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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Open border push could shake California politics

June 12, 2001

Immigration hasn't been much of an issue in California's recent time of prosperity. With unemployment at 5 percent or less for most of the last six years, it's been hard to excite voters about the specter of hordes of illegal immigrants pouring into the state and taking desirable jobs. Most Californians haven't even been interested in the longstanding — and still unresolved — question of whether undocumented workers cost the taxpayers more than they pay in taxes of their own.

But Vicente Fox may change that — and in the process revive the moribund Republican Party in this state.

For the new Mexican president wants open borders between his country and the United States. Completely open.

"In my vision, there is no place for steel barriers or barricades that have been built to divide us," he told a crowd of Latinos during a visit to Los Angeles last fall.

Yes, Fox concedes the timetable he once envisioned for open borders as part of a "super-NAFTA" agreement is unrealistic. Where a few months ago, he called for the disappearance of border restrictions within five to 10 years, now he's talking about 40 years.


But even that is enough to scare some Californians.

"Until Mexico can become more of an equal partner, the U.S. doesn't benefit from an open border," said Harald Martin, an Anaheim school board member who has fought unsuccessfully to bill the Mexican government for the cost of educating illegal immigrants in his district.

Martin was an active supporter of the 1994 Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigrant measure that produced a massive Latino backlash against Republicans who backed it. But even though the GOP has since backed away, polls consistently show 187 would pass again if it reappeared on the statewide ballot.

That's evidence there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment of both Mexico and illegal immigrants coming from there. The fears include everything from a worry about Mexican criminals coming north and stolen cars going south to overcrowding in public schools and the persistent claim that thousands of Mexican women come here to have babies at public expense. The fears assure that if Fox persists in advocating open borders, he will stir activism from many Californians who think like Martin.

But Fox shows no hesitation about his push. One of his first appointees after taking office in December was to the new post of minister for northern border affairs. That job went to Ernesto Ruffo, a former governor of Baja California, through which millions of immigrants have entered this state. Ruffo immediately said he will press for improved human rights and living conditions for poor immigrants — which some Americans will construe as meddling in domestic U.S. affairs.

Fox's first meeting after taking office was with Mexican-Americans, for whom he wants to create seats in the Mexican congress. He wants to allow them to vote in Mexican elections even if they were born in the United States — all to encourage Mexican-American investment in their home country, especially in regions where poverty has driven many residents north into the U.S.

All it would take is a slight economic downturn for these things to become a major political issue again in California. As long as times are good and immigrant labor seems essential to the economy, fear of immigrants remains muted.

That might shake things up quite a bit politically, for the new masses of Latino voters might favor open borders, an idea toward which Republican President George W. Bush is slowly moving. And Democrats, who have benefited for years from the 187 backlash among Latinos, have not actively pursued the issue. So the old party lines on this issue no longer hold.

Meanwhile, the residual support for 187 or something like it demonstrates that the non-Hispanics who still make up the vast majority in California could easily lapse into the same fearful mood that made them receptive to anti-immigrant television commercials like those that propelled Republican ex-Gov. Pete Wilson to his easy re-election victory in 1994.

Fox has gone to great pains to establish warm relations with California Democrats such as Gov. Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. But if California ever lapses into economic troubles, no one can be sure of what his policies might do to politics in California.

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