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June 1994

A Bold Proposal on Immigration

California will cease to be a democratic polity unless it lets its Mexican immigrants vote in local elections. Politically impossible? Yes--but a dramatically successful experiment in effective border control could change that political calculus

by Jack Miles

In California immigration has become a hot political topic without quite becoming a debate. Like crime, it is a topic over which Californian political candidates contend mostly by going faster or further than their opponents in the same general direction. Control of the border, restrictions on even legal immigration, repatriation of illegal immigrants imprisoned for crimes committed in California, the reduction of health and education benefits for illegal immigrants, and an aggressive insistence that Washington pay the bill for policies made in Washington--proposals like these define the flow, and no one who aspires to office dares go against it. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, both liberals, have each offered restrictionist immigration-reform proposals. Governor Pete Wilson, arriving a bit late on the scene and quietly jettisoning pro-immigration policies that he championed as a Republican senator, has offered proposals far more sweeping, including a patently unconstitutional demand that citizenship be denied to the American-born children of illegal immigrants. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown, the daughter of one former governor and the sister of another, has her own immigration-reform agenda. All these politicians are responding to an uncompromising public mood.

Into the teeth of this gale comes an article published last year, in the anthology The California-Mexico Collection, making the bold suggestion that illegal Mexican immigrants to California should be not just legalized but also given the vote. Jorge G. Castaneda, a noted Mexican intellectual, writes in "Mexico and California: The Paradox of Tolerance and Dedemocratization" that, all other cultural and economic issues aside, the presence of a large, growing, and permanently disenfranchised Mexican population in California is subverting the state's most basic tradition--its democracy. "Through no fault of its own, undocumented Mexican immigration is contributing to the "dedemocratization" of California society. . . . by the end of the twentieth century, the richest state in the world will have a terribly skewed political system, with a foreign plurality that works, consumes, and pays taxes, but does not vote, run for office, organize, or carry much political clout."

Californians who have commented on the political disenfranchisement (or non-enfranchisement) of illegal immigrants from Mexico have tended to see it as a problem for the immigrants themselves: lacking the vote, the immigrants lack influence. Castaneda sees the same disenfranchisement as a problem for California as a democratic society. Sixty-three percent of the students of the Los Angeles Unified School District are Latinos, many of whose parents are legally ineligible to vote; but, according to a former Los Angeles school board member, 75 percent of registered voters in California and 88 percent of those who actually vote have no children in school. True, parents are hurt by nonparents who refuse to be taxed to educate other people's children, but--Castaneda would argue--to see the resulting harm in classic interest-group terms is to misconstrue it. In a normal, healthy democracy, the self-interest of the parents, which coincides with the long-term self-interest of the society, would be backed by plenty of votes. A democratic society in which the parents of many children in the public school system lack the vote is abnormal and unhealthy. Whatever the laws on its books, it is, de facto, both undemocratic and dysfunctional.

That Castaneda has identified a grave weakness in California's democracy is, I think, irrefutable. And yet his remedy for this weakness is perfectly calculated to send an already inflamed controversy deeper into the flames: "The only realistic way to alter the negative effect of Mexican influence on California . . . is to change the nature of its origin by legalizing immigration and giving foreigners the right to vote in state and local elections." Castaneda recognizes that in practical, political terms, the odds against his view's prevailing in the near term are insuperable. "The real stumbling block is that the decision to legalize immigration will not be made by those who would benefit from it most--the bottom tier--but rather by a white, Anglo, middle-class, and elderly electorate. The only way to change the nature of California politics is through legalization, but the only way to achieve legalization is to change the nature of California politics. Not an easy circle to square."

Castaneda draws a modicum of encouragement from the fact that Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Switzerland have granted foreigners the right to vote in state and municipal legislative elections. Following their lead, he proposes not that immigrant Mexicans be naturalized but rather that, while remaining Mexicans and without acquiring dual citizenship, they be allowed to vote in California state and local elections only. He recognizes that tradition in the United States has seen naturalization and the vote as inseparable, but this inseparability is just the part of the tradition that he believes must change. "The choice . . . lies between enfranchisement along European lines or continuing to deny foreigners political rights and relegating them to the bottom tier of California society. The fact that the problem is so strongly concentrated in California should serve as an incentive to finding a state or municipal solution. What happens in California or Los Angeles and San Jose need not be a federal policy applicable throughout the country."

There is a daring plausibility to Castaneda's analysis, but if California were to accept his proposal, the state would be saying, in effect, that on so crucial a matter as the prerogatives of citizenship its relationship to Mexico counts for more than its relationship to the United States. After all, no comparable crisis of "dedemocratization" yet looms for the country as a whole. If Mexicans are understood to have migrated from Mexico to the United States, rather than to California, it would seem to be up to the federal government to determine their status, including their eligibility to vote in even local elections. Castaneda, however, prefers to see these immigrants as having come only to California rather than to the United States--a bold move on his part.

Like all the contributors to the anthology in which his article appears, Castaneda assumes that the U.S. Border Patrol is not and never will be a factor in the demographic future of the California-Mexico connection. Only one of his fellow contributors so much as mentions the Border Patrol, and then only to include it among potentially delinquent elements to which "the California connection itself may become hostage." For the rest, the constant assumption in The California-Mexico Connection is that illegal immigration is as uncontrollable as the weather. It is not a policy, in other words, but simply a large, generally benign fact.

Against this background the sudden, unprecedented success of the Border Patrol at slowing--indeed, almost halting--illegal Mexican immigration across the Rio Grande at El Paso, Texas, a major entry point, comes as something of a thunderbolt. On the one hand, it opens the possibility that immigration may become a policy again rather than a quasi-natural fact. On the other hand, it opens the way, paradoxically, to the acceptance, in some form, of Castaneda's otherwise unacceptable proposal.

From September 19 to October 2, 1993, the El Paso Border Patrol, under Chief Silvestre Reyes, quietly but suddenly closed the several breaches in the border fence that had been major entry points for illegal immigrants, and simultaneously instituted a strategic reform and redeployment of the patrol's forces. The reform was a sharp de-emphasis of the hot pursuit of illegal immigrants after they cross the border. The redeployment was a new concentration of agents along the borderline itself. Of 650 agents in the district, 400 were now deployed along the border; in the downtown El Paso area they were stationed in a line of sight, each to the next. At the start there were also temporary reinforcements from both the Border Patrol proper and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which has charge of a bridge where most legal entry occurs. The total additional cost of the two-week Operation Blockade, including repair of the fences and overtime, was only $300,000. Shortly after the start of the operation Reyes announced that the new approach would continue indefinitely, without new funding, as Operation Hold the Line.

Hold the Line would have been a better name for the initial operation, which never sealed the border or halted legal permanent or temporary border crossing from Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande. The continuation of normal, peaceful interaction across a border regulated but not sealed only makes Reyes's results the more impressive. Apprehensions for illegal entry along the El Paso border have dropped to about 150 from an average daily level of 800 to 1,000. Since as many as half of all border crossers into El Paso come to work in greater El Paso, statistics for those going beyond El Paso by plane or train are of particular interest--and as it happens, those numbers are even more dramatic. According to John L. Martin, who last December published under the auspices of the Center for Immigration Studies the fullest account to date of the continuing operation, "Apprehensions resulting from train checks have decreased by 90 percent. Airport apprehensions, regularly numbering in the hundreds, and which hit a record level of 1,034 last July 4, are now averaging 8-15 per day."

Seventy to 75 percent of the citizens and legal residents of El Paso are of Hispanic descent, and mistaken arrests by the Border Patrol have resulted in a series of lawsuits, particularly in connection with Bowie High School, near the Rio Grande, where illegal border crossers reportedly have sought cover in the school crowd. Martin claims that this problem has now been all but eliminated. "Chief Reyes noted on November 8 that, since assuming the new operational deployment of deterrence rather than apprehension, there has not been a single new complaint from the public. He pointed out in a similar vein that there had not been a single shooting incident involving his forces since then, either." Not in jest, Martin reports a new morale problem in the El Paso Border Patrol: the new techniques, substituting deterrence for pursuit, are so effective that the agents are bored.

Though no scientific opinion poll has been taken, the El Paso Times reported on September 23 that telephone calls to the newspaper were running ten to one in favor of the new policy. The Ciudad Juarez Chambers of Commerce and Industry did oppose it, and even called for a boycott of El Paso businesses. There was, briefly, a decline in trade at the downtown stores nearest the border, perhaps partly because of the misleading initial use of the word "blockade." Outlying stores were unaffected, however, and by October even the downtown stores were back to 85 to 90 percent of their pre-operation volume, with a substantial reduction in shoplifting and car theft.

The policy has detractors beyond the Ciudad Juarez Chamber of Commerce. The Roman Catholic bishop of El Paso opposes it. Residents of Ciudad Juarez accustomed to crossing freely into El Paso to work also oppose it. In one of three demonstrations hundreds of marchers chanted "We want to work." Shortly after the operation began, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, it was denounced in a Mexican diplomatic note dispatched to the State Department. And yet, a bit surprisingly, the mayor of Ciudad Juarez was quoted as being in favor of it, perhaps because of the difficulty that the permanent residents of his city have had in coping with the criminal "coyotes" who prey upon prospective emigrants.

How important a precedent is El Paso? Operation Hold the Line is in effect along only a twenty-mile stretch of border separating El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, and attempted border crossings east or west of that twenty-mile stretch have risen slightly. Still, though smaller than Tijuana-San Diego, Ciudad Juarez-El Paso is of major importance. Its combined population comes to more than 1.5 million. The normal rate of legal border crossing there is estimated by the INS at 120,000 a day, or well over 35 million a year. If the approach taken in Operation Hold the Line has reduced the level of apprehensions for illegal border crossing--the nearest available objective measure of illegal traffic--at such a major entry point by more than 85 percent while keeping the border open to ordinary traffic, staying within the existing border-control budget, and lowering the level of violence and citizens' complaints, then this approach certainly merits serious consideration as a border-control model. Reyes's El Paso redeployment, as noted, brought 400 of the district's 650 agents to the border proper. Until recently the San Diego Border Patrol had fewer than a hundred of its 1,000 agents guarding the line. Last February, under public pressure, Attorney General Janet Reno announced that the San Diego contingent would gradually grow by another 400, and the commissioner of the INS, Doris Meissner, predicted a linked and again gradual shift from the inland apprehension of border-crossers to El Paso's approach, deterrence at the border itself. Reyes's success in El Paso may well have owed something to sudden implementation and surprise, however, and there will be no comparable surprise in San Diego. In addition, Martin, in a telephone interview, cited Reyes on the potential importance of a "desperation factor" in San Diego. Tijuana may differ from Ciudad Juarez, Martin explained, in that more of the migrants arriving there are simultaneously at the end of a long journey and at the end of their resources.

These are all important considerations, but they may mean only that if comparable results are ever achieved in San Diego, they will be achieved on a budget higher than Reyes's amazingly low one. Reyes has called into question the claim that controlling the border would be fiscally prohibitive if not technically impossible. He has also called into question the quite common claim that even if not technically impossible or fiscally prohibitive, controlling the border would entail a level of brutal militarization that would appall the nation and the world. The image summoned up has been that of the Volkspolizei of the former East Germany, peering through the cross hairs of their high-powered rifles at fugitives creeping past the barbed wire. But Reyes, whom Martin describes as a quiet, low-key, unconfrontational leader, has become dramatically more efficient at halting illegal immigration while all but eliminating violence by the Border Patrol agents under his command--and while winning, it would appear, warm support from a 70 percent Latino community with intimate ties to a sister city across the Rio Grande. The significance of this several-faceted success is hard to exaggerate.

Because of their intellectual investment in the thesis that the border cannot be policed, many immigration advocates will want to prove that Reyes's success is temporary or illusory--but they should consider the potential gain for the huge population of immigrants already in the United States should his success prove replicable and permanent. At stake, in brief, is another mass amnesty for illegal immigrants like the one that occurred in 1986.

At the moment there is absolutely no chance of a second such amnesty. On the contrary, American political leadership, spearheaded by Californians, is hell-bent on reducing, not enhancing, benefits to immigrants, which are now perceived narrowly as mere incentives for further immigration. In a way Castaneda saw this coming. Having proposed the mass legalization and enfranchisement of illegal immigrants, he wrote in The California-Mexico Connection, "There is no dispute that legalization poses costs and perils. The main danger lies in the incentive for future immigration and in the increased migratory flows that would undoubtedly result in the short term. But these costs are clearly no greater than the costs of the status quo, which threatens to tear California society apart."

But why should this incentive exist only in the short term? Worldwide, the supply of desperately poor potential migrants is essentially infinite. Illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border is only a part of that much larger problem. It is the most visible part, however; and unless the border can be controlled, the political trend will be precisely the opposite of what Castaneda would wish, as indeed it has been during the past year.

And yet this backlash is ultimately against a perceived and frightening loss of control, rather than against Mexicans as a racial or ethnic group. Accordingly, if legalization can be seen again as a measure promising a restoration of control--that is, if it can be made to function as something other than an incentive--then it may yet attract surprising support. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was accepted as a once-only great compromise. The mass legalization of then-illegal immigrants was traded for the promise that a new program of employer sanctions would destroy the incentive for further mass immigration. That hope proved vain; but if it had never been entertained, IRCA would never have passed.

Until Americans have some assurance that a new mass legalization will not function as an incentive, they will never vote for it. It is not that the last foreigner to be naturalized must have been naturalized at the time of a new mass legalization. What is required is rather and only that control be so firmly and clearly re-established that decisions on admittance to the country--and admittance to the voting booth--will be at the discretion of the American host and not of the foreign guest. Employer sanctions alone, however severe, will never be enough to bring this about, but employer sanctions combined with truly effective policing of the border might be.

And in that case the IRCA compromise, now a bitter embarrassment to many who backed it at the time, may return in a new form. Immigration "restrictionists" will have to agree to legalize illegal immigrants who are already in the country. Immigration "admissionists" will have to surrender the notion that there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant (there are only "undocumented workers") and agree to an effective, publicly backed Border Patrol assuring tight control over the largest single source of future illegal immigration.

Unlikely? No doubt--but surely no more unlikely than the indefinite maintenance of a status quo that nearly all parties to the immigration debate find unacceptable.

Jack Miles is a book columnist and editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times. His most recent book is God: A Biography.

Copyright © 1994, The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1994; A Bold Proposal on Immigration; Volume 273, No. 6; pages 32-43.

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