California Melting Pot Boils over as Illegal Immigrants Enter State Hard Economic Times Have Some Lawmakers Trying to Seal Borders

Article excerpt


A BACKLASH is brewing in California - the late 20th century's great melting pot - over illegal immigration, shaping a growing debate nationwide.

Spurred by concerns over the economy, voices are increasingly being raised about the porousness of the nation's southern border and the financial impact of undocumented immigrants who are already here. While critics dismiss such protests as the xenophobia and political opportunism of a small minority, which comes up every time money is tight, the issue is nevertheless bubbling on several fronts:

* At least 20 bills have been introduced in the state Legislature aimed at curbing illegal immigration. They range from deploying troops on the Mexican border to denying undocumented immigrants driver's licenses. While even proponents give the measures little chance of success, they have made immigration an emotional topic here.

* Several candidates are raising the issue in the crowded mayoral race in Los Angeles. One, Tom Houston, a former deputy mayor, blames much of the city's budget crisis and crime on illegals. The Democrat's outspoken comments have resonated with some voters - but also inspired ire in this immigrant capital.

* A network of anti-immigration activists is surfacing in towns up and down the state. Small groups have formed in such places as San Jose and Marin County north of San Francisco. But the core of the movement is in southern California.

One group in the San Fernando Valley here, Voices of Citizens Together, holds regular meetings, publishes a monthly newsletter, and intends to advertise a ranking of mayoral candidates based on their stands on the issue. "I think immigration is the critical issue to the state right now," says Glenn Spencer, the group's president. "We are exporting jobs and importing poverty."

While illegal immigrants are coming to many states, in few places does the issue stir more emotion than in California, which has the nation's most diverse populace and a long history of varying tolerances toward newcomers. Thus the din over immigrants here will help define the national mood.

The state Department of Finance estimates that undocumented immigrants comprise about 1.3 million, or 4 percent, of California's total population. It says another 100,000 are entering the state each year.

The mini-revolt in the state Legislature, led mainly by Republicans, has triggered the most-heated fight over illegal immigration. Some lawmakers want to try to put a finger directly in the dike, by allowing the governor to station the National Guard along the border to back up the United States Border Patrol. …


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