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June 13, 2013
Guest Opinion: Will immigration reform end the welfare state?

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(June 13 -- By Peter Schrag, Special to The Bee)

If Congress legalizes this nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, will Proposition 13 come to America?

That's not a non sequitur. It's a serious question - not in the literal sense, but surely in the metaphorical sense. Would Obamacare have been possible after immigration reform?

Three months after voters passed California's radical tax-cutting measure in 1978, Howard Jarvis, its principal author, echoing what some of his supporters surely believed, wrote a piece on this page saying he was sick of "aliens who just come here to get on the taxpayers' gravy train."

Conversely, do generous welfare state programs also reduce the willingness of voters to support liberal immigration policies? This is not an argument against immigration reform, but it is a warning to its liberal supporters that there could be downsides to it.

In the generation after World War II, California famously led the nation in progressive government programs. We adopted a master plan guaranteeing all students a college education who could take advantage of it, and built new university campuses to accommodate them. We constructed grand new freeways, an ambitious state water system and new schools by the hundreds.

We passed landmark civil rights and abortion rights laws. We professionalized state government. We became a model for the nation and the world.

Then in the late 1970s everything changed. Yes, with the resulting spike in property values, some people's taxes went through the roof, and what had been regarded as a state of bright young families suddenly became the home of seniors unable to pay their property taxes.

But under it all, something else had changed, too. Slowly new faces were coming to those schools and appearing in the parks and playgrounds and shopping malls - brown faces bringing a different culture and speaking a different language.

Hadn't we built those schools, playgrounds and university campuses for ourselves and the children of people like ourselves, immigrants not from Mexico or China, but from Iowa, Kansas and Missouri? Were we suddenly shelling out, as Jarvis said, for aliens getting on the taxpayers' gravy train?

There's long been a conflict between ethnic and social diversity, on the one hand, and the willingness of voters to support generous public services. When your child or your sister benefits from a program, you're more likely to support it than if the beneficiary is an "other," especially if that other is undocumented.

The era when we created the most progressive social programs in our history - the period between the 1930s and the 1960s, the years of the New Deal and the Great Society - was also the period of the lowest rate of immigration since the first settlers landed on our shores.

We assume that it's always the right that opposes generous immigration policies and the left that supports them. And through much of our history it's been true. Generally, it's been urban Democrats who've welcomed the Irish, the Italians, the Jews and the Slavs. The New Deal grew great on those immigrants and their children.

But at the turn of the last century, some leading progressives were panicked by the slums, corruption and filth of the cities where immigrants settled. And of course, poor immigrants took jobs from American workers and depressed their wages.

Could the great democracy created by the Founding Fathers thrive in the face of genetically inferior races? At one time or another in their careers, Jefferson and Franklin themselves weren't sure even about the Germans and the French. A century ago, the publisher of this newspaper lobbied in Washington against the immigration of Asians. "Of all the races ineligible to citizenship under our law," said V.S. McClatchy in 1924, "the Japanese are the least assimilable and the most dangerous to this country."

We may be past the overt racism, at least in this state, as we're past the hostility to the Irish, the Poles and the Italians. But there's a fair amount of economic research evidence both from U.S. cities and abroad showing that as a population gets more ethnically diverse, resistance grows to the generous public goods the welfare state provides.

Conversely, as UC Davis economist Peter Lindert wrote, "affinity would be fostered by ethnic homogeneity between middle-income voters and the perceived recipients."

We're seeing some of that tension now in the debates about the immigration bill. At what point should newly legalized immigrants be eligible for the benefits of Obamacare, for the earned income tax credit and for other federal benefits?

The same history, however, that shows that low rates of immigration make it easier to establish generous public services also indicates that as new generations of immigrants assimilate - become fully "American," buy homes, become voters, intermarry - the us-and-them distinctions that impede generous social spending begin to diminish. Eventually California may even see the beginning of changes in Proposition 13. But it won't happen tomorrow.

Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Bee.

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