America slams its doors

Californians like illegal immigrants to wash the dishes but don't like paying for their health care and welfare. Now, as border patrols are strengthened, anti-immigration fervour is spreading across the US. Phil Reeves reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Steven Woods, a white high school student, was impaled through the cerebrum by a metal rod which came crashing through his car window, even police investigators privately conceded that his death was a horrible fluke. Yet in his home town in southern California, it has taken on a symbolic importance.

Exactly how Woods suffered his fatal injury is still something of a mystery, even though three young Latino men have since been convicted of murder. There was a stand-off between a group of white and Latino kids in a car park near San Clemente. According to Mike Davis, a Californian writer who has investigated the incident, the authorities have no idea who threw a paint roller at Woods' car as the white youths sped off. But it went straight through his skull, plunging him into a deep coma; 25 days later, he died.

For a growing number of Americans, the circumstances of Woods' death symbolise the state of the nation; they regard illegal immigrants who flood in from Mexico as dangerous undesirables who have no place among the Spanish-style villas and golf courses of Orange County, heartland of white conservatism.

It seemed to many that their anger was echoed in the sentences meted out to the youths. Given the disputed circumstances, it may seem extraordinarly harsh that one of them was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Two others were dispatched to a juvenile institution for seven years, with anti-immigration campaigners complaining that the terms were too lenient. They are now campaigning for the recall of the judge. For some elements of the anti-immigration lobby Steve Woods' death so typified the evils of illegal immigration (although evidence that his killers were undocumented is unclear) that they use an X-ray photograph of his impaled head as campaign literature.

For the hundreds of thousands of Latinos who share this wealthy patch of semi-desert, most struggling to survive on paltry wages, the case has a different significance. To them it is a reminder that racism surges in periods of economic stagnation, and that the American judicial system sometimes endorses this.

But Orange County is no ordinary place. It was the incubator of Proposition 187, the Californian law passed by public ballot in November which denies illegal immigrants health care, education and other benefits. Proposition 187 was produced on an ethnic fault line, the point of friction between the Third World and the first, the buoyant dollar and the rocky peso, aspiration and desperation. It has not become law because it has been held up by legal battles. But that has not diminished its political power.Early Proposition 187 movements are now at work in at least eight states. California is the most potent political test bed in America. Republican tax cutting in the Eighties was foreshadowed by a Californian referendum on tax cuts in the Seventies. Could Proposition 187 become a catalyst for a political battle across America about immigration?

Sixty miles south of Orange County, in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, there is evidence of a new, more aggressive policy towards immigration. A small crowd gathers every day by the iron wall that separates the two nations. Slogans painted over the rust address the other side of the argument: "Welcome to the New Berlin Wall. El Mundo Dividido. Why? How Long?"

This used to be a crossing point for some of the thousands of illegal immigrants who pour into California every day, the start of a journey that would often end in a dismally paid job in a Los Angeles garment factory, watering golf courses in San Diego, or picking grapes in the Napa Valley. Border smugglers who trade in human beings say they charge $250 a head to escort clients into the US and arrange for them to be driven up the freeway to LA, three hours away.

The risk of being caught by the US Border Patrol was outweighed by the knowledge that its officers were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the numbers coming in. Moreover - although no one officially admits this - the US government would have made it more difficult to cross its 2,076- mile border decades ago had it not been the beneficiary of an unending supply of non-unionised, low-paid, seasonal labour from Latin America.

Now, although thousands still come across, the situation has changed. "It is becoming difficult," explains Pedro Sanchez, a 23-year-old "coyote", or border runner. "There are so many police, so many immigration officers, that some are frightened of going over." Operation Gatekeeper, a crackdown along the San Diego-Tijuana border ordered by the Clinton administration last year, has significantly cut the numbers venturing across at this point. The US Border Patrol has more officers, new vehicles and lights. Business has been slack for all but Tijuana's big-time smugglers, who can afford the thousands of dollars required each week to bribe the authorities.

This month President Clinton unveiled plans in his budget to inject a further $1bn into combating illegal immigration. If these are approved by Congress, it will mean the 5,000-strong US Border Patrol will recruit a further 700 staff and the US Immigration and Naturalization Service will get a big boost.

The US government will pay more to reimburse individual states' costs of imprisoning, educating and providing health care for "illegal aliens" - one of the biggest bones of contention between the federal government and the states. It is not just border controls that will get tougher. Electronic surveillance will become more powerful: exploratory work is due to start on a computerised system to check on the backgrounds of job seekers. The US appears to be slamming its doors shut.

Although the Clinton administration argues that these moves are intended to reverse "decades of neglect", there is no doubt that the spreading Proposition 187 movement - in states as far afield as Florida, Colorado and Washington - is having an effect. Mr Clinton knows that if he fails to act now to tame this movement, it could cost him dearly in next year's presidential election.

The signs are not terribly promising. Mr Clinton's plans are "bullshit", declared SuSu Levy, founder of USA-187, a group in the throes of setting up a national network of activists. "They've made us even more determined. This is yet another smokescreen to persuade the public that they're doing something effective when they're not. We won't be happy until there's a total embargo on all immigrants."

Exactly why many Americans feel so strongly about illegal immigration is not easily explained. There's a commonly held view that the 3.4 million undocumented immigrants are bleeding the social security system. Why, Americans repeatedly ask themselves, should our tax dollars educate the children of foreigners who have broken the law by entering the country?

But several studies, including recent research by the independent Washington based think-tank the Urban Institute, do not support this theory. They indicate that the problem is more complex. Many undocumented workers pay taxes - for instance, through indirect taxes - but these mainly go into the national coffers, rather than to the states which bear a disproportionate amount of the social costs of immigration.

The fierce emotions generated by the immigration war are still more puzzling when the economic benefits of undocumented labour to middle-class Americans are taken into account. In some areas, these go beyond providing a cheap workforce for farmers (who were curiously silent on the Prop 187 issue) or owners of the sweatshops. In fact, in much of southern California, almost every moderately well-off resident benefits from the fruits of illegal labour in one form or another.

At dawn every morning in Los Angeles, the buses fill up with Spanish- speaking maids heading for a long day of scrubbing and washing in the tiled mansions of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and the San Fernando Valley. People whose incomes would only support a modest lifestyle in New York or Boston can realise the California dream in LA, living in detached homes serviced by undocumented gardeners, nurse maids and cleaners, and driving out to eat at restaurants staffed by valets, dishwashers and waiters - often working for as little as $2 an hour.

Yet when times get tough the boom-addicted Golden State has long had a grotesque habit of scapegoating the very immigrants it has attracted and often exploited. Mexicans have not forgotten how their parents (including US citizens) were deported by the trainload during the Great Depression. The Chinese, who came to the West Coast to build the railroads, suffered even worse outrages in the recession of the 1870s, when they were barred from other jobs and even lynched.

The economic catalyst for California's change of mood was the end of the Cold War in 1989. In the following four years some 200,000 employees of California's aerospace and defence industries lost their jobs. In the ensuing economic slowdown, illegal immigrants were again singled out for retribution - not only by whites but also by some blacks and long-term Latino residents. History was only repeating itself.

For those at the receiving end, the shift has been hard to fathom. "There is a double standard that is irrational, to say the least," said Robert Almanzan, of the Mexican American Legal Defence and Educational Fund. "A lot of the hoopla is not based on a true assessment of immigrants but on an anti-Latino, anti-immigrant sentiment, which can be very dangerous."

This whiff of racial hostility, the claim that white America is under threat not from Communism but from illegal immigrants, pervades the issue. Don Barrington, spokesman for AZ-187 Border Blockade, an Arizona-based anti-immigration group, wrote to the US government recently demanding that troops be sent to stop an invasion of illegal immigrants at Nogales, where the number of arrests shot up after the San Diego crackdown. He argues that undocumented Mexicans are responsible for gang violence, rapes, drug-dealing and the spread of TB. America, he says, must be restored to Americans.

Similar sentiments underpinned the plaudits that white Californians poured on William Masters, a loud-mouthed 35-year-old part-time actor and former trainee Marine, who recently shot dead an unarmed Latino youth and injured another after discovering them writing graffiti on the Hollywood Freeway. Although his victims were armed only with a screwdriver, and were shot in the back, the authorities decided not to bring any significant charges against him. The surviving Latino youth, however, may yet be charged with an offence.

Such, then, is the atmosphere that will greet those undocumented workers who make it across the fence at Tijuana. Once they get through that physical obstruction they will run into a much higher wall of intolerance and even hatred.