The Republicans who are now beginning to have their big "duh" moment on immigration have long had a model in George W. Bush, who, as governor of Texas and in his first years as president had a friendly relationship with Latinos and neighboring Mexico. In his re-election campaign in 1998 he drew 40 percent of the Latino vote.
This week, at a conference in Dallas, Bush reminded the nation and his party particularly of what's at stake. "Immigrants," he said, "have helped build the country that we have become, and immigrants can help build a dynamic tomorrow."
But for years Republicans spurned the Bush model.
Instead they followed the example of Pete Wilson, who with his attacks on illegal immigrants in his 1994 gubernatorial re-election campaign, handed millions of Latino voters to the Democrats and helped make California one of the bluest of the blue states.
But as talk about immigration reform gets more serious in Washington, California's immigration history also has some cautions for liberals.
Among the biggest: To what extent would the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants dampen the willingness of the nation's predominantly older, whiter voters to support generous public services, including schools, for millions of beneficiaries, many of whom they believe shouldn't be here in the first place?
The greatest progress in social programs Social Security, the Wagner Act, Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, the Poverty Program came in the years of the New Deal and Great Society, roughly 1933-1968, which also happen to be the years with the lowest percentage of new immigrants in American history.
Or, to come closer to home, was it just coincidence that in the late 1970s, as immigration began its sharp rise in California, voters abandoned the policies of high investment in education, roads, water projects, parks and other progressive measures that they embraced after World War II, and launched the tax revolt that swept the nation? What was it that converted the state of Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown into the state of Howard Jarvis, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson?
In 1978, shortly after Proposition 13 passed, Jarvis, its chief author, wrote an opinion piece for The Bee about how he was sick of all those illegal immigrants coming here "to get on the taxpayers' gravy train."
Passing the DREAM Act, allowing young undocumented immigrants brought here as children by their parents to be legalized, should be a no-brainer. But the all-purpose solution called Comprehensive Immigration Reform raises questions. Will Americans be willing to carry the national biometric identity card that's one of the keys to work-site enforcement of any new immigration law?
If some 11 million undocumented immigrants are legalized, how will we prevent a repetition of what occurred after the passage of IRCA, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, when amnesty for the 3 million undocumented workers then in this country was followed by a new wave of undocumented immigrants many of them relatives coming to join their newly amnestied spouses and parents?
Demographics and economics, always the chief drivers of immigration, should assuage some concerns: The Mexican birthrate has declined sharply and its economy has grown, reducing the pressure to emigrate. If the United States invested part of what it now spends on border enforcement in Mexican economic development, and conditioned that investment to legal and economic reform, it might reduce that pressure still more.
As the Latino electorate in this country continues to grow and as we begin to realize the importance to the economy of those millions of immigrant kids, our politics may also outgrow the paralysis we've locked ourselves into.
At the heart of that paralysis was and is the wide ethnic and generational gap between voters and the general population, and particularly those seen as the particular beneficiaries of public programs.
We've certainly grown beyond the moment in 1994 when voters, with Wilson's strong support, passed Proposition 187, the sweeping measure that sought to deny all public services, including education, to undocumented immigrants and their children.
The federal courts struck the measure down and it's hard to imagine that Californians, with the large influx of Latino voters, will ever pass such an initiative again. Californians, and young Californians particularly, are increasingly comfortable with the diverse society that's gown around them.
Thus we may again serve as a model for the future. But it may be slow coming and there may still be ugly patches ahead.
Other states, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, among others and many cities, are still having their Prop. 187 moments. Many more have passed, or tried to pass, laws in the last year or two to discourage voting by immigrants and other minorities, if not deny them the right altogether.
Ultimately most failed; some were struck down by courts. But the dampening effect on public services of legalization, if it ever comes, may not be so obvious or so easy to overcome. California is a blue state, but you could never tell that from what we now spend on education, parks or children's services.