Dan Walters: Immigration reform has big stakes in California

dwalters@sacbee.comMay 8, 2013 

State legislators often conduct their windiest floor debates over nonbinding "resolutions" commending this or that, condemning this or that, or beseeching Congress to do this or that.

These symbolic and usually meaningless legislative resolutions typically rate little or no media coverage. But one calling on Congress to pass "comprehensive" immigration reform, approved by the Assembly on Monday, deserves notice.

It's not that it will have any discernible effect on what Congress does. It is that it passed with a fair number of Republican votes, and only one GOP legislator voted against it – which indicates that politically, the worm may have turned.

Nineteen years ago, at the urging of then-Gov. Pete Wilson and other Republicans, California voters passed Proposition 187, which was aimed at denying public services to illegal immigrants.

Wilson won re-election that year and Republican politicians have hammered on the issue ever since, but lately, their party has seen big election and voter registration losses. One reason is that condemning illegal immigration has become a big loser, not only with rising numbers of Latino and Asian voters, but with many white voters.

Sometime this year – it may have already happened – Latinos will become the state's largest single ethnic group. A Republican Party viewed as hostile to immigrants, legal or illegal, faces a future that's even bleaker than its present, as its new leaders now acknowledge.

There is, however, far more than party politics at stake for California in immigration reform, which has become the dominant issue in Congress now that gun control has been set aside.

A new report from the University of Southern California's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration underscores those stakes.

Its researchers found that California is home to nearly a quarter of the nation's illegal immigrants, about 2.6 million residents, and that they are overwhelmingly in the workforce, albeit concentrated in seasonal and/or low-wage industries such as agriculture and retail trade.

Nearly three-quarters of them come from Mexico, they tend to be permanent residents of the state rather than seasonal migrants, and they suffer from high levels of poverty but generate more than $31 billion a year in personal income.

Some form of legalization would have mixed impacts on California, the report indicates.

While it would free up now-illegal residents to improve their educations and job skills, leading to higher incomes and paying more taxes, it could also make them eligible for more social and health services.

They are here, they're going to be here, they play integral roles in the economy and the larger society, and no matter how the reform debate turns out, California must acknowledge the reality and deal with it forthrightly.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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