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In California, hysteria immingration hides truth.

SAN FRANCISCO - Californians are afraid of the future and cannot imagine themselves in the great world. To prove it, California Gov. Pete Wilson recently published an open letter to President Bill Clinton, urging a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants as well as the repeal of federal mandates requiring health and education services for illegal immigrants.

On the same day the governor published his letter ("on behalf of the people of California"), I was at a chic Los Angeles hotel. All day, I saw Mexicans working, busily working to maintain California's legendary "quality of life."

The common complaint of California's is that the immigrants, whether legally or illegally here, are destroying our quality of life. But there the Mexicans were - hosing down the tiles by the hotel swimming pool, gardening, everywhere gardening. A woman who could barely speak English was making beds; at the yuppie restaurant, Mexican men impersonated Italian chefs.

Who could accuse Wilson of xenophobia? The governor was, after all, only concerned with those immigrants illegally here. His presumption was that illegal immigrants are here only for the umbrella of welfare services. Remove those benefits and they will go back to Mexico, the governor reasoned.

There was a presumption in Wilson's letter that betrayed naivete about the desperation of the Third World poor and their wild ambition for work.

What troubles us about the Mexican immigrant is that she works too hard. The myth California has advertised to the world is that here is a place of leisure - the myth of blond beaches and palm trees. In truth, life in Los Angeles today is no more difficult than life in Chicago or Atlanta or New York - but that is not the point. Californians expect life in L.A. to be easier than life back east.

Native-born Californians remember being able to park in Westwood; they are appalled by the loss of the green hills and having to wait in line - lines at the grocery store, lines on the Santa Monica freeway. California, people say, used to be easier.

It is inevitable that the governor of California would misunderstand, would assume that Mexicans are coming for welfare. In a state whose most famous industry is entertainment, the desperate Mexican must puzzle us. Desperate immigrants challenge the sunniest myth we have about ourselves and this place.

It is embarrassing to watch the Mexican work, like watching a peasant eat. The Mexican, perhaps most especially the illegal immigrant, reminds us how hard life is, reminds us that, in much of this world, one must work or die.

Not only Mexicans are working, of course. There are also Vietnamese, Koreans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Chinese. Wilson's letter to the president was only concerned with Mexicans and with Mexico, but many Californians probably are made more uneasy with the Asian migration. If, as the governor believes, Mexicans are a burden because they are poor, Asians are a threat because they are poised to take over the city.

During the gold rush in the mid-19th century, Chinese miners were chased off the fields by other prospectors. Mexicans (many of whom arrived from northern Mexico, bringing with them mining skills) were also chased away. Now, many generations later, a father of three in Walnut Creek tells me that Asians are unfair (his daughter has not been admitted to Berkeley). "Asians are unfair because they work so hard."

The most modern people I meet in 1993 are alternately those international businessmen who fly business class and deal with several currencies, and those peasants who fly tourist class or crawl or float or walk into the United States. What the migrant worker and the international business executive understand is the inevitable free flow of cash and labor around the modern world.

Californians should be thinking of ways to join with Mexico. If we were as modern, as advanced, as we like to tell our fellow Americans we are, we would be imagining a global state. Instead, environmentalists are using the North American Free Trade Agreement as a way of keeping Mexico at bay, under our control. And Gov. Wilson urges the president to tie NAFTA to Mexico's policing of its northern border. Clean yourself, we tell Mexico, clean yourself and then we will embrace you.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein wonders if we shouldn't charge a toll for entering California from Mexico. And her fellow liberal in the Senate, Barbara Boxer, wants to enlist the National Guard to protect our border. But, of course, millons of middle-class Californians assume that they can use Mexico whenever and however they want. They go to Mexico for a tan. They go to Mexico to adopt a baby. They retire to Mexico - get a condo in Cabo. They reach into Mexico for an inexpensive gardener or nanny.

Despite ourselves and because of the immigrants, California is becoming a world society - an extraordinary meeting place of Asia and Latin America with white and black America.

Gov. Wilson, I think, would have done better addressing a letter to his fellow Californians - rich, middle-class and poor. The governor might well have asked if, as Californians, we assume too much about our right to leisure, and the government's obligation to our well-being.

The truth is that, in time, California will turn the Mexican and Chinese teenagers into rock stars and surfers. But I think the immigrants also will change California - their gift to us - reminding us of what our German and Italian ancestors knew when they came, bopeful, to the brick tenement blocks of the East Coast. Life is work.
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Author:Rodriguez, Richard
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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