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 immigrants.

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 school system.

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 public schools.

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 in school!

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 support it.

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