The revelation that Gov. Pete Wilson, leading scourge of the undocumented, had himself employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper will certainly deepen our political cynicism. Wilson joins the sorry band of hypocrites Dianne Feinstein and Michael Huffington, both of whom made the crusade against illegal immigration the centerpiece of their senatorial campaigns and were then revealed as having entrusted the sanctity of their homes to undocumented employees.
Aside from reinforcing the popular stereotype of politicians as liars and hypocrites, there is a deeper lesson to this story. Based on the examples of Wilson, Feinstein and Huffington, not to mention those of my own relatives and acquaintances, I would guess that most middle- and upper-middle-class families in California have at least occasionally employed a gardener, nanny, cleaning woman or handyman whose legal documentation would not stand scrutiny. Laws that are routinely violated by most of the population are laws that breed disrespect for the rule of law. This was the enduring lesson of he Prohibition Era of the 1920s, during which America’s political elite denounced bootleggers by day and drank themselves silly in speak-easies by night, certainly one of the sorriest periods in our national history.
California has always had large numbers of illegal immigrants from south of the border, often at far higher levels than today. Two million illegal California residents applied for amnesty in 1986 under the Immigration Reform Act of that year, while unknown numbers of others remained underground. Today, the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates the number of illegals in the state at 1.5 million or so, with an additional net inflow of 150,000 per year–less than one-half of one percent of the state’s population–and a sizable fraction of these are well-educated Canadian and European visa over-stayers, who arouse little fear or media attention.
Several of California’s most important industries, including agriculture and tourism, rely heavily on undocumented labor. What if that pool suddenly became unavailable? Persuading unemployed aerospace engineers to pick tomatoes or clean hotel toilets for a living is unlikely to succeed, and forcing California’s huge long-term welfare underclass to take these jobs is even less plausible. How many business executives would feel comfortable if they knew that their offices were cleaned each night by native-born Americans with a long history of drug addiction and imprisonment, the only segment of the population likely to accept such work?
The illegal immigration “solutions” proposed by grandstanding politicians are often worse than the problem. Democrats have regularly proposed dangerous big-government schemes, such as a national identity card, a federal computer database to continually track the activities of all American citizens, or even asset forfeiture–confiscating without trial the property of those who employ undocumented workers. Having the federal government seize ownership of several million private homes in California would hardly boost sagging real-estate values. Foolish Republican proposals like Proposition 187 have leaned more toward punishing illegal immigrants through imprisonment, thus salvaging our state budget by turning minimum-wage nannies into $23,000-per-year wards of the state.
For a state facing so many real crises–a disastrous welfare system and the urban degradation it has fostered, horrifying levels of crime, an outrageously expensive system of civil litigation, and hatemongering racial preference programs–to focus political attention on janitors and farm workers seems the height of irresponsibility.
All sovereign nations must control their borders, and reducing illegal immigration through a larger border patrol seems a reasonable approach to the problem. But hysteria is unwarranted. The confident, prosperous California of the 1980s certainly never viewed gardeners and housekeepers as a mortal threat to our survival, and restoring such confidence and prosperity should be the primary goal of our elected officials. California faces larger problems than Michael Huffington’s beloved nanny.