazquez's mother was born in Colorado in 1927, and was therefore a U.S. citizen. But when the Great Depression hit in 1929, America needed someone to blame, and Mexican-Americans proved handy. Under a "repatriation" program created by President Herbert Hoover that ran from 1929 to 1940, Vazquez's mother and grandparents were deported to Mexico, along with 1 million other Mexican-Americans. Like Vazquez's mother, 60 percent of the deportees were U.S. citizens; 400,000 were California residents.

"They were pretty well-established when they were forced to leave in 1932," Vazquez says. He was born in Mexico and didn't settle permanently on this side of the border until the 1960s. "At one point, I was an illegal, even though my mother is a U.S. citizen. I had to fight with the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] for about 20 years. I finally became a citizen three years ago."

Last year, responding to a lawsuit seeking damages for the Depression-era deportations, the state Legislature passed a reparations bill for the estimated 5,000 Mexican-American deportees who are still alive. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. Two bills concerning the repatriations, an official state apology and another reparations bill, were introduced in the Senate in late May. Schwarzenegger has so far not said how he will decide on the bills.

The scapegoating of Mexicans continued in World War II with the infamous Zoot Suit Riots, which took place in Los Angeles in 1942. This time, so-called Mexican baby gangsters were vilified in newspapers run by publisher William Randolph Hearst in an effort to divert attention away from the nascent antiwar movement. It worked, says Vazquez. "People stopped focusing on the war and focused on the 'Mexican problem.'"

That was followed in the 1950s with the Border Patrol's crudely named "Operation Wetback," a McCarthy-era program that targeted union organizers and other alleged "communists" through the guise of fighting illegal immigration. More than 1.5 million Mexicans were either jailed or deported in the operation. Many had been encouraged to come to the United States under the bracero program, which helped ease labor shortages during World War II, assuring U.S. victory in the conflict.

Such "brown scares" and "Hispanic panics" have continued to the present day, even as the number of immigrants from Mexico, legal and illegal, has steadily risen. A study released this month by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the number of illegal immigrants in the country is 10.3 million people, with 57 percent coming from Mexico and 24 percent coming from other Latin American countries. A report released earlier this year by Bear Stearns Asset Management estimates the number of illegal immigrants may be as high as 20 million people—nearly double the Pew figure—because of inaccuracies in the U.S. census.

With someone leading the anti-illegal immigrant charge seemingly every decade, why have their numbers continued to rise? Perhaps Robert Justich and Betty Ng, the financial analysts who conducted the Bear Stearns report, put it best: "The United States is simply hooked on cheap, illegal workers and deferring the costs of providing public services to these quasi Americans. Illegal immigration has been America's way of competing with the low-wage forces of Asia and Latin America, and deserves more credit for the steroid-enhanced effect it has had on productivity, low inflation, housing starts and retail sales."

Elite opinion makers are well aware of these facts, as a 2002 report by the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies demonstrated. Citing a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that included 397 leaders ranging from Fortune 1000 executives, union presidents, newspaper editors and religious leaders to members of Congress and the Bush administration, the report found that only 22 percent of elites believed that reducing illegal immigration was a "very important" foreign policy goal of the United States. Indeed, as the Bear Stearns report suggests, drastically curtailing illegal immigration could crash the economy.

Nevertheless, 70 percent of the general public believes that reducing illegal immigration should be a very important foreign policy goal, the Center for Immigration Studies found. No doubt the public's perception of illegal immigration as a major problem contributes greatly to its continued utility as a wedge issue.

"It's an easy tool to use," says Vazquez. "When you have such a good political tool, who wants to get rid of it?"

Bordering on Reality

Reduced to its essence, illegal immigration isn't the problem. Instead, it's a symptom of a problem—namely, the dramatic wage differential between the United States and Mexico. Through a translator, illegal immigrants Juan and Pilson de la Cruz define this difference as the $10 per hour they're paid for work here in Sonoma County and $10 per day they're paid for similar labor back home in Mexico.

A decade ago, Pilson agreed to pay a "coyote" $2,400 to smuggle him from the Mexican border to Sonoma County. He worked in the vineyards, tended lawns and wrenched on automobiles before landing permanent employment with a landscape maintenance company four years ago. Last year, he made $17,000, an amount he humbly describes as "a lot of money."

"In Mexico, nice shoes cost $50," elaborates brother Juan, who works in construction. "You can't buy them on $10 a day. Here, you go to a shop, and nice shoes only cost $30. We can have the pleasure of buying nice shoes." Not that working and living in California is all peaches and cream. "Rent is very expensive here," Juan says. "If your back hurts, it doesn't matter. You have to work."

Vicki Mayster is director of Immigration and Resettlement Services for Catholic Charities, working with immigrants, legal and illegal, in Northern California. In particular, her organization attempts to keep immigrant families together. That's not easy to do, thanks to a wage differential that tempts family breadwinners to cross the border, even if it means leaving a spouse and children behind.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that people are coming across the border just because it's a great place to be," she says. "I've worked with immigrants pretty much my whole career, and basically everyone's coming to the United States because of the economic problems in Mexico."

George J. Borjas, a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is considered one of the world's foremost experts on immigration and labor market issues. His work is often cited by both the left and the right, illuminating the objectivity of his research and the complexity of an issue that is often reduced to banal race-baiting.

"The U.S.-Mexico wage gap is among the largest between contiguous countries," Borjas wrote in a 2000 New York Times opinion piece opposing Mexican President Vicente Fox's proposal to open the border between the United States and Mexico. "A manufacturing worker in the United States earns four times the salary of a Mexican factory worker and 30 times that of a Mexican agricultural worker."

Borjas favors curbing illegal immigration, in part because he believes undocumented workers force down wages of unskilled native workers and use more benefits than they pay in taxes—even though he admits the data on those issues can be conflicting.

Vazquez concedes that in an ideal world, Borjas has a point about wages. "If we were to pay good wages for that work, then we wouldn't need immigrant labor," he says. It's not that immigrants are doing jobs that Americans won't do, as immigration supporters often claim. It's that immigrants are doing jobs for less pay than Americans are willing to accept. That's the reality created by the U.S.-Mexico wage differential. What's not in dispute is the enormous boost the low wages paid to illegal immigrants bring to certain sectors of the economy.

"Immigration . . . does more than just raise the national income that accrues to natives; it also induces a substantial redistribution of wealth," Borjas wrote in a 1995 article in the conservative National Review. "In particular, wealth is redistributed from native workers who compete with immigrant workers to those who employ immigrants and use immigrants' services."

Actually, the wealth is redistributed from native workers and the immigrant workers they compete with to employers and others who use their services, from Californian grape growers to New York City hotel chains, in an amount so vast virtually no one seems to have an accurate handle on the figure, although Borjas estimates it may be as high as $140 billion annually, or 2 percent of the gross domestic product.

The debate over illegal immigrants tends to create strange bedfellows. For example, Borjas' article may have been the first and last time National Review offered an opinion opposing the upward redistribution of income. Or consider the fact that while serving as a U.S. senator in the 1980s, Proposition 187 supporter Pete Wilson intervened on hundreds of occasions to prevent the INS from enforcing immigration laws against California employers, according to the Los Angeles Times.

While groups such as the Schwarzenegger-endorsed Minuteman Project emphasize the lack of enforcement along the Mexico-U.S. border, many experts agree that enforcing existing laws against those who employ illegal aliens would be a far more effective deterrent. However, a crackdown on employers hardly seems likely, considering that the INS—since renamed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and rolled into the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11—has made enforcing immigration issues that threaten national security its primary priority.

"We are just drowning," explains frazzled California ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice, contacted the day after the high-profile arrest of alleged Islamic terrorists in Lodi. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was involved with the investigation, and Kice was fielding numerous media inquiries, but only one concerning the agency's enforcement efforts in regard to employers who hire illegal immigrants. "Our current focus is on national security," she says. "What we're trying to do is heighten the nation's safety."

"When special interests benefit from illegal immigration, people look the other way," says Vazquez. "We know that Mexican labor is needed. It's kind of like global warming. Scientifically, we know the facts. But if you want to make a political career, then you attack illegal immigration."

Photograph by Glen Graves

Framed: Professor Francisco Vazquez's mother—shown in the picture on his desk—was repatriated to Mexico, even though she was a U.S. citizen.

I See Brown People

As the recent Pew Hispanic Center report points out, 81 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States come from Mexico and other Latin America countries.

"When we say 'illegals,' we're talking about poor Mexicans, dark-skinned, indigenous-looking Mexicans," says Vazquez.

Olin Tezcatlipoca, director of the radical Mexica Movement, agrees that opponents of illegal immigration are focused on skin color. The Mexica Movement is a Southern California-based organization that encourages people with any indigenous blood at all to abandon European labels such as "Hispanic" and "Latino" and explore their true historical roots.

"What about illegal immigrants from Canada?" Tezcatlipoca asks. According to the recent Pew report, 6 percent of the illegal immigrants in the United States come from Canada or Europe. "No one seems concerned about them. The Minuteman aren't concerned with Canadians."

Certainly brown-skinned people seem to be the primary target of legislation recently proposed by Southern California Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta), whose California Border Police Initiative seeks to establish a state-sanctioned force whose sole mission is to guard the California-Mexico border. Apparently, despite the fact that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service's taxpayer-funded $54 million triple border fence is nearing completion, the feds just aren't doing the job well enough for Haynes, who estimates his proposed border police force will cost $250 million to run but save the state $4 billion to $5 billion once it's in operation. To say that his math is questionable at best would be to belabor the obvious.

"Folks literally have illegals running through their backyards," Haynes recently told the Los Angeles Times, recalling those ads for Proposition 187 from nearly a decade ago. "About two years ago, things started heating up. It's now the hottest issue. The [state] budget, people can't understand. They understand illegal immigration. They see it."

Or more precisely, they see brown people. On the California Border Police's website, all the figures that have become numbingly familiar are ticked off: 10.4 million illegal aliens in the United States; 3 million in California at an annual cost to taxpayers of $9 billion; $750 million annually to house the 18,000 illegal aliens in state prison. As usual, there are no figures documenting the economic benefits such immigrants obviously bring to the employers who hire them and the citizens who benefit from their services.

In Haynes' calculation, the illegal immigrant exists entirely in the negative.

"It's not just an issue of undocumented workers; it's an issue of racism," insists Tezcatlipoca. "There's a history of crimes that Europeans have been committing that stretches back to their invasion of this continent. For Europeans to call us 'illegal,' there's something that's criminal about that." Tezcatlipoca jokes that he could support rounding up all the illegal immigrants, as long as the date of entry is moved back to 1492. But speaking seriously, he thinks that the differences between Europeans and the Western Hemisphere's indigenous people will only be solved in the long-term.

"We have no control over the wealth of our continent; we're considered criminals on our own continent," he says. "We have to have an education that considers not the past 500 years, but the 50,000 years we've been on this continent. Once our people and the Europeans know the reality of that history, then we can start talking. Right now, all of the cards—all the history—are not on the table."

For SSU professor Vazquez, the solution lies in equalizing the differences between the economies of Mexico and the United States, perhaps through renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"NAFTA didn't make any labor and environmental agreements along with the free trade agreements," he says. "It pales in comparison to the agreements made within the European Union. Most of the investment in Mexico benefits investors, not Mexicans. If cooler heads prevail, we would really look hard at how we can create a North American region where people have the basics. It's very difficult for people to uproot themselves and go somewhere where they are strangers."

Vicki Mayster, who's spent her career trying to mend immigrant families who've been torn apart by the economic differences between the two countries, agrees that we must take a more enlightened approach.

"We have a responsibility to be just and compassionate," she says. "If humanity doesn't drive our policy, we're going to be in big trouble."

It will of course require diplomatic acumen, something that, when it comes to Mexicans, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to have in short supply. He's been pilloried in the Mexican press for his support of Proposition 187, his rescinding of the legislation that granted drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, his praise of the Minuteman Project and his failure so far to visit Vicente Fox, president of California's largest trading partner, Mexico.

In fairness, the governor—who, by the way, is an immigrant himself—has been busy. This November's special election has gotten off to a less-than-rousing start, his poll numbers continue to dwindle, there are fundraisers to attend and soon he will have to decide if he will seek a second term in 2006. Should he choose to run again, his Republican colleague Haynes has provided him with a ready-made issue: realizing that the Democrat-controlled Legislature is never going to pass his California Border Police Initiative, Haynes intends to place it on the 2006 state ballot.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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