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Posted on Mon, Dec. 08, 2003

Debate simmers over illegal migrants' worth


Ron Prince sees the presence of some 8 million illegal immigrants in the United States as an attack on the rule of law and, at its core, a blow to the integrity of every American's citizenship

To Sandra Blas, illegal immigrants are the secret to the U.S. economy's success and deserve full rights of protection and support that U.S. citizens enjoy.

Although their positions clash in every way imaginable, the two activists share a passionate belief that the future of their state and country hangs on the issue of illegal immigrants and what to do about them.

Legal and illegal immigration from Mexico has haunted the state since the first guest workers arrived on California farms in the early 1900s. It has flared up again over a controversial law signed and repealed within weeks that would have given driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"We are trying to get our laws enforced, pure and simple," said Prince, of Huntington Beach, who sponsored 1994's Proposition 187. Approved by voters but rejected by the courts, the initiative would have denied most state services to illegal immigrants.

Last week, Prince launched a drive to put a similar measure on the November ballot.

"You can't legalize millions of immigrants without seriously denigrating people's citizenship," he said. "When you're talking about things that deal with citizenship, people take it very seriously."

Blas, a spokeswoman for the San Jose-based Latino activist group Voluntarias de la Communidad, said many who denounce illegal immigrants often have no problem hiring them as nannies or gardeners.

"Critics say immigrants are just illegal and don't deserve any rights, but the hard labor, they don't see that," Blas said. "They put us on the side of terrorists when the only thing our people do is work."

Perhaps no issue in the state stirs passions and divides opinions as does illegal immigration.

The last major earthquake triggered by the issue erupted in 1994 when former Gov. Pete Wilson courted voters by taking a hard stand on illegal immigrants and by supporting Prop. 187.

If Prince's new campaign is any indicator, another quake is set to rumble.

This one was triggered by public outcry over SB60, the driver's license law, which inspired legislators who approved the measure just months ago to quickly repeal it. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quietly signed the repeal Wednesday night.

Although state Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, had sought the law since 1998 and brought it to former Gov. Gray Davis' desk twice before without much uproar, the rhetoric of this year's historic gubernatorial recall swept the issue to center stage. Voters didn't like what they saw.

"Its lack of popularity found a way through the recall debate to be expressed," Cedillo said shortly after the Assembly voted 64 to 9 to repeal his law.

Public opinion polls consistently show people unforgiving of illegal immigrants and worried about the effect on their communities of the growing population.

About two-thirds of voters polled during the recall election opposed the driver's license law. A poll conducted by market research firm Roper ASW in March found that 55 percent of Americans believe illegal immigration is a "very serious" problem.

Other studies show illegal immigrants make up the backbone of key industries such as agriculture. An estimated 58 percent of crop workers nationwide toil without legal documentation.

That contradictory public disfavor, linked with reliance on illegal immigrants, largely fuels the debate, said Nativo Lopez, head of the Latino activist group Hermandad Mexicana.

Lopez's group has called on all Latinos statewide to stage a Dec. 12 "economic boycott" and stop all work and commerce in protest of the license law repeal.

Californians are "willing to benefit from the labor of these individuals, but we don't want to accept them into this society," Lopez said. "Until we reconcile these hypocrisies, we'll continue to have this see-saw argument about immigration."

Prince acknowledged the "mixed messages" the country sends to illegal immigrants. He blamed both employers and migrants for the problem.

But he said industries such as agriculture could survive without illegal immigrant labor, although food prices might rise, because legal residents and citizens would not accept the low wages.

"I would be willing to pay more for food, but it would not be much more," Prince said. "The state of California would save billions of dollars a year, because people who come for benefits will not be as encouraged to come."

Sacramento State political scientist Tim Hodson says the immigration debate taps into the fundamental American struggle over diversity and the cultural face of the country.

In the driver's license debate, both sides took pains to avoid touching that live-wire issue and instead argued their cases on the less inflammatory planks of traffic safety and national security.

"California is still dealing with what it means to be a true pluralistic society," Hodson said. "That makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Change makes a lot of people uncomfortable."

Mike Spence, who heads the conservative California Republican Assembly, rejects such analysis.

"I believe the whole race issue in this has been overplayed," he said.

Concord resident Jorge Victorio, who entered the country in June after a two-day desert trek, said he understands the frustration some Americans feel about himself and other illegal immigrants.

He said he grows angry watching the crowds of Latino men who gather on Monument Boulevard every morning looking for day labor. He said they harass customers at nearby businesses and leave their trash in plain view.

Victorio, 30, uses the city-provided day labor center and tries to avoid being a nuisance.

"We're not here to cause problems. We're here to work. I send money to my family. They depend on that money."