Hush—you’ll ruin it

American politicians and Mexican diplomats have a hard time acknowledging the cost of imprisoning illegal aliens in California

Democratic state Senator Gloria Romero of Los Angeles is one tough cookie when it comes to going after California’s nasty prison-guard union, but now she is opening a can of worms that I wonder if Sacramento is altogether praying she will just shut up about: the 28,672 “immigrants” in California prisons who cost taxpayers a staggering sum to feed and house, half of whom are here illegally from Mexico.

In recent years, whether on the Senate floor, in budget-committee hearings or in prison-reform hearings—in fact, in any venue you choose in the bustling Sacramento Capitol—it’s become rare to hear the term “illegal immigrants” or the almost-verboten “illegal aliens.” In an example of what George Orwell called “newspeak,” California politicians believe that if you don’t publicly name this contributing cause of our ongoing fiscal crisis, it will vanish.

But it’s not just the silly pols who avoid talking about illegal immigration and its effects on the California treasury. Even nonpartisan players like widely respected Chief Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill rarely study the cost of “immigration” or “illegal immigration.” It’s just too difficult and too politically hot.

So, while the costs of these largely non-taxpaying residents continue to drain virtually every sector of the California treasury, from funds for roads and transportation to such overwhelmed areas as the courts, hardly anyone in power says anything at all.

John Stoos, aide to Republican state Senator Tom McClintock, the fiscal watchdog from Thousand Oaks, chuckled, “Oh yes, it will definitely go away if we don’t study it. Works for me!”

The attitude to which Stoos refers is what made Romero’s prison-system hearing in Los Angeles on December 16 so intriguing. Polite but concerned diplomats representing the local consulates of Canada, Germany and Sweden all testified even though they have only a few dozen prisoners apiece in California prisons—a drop in the bucket for a system with 165,000 total inmates.

These dignitaries were there to help fix a badly flawed country-to-country prison-transfer program that the Schwarzenegger administration hopes can send as many as 6,400 eligible prisoners back to their home countries one day—mostly back to Mexico. Many of the dignitaries who testified on December 16 said they want to be notified more quickly that their citizens have been arrested, and they want to transfer their citizens home more quickly so that, as Canadian diplomat Myra Pastyr-Lupul said, such prisoners can “take advantage of our programs to … reintegrate into Canadian society.”

Then there was the behavior of the Mexican government, a contrast to the others like something straight out of the Ukraine. In a bizarre bit of public theater that reminded me of living in Czechoslovakia in 1991 amid bumbling ex-Communist officials, the Mexican government boycotted Romero’s hearing, offering as its excuse one of the lamest official fibs I’ve heard in several years.

Romero explained to the audience at the public hearing in downtown Los Angeles that the Mexican government had, for several days, failed to respond to Romero’s invitation to testify—odd behavior in and of itself. The morning of the hearing, Romero dispatched an aide to telephone the Mexican consulate a few miles down the road in Los Angeles to find out when they planned to arrive.

The Mexican officials responded, Romero noted for the official record, that, “because of budgetary concerns, they could not fly the appropriate consulate [official] from Mexico,” so nobody was coming. Said Romero, “I am very disappointed at their failure to participate … to first of all give me even the courtesy of a phone call that they were not showing up. We should have at least been given the dignity of a phone call.”

The peeved Romero then went on to explain that in her invitation to the Mexican consulate, “We stressed that a local consulate official was sufficient.”

I’ll admit I audibly guffawed over the bit about how Mexico, the country, can’t afford an airline ticket to Los Angeles. I checked, just in case something had happened to airline prices in the known universe. But nope, a round trip from Mexico City to Los Angeles is still a bargain.

Mexican President Vicente Fox lives very well in a lovely villa, and so do key Mexican diplomats. The Mexican consulate in Los Angeles is a classy joint, reflecting its ample funding from the home office. Let’s just say that the federal government of Mexico can well afford a trip, indeed a very lavish trip, to Los Angeles. Not that Romero needed a diplomat from Mexico City anyway.

For years, the Mexican government has done nothing but double-talk on illegal immigration. On the prisoner issue, for example, Mexico very strictly limits the transfer of Mexican criminals back to Mexican prisons from California prisons and other states—but politicians from Mexico absurdly insist that they have no limits. Pathetic. According to the California Board of Prison Terms, “all other nations accept all of their prisoners for transfer.” All of them. Except for Mexico.

Thus, in 2003, Mexico took back only 109 prisoners from the entire United States. Yet, 17,500 of California’s prisoners are Mexican nationals, including about 14,000 known to be illegal aliens. Moreover, Mexico flatly refuses to take back anyone who has been in the United States for longer than five years. Just because.

U.S. and California officials are so sick of Mexico’s behavior that proposals are afoot to tweak the various complex treaties that exist between the United States, Mexico, Canada and Europe, in order to force Mexico to play ball. It’s not as if wholesale transfers will occur. Under international treaties, prisoners have to volunteer to be transferred. But at a cost to California taxpayers of $31,000 per inmate per year, we’ll take what we can get.

In the newspapers the day following the hearing, I found no coverage of the international dust-up between Romero and Mexico. Maybe I missed it. Even so, the media have been complicit, along with Sacramento politicians, in often keeping mum about illegal immigration and its cost to taxpayers. Reporting on a story that they see as “blaming the victim” makes California journalists very uncomfortable.

Media queasiness has shut the public out of the debate, allowing it to be dominated by factions from the hard left and hard right. The hard left, typified by certain blowhard members of the Latino Caucus in our Legislature, demanded driver’s licenses for illegal aliens with no restrictions and no background checks. The hard right, typified by strident anti-immigrant groups in Washington, D.C., demands such ridiculous things as a military buildup on our border.

If we in the middle could speak, we’d talk about how the solution is not to be found in Washington or Sacramento, but in Mexico City, with the Mexican Legislature and Fox or his successor.

People come here illegally because Mexico’s economy does not create jobs. None of Mexico’s key elected leaders has shown any stomach whatsoever for altering a socialist and throwback economy best left in the 1930s.

Equally damaging, the rule of law in Mexico is so weak that Mexican banks won’t lend money to entrepreneurs to start businesses. This is a huge problem. Nobody has any confidence that if they hire workers, their company won’t be stolen by corrupt mafia types in some courtroom fiasco overseen by a corrupt judge. That’s what happens when the rule of law is a joke, as in Mexico’s courtrooms.

Mexico’s twin curses—socialism and no reliable rule of law—ensure that no good jobs can be created, and thus no middle class.

Until the Mexican Legislature is forced awake, Mexico will be trapped in a time capsule of its own making. That’s one big reason why Third World nations like China, which is building a huge entrepreneur class by developing a rule of law that gives lenders the confidence they need, is blasting past Mexico.

But Fox has turned out to be a horribly weak president, unable to motivate the socialist majority in the Legislature. Why do I never, ever, read about this crucial issue in California media? Oh, that’s right; it’s blaming the victim.

Mexican legislators clearly prefer that Mexico keep relying on huge infusions of cash from immigrants in California, who send billions of dollars to Mexico each year (making U.S.-earned cash the second-largest income source for Mexico, after oil revenues).

Mexico’s “crutch” economy is a horrible thing to observe, ensuring massive, intractable poverty. The country won’t snap out of it as long as elected leaders in California and Washington coddle Fox and Mexico’s powerful ruling families.

As long as Mexico archly rejects the responsibilities of the modern world—even shirking such simple if unpleasant tasks as attending a California public hearing into how to fix country-to-country prison-transfer policies—Mexico will go nowhere fast.

I don’t know how Romero feels about the corrupt economic policies that prevent the creation of a middle class in Mexico and send its people north. But apparently, nobody told Romero that when it comes to illegal immigration, the silent treatment has been working great in Sacramento, and she shouldn’t open that can of worms.

The rule is: If you don’t talk about it, then nothing is the matter. But now, she’s criticized the Mexican government, and she’s publicly talked about $500 million to $800 million a year in costs to California taxpayers from housing foreign prisoners, and she’s basically just gone and ruined everything.

Somebody, please give this woman an award.