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Prop. 187, by William Bennet

Posted by nrohr on June 8, 2009

In 1994 California voters passed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that stripped illegal aliens of public services, including education and health care. The principal targets of Proposition 187 were Mexican immigrants who illegally crossed into California every year by the thousands. The massive influx of Mexican immigrants to the United States (both legal and illegal) began in the 1960s and 1970s but grew to greater proportions in the 1980s and 1990s, setting off a contentious political debate within the United States. This immigration was largely a result of widespread poverty in Mexico and economic opportunity in the United States, spurred by American business demands for low-wage labor, which Mexican immigrants provided. As the most populous state in the country and with a seemingly porous border with Mexico, California quickly emerged at the forefront of an anti-immigrant backlash. Supporters of Proposition 187 argued that illegal aliens placed a burdensome drain on state services and cost California taxpayers millions of dollars every year. On the other hand, opponents of Proposition 187 argued that disallowing public services would not deter illegal immigration but only worsen poverty in California. William Bennett, former secretary of education during the Ronald Reagan administration, was among the first Republican leaders to oppose Proposition 187, despite the fact that many California Republicans supported it.

Source: Current, February 1995, “Making Americans: Immigration and Tolerance.”


Proposition 187, California’s ballot initiative which deprives illegal aliens of such publicly funded services as education and health care, won an overwhelming victory last month. A handful of states have expressed interest in putting similar measures on the ballot. Legislation may be introduced in the 104th Congress that would reduce legal immigrant quotas by as much as 50 percent. And some prominent conservatives are now arguing for a moratorium on legal immigration.

Just a few years ago, immigration issues went virtually unmentioned; soon they will be near the top of the national political agenda. For the first time in decades, the GOP will decide immigration policy—and at a time when Republicans are engaged in a vigorous debate about what direction to go. The new majority party now has an opportunity to craft legislation that is responsible, effective and consonant with the best aspects of the American character.

The most contentious part of the entire immigration debate is illegal immigration. When Jack Kemp and I came out in opposition to Proposition 187, we knew we were going against strong and deep political currents. But I believed then and I believe now that the proposition is meretricious, shortsighted (i.e., throwing 300,000 children out of school and onto the streets) and employs means that are profoundly anti-conservative and pernicious (to wit: charging private citizens with the duty of identifying people they “suspect” to be illegal and requiring them to turn the names over to state and federal authorities). It is worth noting that there are already reports from California that Proposition 187 is creating fear among legal immigrants and massive confusion in courts and schools, and among doctors, police officers and social service providers.

Illegal immigration is a very serious problem, and all Americans, especially Californians, are right to be upset and angry. Every sovereign nation has the right and the duty to control its borders. We need to put into place policies that will curb illegal immigration and assist the states in their efforts to do the same. These measures should include beefing up border patrols and deploying them more intelligently; expediting the deportation process, particularly for illegal immigrants convicted of a crime; cracking down on fraudulent immigration documents; overhauling the Immigration and Naturalization Service; changing some of the requirements for immigration sponsorship; and reducing the number of employment eligibility documents. A number of these proposals have been recommended by the House Republican Task Force on Illegal Immigration and the new Republican majority will, I hope, act on them. . . .

But the larger and more important issue before Congress and the country is legal immigration. While there are some minor reforms worth examining, my views on legal immigration are guided by an explicit underlying conviction: Legal immigrants are a net plus for America and hence current policy is essentially viable. In this, the distinction between legal and illegal is fundamental. And making this distinction is critical to policy.

Studies show that legal immigrants are often self-selected on the basis of industry, hard work, self-reliance and a respect for time-honored American principles. They hold strong family values and deeply rooted religious faith. And immigrants are making important contributions to America in the fields of science, engineering, biotechnology, computer hardware and software, to mention just a few.

The Manhattan Institute and the Urban Institute have provided important empirical evidence about immigration. In 1993, the United States admitted just over 900,000 legal immigrants. While recent decades have seen large numbers of immigrants arrive in this country, their numbers are half what they were during the last wave of immigration. Eight percent of our population is foreign-born, compared with double that figure at the turn of the century. Contrary to popular opinion, immigration does not cause higher unemployment rates for U.S. workers (in part because of the jobs immigrants create with new businesses they start). Except for refugees, immigrants who arrived in the past decade receive welfare payments at lower rates than native-born Americans. They are a huge net contributor to Social Security, and annual taxes paid by immigrants more than offset their costs to society, generating a net annual surplus of $25 billion to $30 billion.

In one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on the link between crime and legal immigration, economists Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl find “no evidence that immigrants are more likely to engage in criminal activity than natives. In the individual data, in fact, whether or not one controls for other demographic characteristics, immigrants are significantly less likely to commit crime. . . . [We] find no evidence that areas with high levels of immigration have experienced disproportionate growth in criminal activity over the last decade.”

Historians have noted that during the 19th century there were real questions about whether the Irish, Italians, Chinese and Polish immigrants were capable of being assimilated. The Irish were despised “for their ignorance, poverty and superstition.” German immigrants were considered an affront to American culture, in part because they wanted to preserve their traditions and language. In the early part of this century, Jewish immigrants were among the least skilled of all immigrant groups that arrived.

There are two important historical facts to keep in mind. The first is that during times of economic uncertainty and social disrepair, immigrants are always among the first (and easiest) targets of public antipathy. The second is that virtually every group that has come to America’s shores has been spurned upon its arrival, and anti-immigration sentiments have run through public opinion polls for as long as we have had reliable information. Yet these groups have not only assimilated, they have become welcome and valuable members of American society. (Recent public opinion surveys show that the once-despised Irish now consistently rate as the nationality which most benefits this nation).

The immigration issue evokes the strongest passions in the cultural, and not the economic, arena. Indeed, immigration cannot be fully understood outside a larger cultural context. There is an alarming reluctance in our schools and universities to affirm, advance and transmit our common American culture. And while it has profound implications for immigration, I believe contemporary American society’s most serious problems are more fundamental than, and different from, immigration. Our problem does not have to do with legal immigration but with assimilation—and assimilation not just for people born in foreign lands but for the people born in this nation.

Cultural anthropologist David Murray has referred to new-born children as the “ultimate undocumented aliens.” By that he means that children are not born with any culture or society; they must be helped to become citizens every bit as urgently as, say, refugees from Southeast Asia. If we fail the American-born children, they will be the aliens who overwhelm us. And this is precisely what we are seeing happen today.

Because of American diffidence and neglect, many children are not being acculturated and socialized. The repayment for that neglect is now being played out on our urban streets, in hospital emergency rooms, in our courts and our classrooms. In too many places, republican virtues are not being inculcated.

The advocates for ending immigration argue that immigrants pose a cultural threat to America and that our society is no longer capable of assimilating them. But pinning the blame on immigrants for America’s social decay is a dodge and a distraction. And it happens to be exactly wrong. One can make a strong argument that many new immigrants have been corrupted by those same degraded aspects of American culture that trouble so many American parents.

It’s time we get on with the real work that needs to be done: Revivify our character-forming institutions and put an end to misguided government-sponsored policies that foster social fragmentation, resegregation and racial tension. The argument for dismantling the current welfare state and stopping its corrupting dependency has received an extensive public hearing. But there are three other areas that bear on this issue.

Bilingualism: Mastery of English is a key to individual opportunity in America. Teaching English to those whose native language is not English is a continuation of the struggle to provide for all Americans the opportunity to participate fully in our political, economic and social life. Having a common language is an essential condition of a unified nation. We should not be bashful about proclaiming fluency in this language as a critical educational goal, and we should not be timid in reforming our policies so as to secure it.

Multiculturalism: One of the arguments that the anti-immigration advocates rely on is that immigrants promote ethnic separatism and their foreign culture will contaminate our culture. In fact, radical multiculturalism has its origins in America and finds its intellectual home in America’s elite universities. Francis Fukuyama has pointed out that “the ideological assault on traditional family values . . . was not the creation of recently arrived Chicano agricultural workers or Haitian boat people, much less of Chinese or Korean immigrants.” Rather, he says, it “originated right in the heart of America’s well-established white, Anglo Saxon community.”

Counting by Race: Quotas, race norming, racial gerrymandering and set-asides undercut the founding American principle of equality under the law. These policies judge individuals on the color of their skin, not on the “content of their character,” and they have the effect of prying Americans apart. We need to reestablish a principle that many of us thought we settled three decades ago: the moral case for putting a de jure end to racial discrimination and preferences. A good place to advance the cause is in California, where right now a group is undertaking an effort to place a civil rights initiative on the primary election ballot in 1996. Called the California Civil Rights Initiative, it is a constitutional amendment prohibiting the state and its “subdivisions” (colleges, agencies, or local governments) from “us[ing] race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex or religion as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the state’s system of public employment, public education or public contracting.”

“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory,” the historian Milan Hubl says in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. “Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.”

Our collective cultural task is to remember what we were and what we still are. If we once again get that right, then immigrants will fit in and flourish, as they always have. If we keep getting it wrong, then it won’t really matter where the people come from. For whatever their place of origin, they will be citizens without a culture, and they will bear children without a future.

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