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San Francisco Chronicle - February 02, 1992New Search

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Guarding the Golden Door

THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE - Sunday, February 2, 1992


Give me your tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

--Emma Lazarus

I am opposed to all immigration, legal or illegal, from any source, mainly because I think the U.S. is badly overcrowded already. ... We have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by allowing the old boat to be swamped.

--Edward Abbey


In the present California climate of opinion the issue of immigration brings polarization. You tend to come down hard on one side or the other: Do we welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free -- or do we stop them at the border?

Poignant images come to mind: families running down the median strip of a border freeway to escape immigration officials; phalanxes of cars shining their headlights on a border crossing point; the bodies of would-be immigrants left to die in the desert; the travails of the brother and sister in the film ``El Norte,'' crawling through a rat-infested sewer to cross the border; people climbing border fences or digging under them -- refugees from poverty and oppression desperate for a better life.

But there are other images that also come to mind: California's overflowing schools, jammed freeways, smog-clogged air, water shortages, paved-over farmlands, legions of jobless people, overcrowded jails, shivering homeless in the streets -- all leading to the haunting, taunting question: How many more people can California absorb?

I admit to ambivalent feelings. Recently I visited the high school where long ago I received a superb secondary education. I was happy to see that a racial mixture had replaced the monochrome that dominated the campus in my years there. Obviously the students were having a much richer experience in multicultural diversity.

But later, at an alumni gathering, a vice principal told us: There are 29 languages spoken at the school. English ranks third. Two-thirds of the students speak inadequate English and have to enroll in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.

I wondered how it was possible to teach students who do not have a common language or cannot understand the teacher. How can they be prepared to join the mainstream and get jobs with a future? With such a language barrier -- and the need to concentrate on the basics -- how can they have the rich cultural curriculum we enjoyed, with courses in music and art, Shakespeare, economics, international relations? What happens to the education of the non-immigrants in the same classes? Can we provid e adequate education for the immigrant students now in our schools and still cope with millions of future immigrants?

Let's look at some population facts:

-- There are 31 million Californians now, nearly 10 times as many as there were in the 1920s, when many members of the current older generation were born.

-- The state's population in the decade of the '80s increased by nearly 2,000 a day or 700,000 a year -- equivalent to the population of San Francisco.

-- About half of the decade's population increase resulted from people moving into the state -- 70 percent of them from immigration, 30 percent from other states. The latter figure is expected to decline to zero in a dozen years as the effects of the postwar baby boom level off.

-- The other half of the population increase is from births. But that breakdown is deceptive. Most of the births contributing to population growth are among immigrants who tend to have large families. Among non-immigrant residents, the lower birth rate is near replacement level: Births balance deaths, and the population is nearly stable. Clearly, immigration will contribute nearly all of the future growth.

-- Most projections indicate a state population of 40 million to 50 million within the next 25 years. Although long-term projections are more speculative, at current rates, within the lifetime of today's youngest generation, the population would reach about 80 million, or in the highest projection close to 120 million, equaling the present density of Japan.

(For a roundup of these statistics, and many more, see ``Fifty Million Californians?'' by Professor Leon Bouvier of Tulane University, available for $9.95 from the Center for Immigration Studies, 1815 H Street NW, Suite 1010, Washington, D.C. 20006.)

The range of projections and the precise year the state will reach 50 million or 80 million are less important than one undeniable fact: With unending growth, California would be in time unrecognizable to its present residents.

Even in the short term, can we somehow speed up the construction of schools, roads, jails, power plants, housing, water systems and waste disposal sites to cope with a continual inflow of immigrants? As an example, the current level of growth will require completing a new school for 650 students every day forever.

Should immigration be reduced or halted until the infrastructure can catch up? Can it ever catch up?

Attorney Lewis Butler believes these questions about immigration may be pointless. He is the chairman of California Tomorrow, a San Francisco-based organization committed, he says, ``to California's future as a multiracial society.''

``Immigration policy is almost irrelevant,'' he says. ``Economic forces tend to overwhelm anything that can be done. Fences along the border are a joke. As long as people believe there's opportunity for economic betterment on this side of the border they'll come, no matter what we do.

``And immigration has played an important role in the California economy. Los Angeles is now the largest manufacturing center in the country. It's ahead of Detroit and Pittsburgh and all the Eastern industrial centers, primarily because of the dozens of small manufacturing enterprises like garment and furniture plants that have been established there to take advantage of the cheap labor supply among the immigrants.''

Those plants, however, may be jeopardized by the pending free trade agreement being negotiated by the Bush administration with Mexico. The agreement would make it more profitable for U.S. manufacturers to build plants in Mexico -- where wages are much lower and environmental regulations are far more lenient -- and ship the products back to the United States without trade restrictions.

Building more plants in Mexico would provide employment there for people who might otherwise come north to get jobs, legally or otherwise. Theoretically, at least, it would reduce immigration. But it could also increase unemployment in this country as U.S. manufacturers move south, exporting jobs.

The old double bind. But the free-trade, pro-immigration people have an answer to that one, and we'll look at it here next Sunday.

Caption: GRAPHIC

Edition: SUNDAY
Page: 7/Z1
Record Number: 14412
Copyright 1992 San Francisco Chronicle

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