Why Arnold should fight on immigration

Posted: Aug 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Democrats think they have found an early chink in the Terminator's armor: Arnold Schwarzenegger voted for Proposition 187 to deny state benefits to illegal immigrants. This is considered a scandal, demonstrating Schwarzenegger's backwardness and bigotry.

If so, he has plenty of company. More than 5 million Californians voted for the proposition in 1994, which passed with 59 percent of the vote. The ballot initiative was an appropriate reaction to the federal government's inability to police the nation's borders, and the fiscal burdens consequently placed on California. "It was one of the loudest and clearest taxpayer revolts since the Boston Tea Party," says former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who campaigned for the initiative while he was in office.

Ever since Proposition 187 passed, liberals have been engaged in a war against it, scuttling it in the courts, smearing its supporters as racist and arguing that it has catastrophically harmed the Republican Party's standing among Hispanics. Wilson says the anti-187 campaign is based on "mythology" meant to "intimidate Republican officeholders." "Unfortunately," he adds, "a number of Republican officeholders have indeed been intimidated."

This has kept almost anyone in mainstream politics from talking about one of the severest problems facing California. Wilson is now a co-chairman of Schwarzenegger's campaign. His attitude is that if Democrats want to make an issue of Proposition 187 -- bring it on. "If it was on the ballot today," he says, "it would pass again by the same margin, maybe more."

Schwarzenegger hasn't yet talked about Proposition 187 (or anything else), but he cannot address California's woes without tackling the issue of immigration. Consider what uncontrolled immigration has wrought. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies has tallied the numbers.

The state's health-care crisis is largely driven by immigrants. There are roughly 7 million people in California without health insurance. About 4 million of them are immigrants or the young children of immigrants.

Half of all welfare usage in the state is from immigrant households, and 32 percent of all illegal-immigrant households receive benefits from at least one welfare program. The average welfare payment -- just counting the four major welfare programs -- to illegal-immigrant households is $1,400 a year.

Half of all kids in the public-school system are from immigrant families, a dramatic increase in the number of kids in schools without a corresponding increase in the tax base. About half of immigrants are too poor to pay any income taxes.

According to a National Academy of Sciences study in 1997, the average immigrant household represented a net fiscal drain on the state of $3,500 a year. If you do the math (not even adjusting for inflation), that would mean that immigrant households cost state and local governments to the tune of $11 billion.

No wonder people voted for Proposition 187, including 31 percent of Hispanics. The GOP wasn't hurt by it. Republicans were getting about 30 percent of the Hispanic vote before Proposition 187, and have been getting about 30 percent since. Their basic political problem with Hispanics is that they are poor, and poor people vote for Democrats.

What is most needed is a serious effort to discourage illegals from coming here in the first place. To that end, Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies suggests a five-point agenda for Schwarzenegger: 1) that illegal immigrants not get in-state tuition rates to go to California public universities; 2) that illegal immigrants shouldn't get driver's licenses; 3) that the state government shouldn't do business with any company that has been caught hiring illegals; 4) that state and local California police should cooperate with the federal immigration service; and 5) that the feds do more to patrol the border and sanction businesses hiring illegals.

This would bring an issue of great concern not just to Californians, but to people across the country, to the fore -- and put Schwarzenegger on the popular side of it. Proposition 187 needn't be a chink. It could be one of his foremost weapons.