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October 2, 2003

The Cost of Latinization

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/the_cost_of_latinization_20031003

For the most part, Jewish leadership in Los Angeles and elsewhere can be expected to oppose the recall of longtime "ally" Gov. Gray Davis and, in a pinch, support his Mini-Me proposed replacement, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (see page 12). "Go along to get along" expediency and Pavlovian liberal sympathies provide much of the explanation.

Yet, as is all too often the case, the more pressing, long-term issues will be lost. Not only has Davis presided over a disastrous decline in the state's finances and an unprecedented debasing of its political culture. Now he has become handmaiden to the undermining of our most precious principles, the sanctity of citizenship.

By signing a bill to allow illegal aliens to receive driver's licenses, something he had hitherto strongly opposed, Davis has opened the door to a massive debasement of citizenship itself. Once allowed driver's licenses, there seems little to prevent illegal aliens -- many of whom have only marginal attachment to the nation -- from becoming full participants in our political culture, including the right to vote.

Will this move backfire? It should and could. Citizenship has always been seen as a precious thing, particularly among immigrants. It reflects both the openness of American society as well as the obligations one takes to become part of a democracy. The swearing-in ceremonies in Los Angeles and other immigrant centers are testament to the power of the American ideal.

Opposing the de facto legalization of all illegals is not the same as opposing Proposition 187. That measure sought to punish as well the children of illegal aliens and would have deprived people of essential medical services. It was mean-spirited and poorly drafted. Opposing driver's licenses for illegal aliens represents entirely something else: an affirmation of the importance of citizenship.

After Sept. 11, it also should be noted that the measure damages the slender controls we have to contain terrorism. This has always been a concern of those who opposed the legislation, including Davis himself. Future Mohammed Attas will now find it even easier to get on planes and enter public buildings, including such prime targets as Jewish institutions.

But the key concern here is not really about our security in this direct sense. It relates instead to the fundamental nature of the country that we live in. In their long history, Jews have done best when membership in society was measured not by race or ethnicity, but as a function of citizenship. This was true to some degree in ancient Rome, in the British empire, under the French Republic after 1789 and, most importantly, in the United States.

Citizenship is about responsibility and shared goals. As American citizens, Jews have been protected by the same laws as non-Jews. This principle also has made America an attractive place for a wide range of peoples, including millions of Asians and Latinos, who have fled from racist or authoritarian regimes.

Citizenship is also about being a nation of laws. In states such as 19th-century Russia, contemporary China or 20th-century Mexico, ethnic power and grievance alone could be used to justify state action. Laws could be amended, twisted and shaped to the liking of labor, the political and big business insiders. If you have elections, you change the rules and count the votes as you please.

Although such things happen in America, they are against the grain and the basic constitutional order. Yet now we see something else on the horizon -- an attempt to change an entire state by allowing the massive de facto legalization of aliens. That this is part of an explicit racial agenda makes this even more dangerous, particularly for exposed minorities like Jews.

The key thing here is to understand the nationalist motivations of the legislation's backers. Until recently their agenda -- which essentially seeks to wipe out the border -- thrived only at the political margins. It was supported largely by a handful of Chicano history professors, left-wing labor organizers and activists. But now the ill-advised recall has led the unscrupulous and desperate Davis to sign a potentially disastrous order to garner the support of his core constituency, which also includes labor unions seeking to expand their base of undocumented members.

Like much of the Latino caucus in the legislature, Bustamante supports virtually every element of separatism, including bilingual education, a flawed and highly damaging idea whose strongest justification has always lay in an essentially nationalist rationale of preserving a specific ethnic culture.

Equally disturbing has been Bustamante's refusal to break with his past association with MEChA -- a campus group with an openly separatist agenda, whose chairman describes the Southwestern United States as "occupied land."

Overall, there is little positive in the Latino nationalist scenario for Jews. A racially dominated state, based on a swelling of illegal residents, does not bode well for a minority group that has thrived on a citizen-based democracy. Before jumping on to the Davis or Bustamante bandwagons, Jewish leaders and voters might think less about their short run self-interests and more about the best interests of America's pluralistic democracy.

Joel Kotkin is a Senior Fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University. He is writing a book on the history of cities for Modern Library. He can be reached at jkotkin@joelkotkin.com.

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