In 1942, during a period of sharp wartime hysteria, Californians
blackened our state’s good name by overwhelmingly endorsing the
imprisonment of all Japanese Americans, most of them native-born U.S.
citizens and nearly all deeply loyal to America. Only one member of
Congress, Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, the leading conservative Republican
of his day, opposed this measure directed against “enemy aliens,” which
otherwise passed unanimously. Robert Taft had principles.
Today in California, the current political hysteria about illegal
immigration, inflamed by cynical politicians who believe in nothing
except their own election victory, has brought us to a similar moral
precipice. Recent polls show strong public support for Proposition
187–the “Save Our State” initiative–directed against illegal
At first glance, the measure, which prevents illegal immigrants from
receiving public services, might appear quite attractive to opponents of
California’s overgrown social-welfare state. After all, if rolling back
the tide of wealth redistribution has to start somewhere, why not with
recipients who aren’t even legal residents? Add to this California’s
horrendous budget deficits, and any measure that purports to save tax
money sounds extremely attractive.
Proposition 187 is extremely attractive, until one actually reads the
measure. In practice, 187 would be an unimaginable disaster for
California, with regard both to personal liberty and to state finance.
Consider a few simple facts. Illegal immigrants are already ineligible
for state welfare assistance or food stamps, and their estimated use of
the medical services that 187 would prohibit is quite low, just a tiny
fraction of 1% of California’s huge budget. The only substantial
government cost associated with illegal immigration is through the public
Illegal immigrants make up perhaps 5% of California’s population and
most are in their prime working years, 25 to 40; those with children
obviously make use of the public schools, and the sums involved are
sizable. So one of the central thrusts of Proposition 187 is to root out
these immigrant children (most of whom are U.S.-born citizens) from the
How to do this? By turning teachers and administrators into de facto
INS agents, forcing them to investigate the family background of each and
every child in their school, at enormous effort and expense, and report
to the authorities those whom they suspect may have a father or mother
who entered the country illegally.
Having schools encourage small children to inform on the status of
their parents has heavy totalitarian overtones; even the Soviet Union
abandoned this practice after Stalin’s death. In recent years, we all
have heard reports of school drug-education programs that proudly
persuaded students to turn their parents in for drug use. And Christian
groups have expressed alarm over attempts by the schools to monitor home
religious practices. Officially establishing our public schools as
agencies of family investigation and arms of government law enforcement,
as Proposition 187 would do, is not a happy precedent for us to set.
The initiative only gets worse. Since the authors view immigrant
workers with as much alarm as they do immigrant layabouts, the measure
mandates a five-year prison sentence (or $25,000 fine) for any illegal
immigrant who uses false identity papers in pursuit of gainful
employment. A state that pays generous welfare benefits to those
unwilling to work and imprisons those who do work defies rationality.
Although estimates vary, perhaps upward of 1 million of the illegal
immigrants currently employed as California’s gardeners, housemaids,
hotel workers or construction laborers have some form of false identity
document. At the same time, California’s bloated and inefficient prison
system has average annual costs of $23,000 per inmate. Turning hundreds
of thousands of our hard-working, tax-paying, minimum-wage gardeners and
nannies into prison inmates at a cost of tens of billions of dollars
hardly seems a sensible means of solving our state’s budget problems.
And Proposition 187’s school-monitoring provisions would only increase
the use of false papers. To prevent their 6- or 7-year-olds from being
expelled from school, many immigrant mothers will undoubtedly acquire
false documents and risk a five-year prison sentence. Imagine a
California that sends mothers to prison for trying to keep their children
How do the principal advocates of the initiative respond to such
criticism? One of them told me that much of the initiative is “obviously
unconstitutional” and would be thrown out by the courts. Another was
confident that judges would refuse to enforce the parts of the law that
are obviously unjust. A fervent grass-roots activist had the simplest
defense: 187 was intended to be unworkable and bankrupt the state,
thereby forcing Washington to finally “do something” to stop illegal
immigration, such as putting land mines along the border.
Today’s immigration troubles are an inevitable consequence of our
having built a social-welfare state in which newcomers are mouths to feed
rather than hands to work. But instead of rolling back government
spending, Proposition 187 would extend government control and
investigation into all of our daily lives and those of our children while
bankrupting our state several times over.
Most Californians view illegal immigrants as unwanted house guests.
One very effective means of getting rid of such guests is to set your
house on fire and burn it to the ground. This is Proposition 187’s
solution to illegal immigration. It would be a financial and social
disaster for California, and the worst moral disaster for our state since
the internment of Japanese Americans. No decent Californian should