Donald Trump’s first television commercial in his campaign for president features footage of what looks like immigrants running across the country’s southern border – an eerie video echo of former Gov. Pete Wilson’s campaign in California 22 years ago.
Like Trump, Wilson was a former moderate who used immigration as an issue to burnish his conservative credentials. He likened that decade’s wave of undocumented immigrants to an “invasion” and mobilized the National Guard to help reinforce the border.
Wilson won re-election in 1994 and helped pass a ballot measure to ban public services to undocumented immigrants. But his victories were short-lived. His own campaign for president in 1996 ended before voting even began. Most of that ballot measure – Proposition 187 – was later found to be unconstitutional and wiped from the books.
Trump is only the latest politician to make immigrants his scapegoat for the nation’s problems, but he is doing so more brazenly than Wilson ever did. And it may yet propel him to the Republican nomination, if not the presidency.
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But California’s experience since Wilson’s time should be a lesson for the rest of the country. This state has gone from fearing immigrants to embracing them. And we are thriving, at least in part because of that change of heart.
A recent poll by the independent Public Policy Institute of California found that nearly two-thirds of Californians consider immigrants a benefit rather than a burden to society, compared with just 46 percent who believed that in 1998. And an astonishing 86 percent of California adults, including three-quarters of Republicans, believe that the federal government should create a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
One reason for the change is demographics. Even as immigration has fallen from its 1990s peak, California has increasingly become a state of immigrants. About 27 percent of the population is foreign-born, and immigrants and their children make up 41 percent of the population. Nearly half of the state’s children have at least one parent who is an immigrant, according to the California Immigrant Policy Center.
And despite the fears of a generation ago, immigrants have neither overwhelmed nor bankrupted the state. Instead, they have largely assimilated, just like the waves of immigrants from Europe did before them.
Most immigrants come here for work, not welfare, and they hold jobs (and create jobs) at rates higher than the native-born population. The children and grandchildren of immigrants, meanwhile, are embracing America. Among second-generation children of immigrants, just 4 percent do not speak English fluently, and by the third generation, virtually all do. Fewer than 5 percent even hear another language spoken in the home.
While more than one-third of older, first-generation immigrants never graduated from high school, only 8 percent of their second-generation descendants are without a diploma, and high numbers of them are going on to college.
As for Trump’s most inflammatory point – that undocumented immigrants are prone to violent crime – the numbers say otherwise. The last major study of immigrants and crime in California, by the PPIC in 2008, showed that the incarceration rate for foreign-born adults was 297 per 100,000 people, compared with 813 per 100,000 for adults born in the U.S. A recent national study by the Pew Foundation came to similar conclusions.
With California’s rapidly aging population, immigrants and their children are the future of the state. The same will soon be true for the rest of the nation.
Daniel Weintraub is editor of The California Health Report. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.