When I moved to California in 1976, the population of the state was about 15 million, plenty crowded already and real estate prices on the verge of exploding. I bought some real estate and benefitted hugely from the explosion. Getting richer with ease seemed the way to go.
Now 33 years later, looking at California, the picture seems starkly different to me. The population is now going north of 40 million, its cities teeming with illegal migrants, crime and endless environmental devastation of which the current wild fires are only one symbol of a place getting out of control. Perhaps, if you still find reading newspapers of interest, you saw the September 1, 2009 Washington Post picture of the LA skyline completely obliterated by smoke from those vast acres now aflame. That's the view from my daughter's downtown LA condo!
This when I read a remarkable new book by Mark Arax, entitled West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killer in the Golden State (Public Affairs Books, April 2009) I was completely arrested by its riveting panoramic disclosures.
To California newcomers, the place still inspires ecstasy. One reviewer of this book wwrote on Amazon.com:
"I recently moved from the Midwest to southern California, and of course though I knew about stereotypes, I had my ideas about what life in the West would be like….The book contains a fascinating sample of portraits of different aspects of California, ranging across migrant labor, pot growing, the FBI, the home front re Iraq, and much more."
How many of the newcomers are in California illegally? Numbers vary. How many total new immigrants legal and illegal? How many "legal" kids born of these immigrants who are now dubbed "anchor babies"?
Now as the health reform debate rages and the various bills surface, we learn that the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which is the non-partisan "research arm" of the United States Congress, has issued a report concluding that illegal aliens will be able to receive benefits under the House health care bill (H.R. 3200) through two major loopholes.
This disclosure prompted Roy Beck of NumbersUSA to comment,
"I started seeing in newspapers that Americans at town hall meetings were raising this issue over and over again with Congressmen on their home turf. Politely. Knowledgeably, but firmly. 'No free healthcare for Illegal Aliens.' And, 'Change H.R. 3200 to require mandatory verification of legal residency for subsidized healthcare.'"
Boy, this really applies to California, which has turned into a budgetary deficit wasteland.
Author Mark Arax, for 25 years a reporter for the LA Times, has long proven his willingness to get all the facts necessary to tell a full, balanced story—even to the extent of causing his own divorce, apparently triggered by his earlier books, In My Father's Name and The King of California. (The latter book tells of how the water got allocated to rich Central Valley farmers—so that the famous King salmon runs from its rivers were destroyed .and my son, a commercial salmon fisherman in San Francisco has been unable to fish for the past two seasons and may never be able to again. Politics and greed have traded this marvelous resource for Pima cotton and alfalfa.)
After traveling for four years across this vast and complex state, Arax's collection of observations and anecdotes leaves one astonished at what the Golden State has recently become. Rampant immigration from everywhere has turned it into an unmanageable polyglot of races, religions, and rationales. Arax weaves a fascinating story, much as John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley did for an earlier USA.
From an immigrant Armenian family himself, Arax's writing in West of the West about the illegal immigration issue, currently a hot political potato, burst with keen insight:
"By underwriting the relocation of Mexico's most desperate, we are giving a giant handout to farmers, meat packers, home builders, hotel chains and big box retail outlets. Taxpayers are picking up the front end costs of cheap labor the same way we are subsidizing cotton and oil and home mortgages."
And in the final part, Arax, in a measure of his own reportorial honesty, brings his personal life under a complete microscope, as he doggedly and manically seeks to find his father's killers and their motivation.
If you haven't been to California lately, beyond the usual big cities of San Francisco and LA, West of the West will give you a tour that will give you a view which will shock you and give you new insights.
My answer: probably yes.
Donald A. Collins [email him], is a freelance writer living in Washington DC and a former long time member of the board of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His views are his own.