Monday, August 18, 2003

California is being transformed by “massive illegal immigration,” says one fifth-generation resident. In neighboring Arizona, residents have formed armed militias to patrol the Mexican border.

From Maine to Iowa to North Carolina, small-town residents are protesting what many call an “invasion” of immigrants. And some warn that terrorists are taking advantage of U.S. immigration policy.

One recent poll showed that 85 percent of Americans consider illegal immigration a “serious problem.” That poll, conducted in March by Roper ASW, found that two-thirds of Americans would support reducing legal immigration to fewer than 300,000 newcomers a year, less than a third of the 1 million who came to the United States in 2002.

Immigration seems to be a concern everywhere except Washington, where — except for the 66 members of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus — neither Republicans nor Democrats appear interested in tackling the issue.

“How many people in America want to be called a racist?” Victor Davis Hanson says, when asked why politicians avoid the immigration issue. He answers his own question: “Not very many.”

Being called a racist has been a new experience for Mr. Hanson in the two months since he published “Mexifornia: A State of Becoming.”

A professor of classics at California State University at Fresno, Mr. Hanson is a military historian who says he reluctantly agreed to write a book about illegal immigration at the urging of his publisher.

He credits a “strange alliance” of special interests with stifling popular unrest about immigration.

“You have the power of the employers that have a lot of money — meat-packing, restaurant business, agribusiness, hotels, construction. They like to have a perennial supply of cheap labor, all the better if it’s illegal and it won’t be able to organize or advocate for higher wages,” Mr. Hanson says in a telephone interview.

“They’re in alliance with the race industry on the left, [who] want a nonassimilated constituency. You put the two together and the people in the middle get drowned out.”

Mr. Hanson, who will be the featured speaker at a forum on immigration today at the National Press Club, says defenders of the status quo distort the issue.

“The way the political climate is, the issue is never illegal immigration. It’s always portrayed as one is against immigration per se, or is against a particular ethnic group,” he says. “So when you try to talk about the need for legal, measured immigration, it’s easy to caricature you as a nativist, a protectionist or whatever.”

A decade ago, U.S. immigration policy was debated widely — 59 percent of California voters approved Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that limited public benefits for illegal aliens. But both President Clinton and Congress ignored the immigration reforms proposed in 1994 by a commission.

Since then the only significant attempt to change U.S. immigration policy was a 2001 Bush administration proposal to extend amnesty to some illegal aliens from Mexico. That plan was dropped after the September 11 terrorist attacks made immigration a national-security issue.

The immigration debate often pits conservatives against conservatives. When syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin pointed out that seven of the September 11 hijackers obtained fraudulent identification with the help of illegal immigrants in Virginia, she was criticized by the Wall Street Journal, which expressed concern that new restrictions might “upend the lives of Mexican nannies in San Diego.”

Such internecine politics dismay Mr. Hanson, who notes that he’s a registered Democrat.

“I love California, and I think it’s going to implode if somebody doesn’t talk about this issue,” he says.

The immigration debate has spread nationwide in the past decade:

• In Iowa, many residents were outraged in 2001 after Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack proposed making the state an “immigration enterprise zone” to attract foreign workers. Fort Dodge City Council member Greg Nolting was among those signing a petition of protest, saying the governor’s plan would take the “bread off our table.”

cIn North Carolina, protesters have staged rallies chanting “Illegals go home” and holding signs proclaiming “Now swim back.” In Chatham County, the Hispanic population increased by more than 700 percent in 10 years.

cIn Maine, concerns were raised last year after more than 1,000 Somali refugees moved to Lewiston (population 36,000). Many went directly onto welfare rolls. Schools were swamped with Somali children who spoke English as a second language.

“The city had to adjust quickly to this arrival of a group of people who are clearly identifiable by their race and their dress, language and religion. They arrived in a fairly large group,” said Lewiston resident Douglas Hodgkin, a retired professor of political science at Bates College.

Rumors swirled that more refugees were on their way. In October, the town’s mayor wrote a letter to Somali leaders, complaining: “This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all.” The Somalis responded by branding the mayor a “racist.”

That’s a familiar story to Mr. Hanson, whose book on California’s immigration problem has met similar responses.

“People who like me say, ‘Why would you do this? You’re not a racist,’” says Mr. Hanson, whose Swedish ancestors settled in California’s Central Valley more than a century ago. He says that if the United States “had 18 million illegal Swedes who couldn’t speak English, I would be picking on Swedes.”

He initially resisted offers to write a book on immigration.

“Myron Magnet at City Journal had heard I lived in the Central Valley, so he asked me to write an article about immigration,” recalls Mr. Hanson, who still farms his family’s land near Selma, Calif. “Peter Collier at Encounter Press read the article and asked if I would expand it [into a book]. It took him a lot of persuading. It’s a no-win situation.”

He says U.S. policy amounts to “rolling amnesty” for illegal aliens. “They have amnesty about every five or six years, without any reform or concessions from the Mexican government,” Mr. Hanson says. “That’s terrible message to people waiting five years to come legally to America from other countries.”

In the state’s recall campaign against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, rival candidates are largely avoiding the immigration issue, although Mr. Hanson says most Californians know it is a major cause of the state’s $38 billion deficit.

“You just can’t pay any longer for people to just come across the border to use health care facilities, education facilities, law enforcement, social services. People understand it’s just an outlay that’s no longer sustainable.”

After discussing his book on dozens of radio talk shows, where he says he has been criticized from both the right and the left, Mr. Hanson says he’s tired of the issue.

“I’m not bashing immigrants, but the taxpayers of California cannot continue to fund entitlements at the present level, because the state’s broke,” he says, likening the issue to “the 800-pound gorilla in the living room that no one wants to talk about.”

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