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Intended Consequences 

Our supervisors tilt at a lot of silly windmills. But the city's recognition of Mexican consular IDs may help change national immigration policy for the better.

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
Despite a strenuous workout that involved eliminating the Redevelopment Agency, leasing out 118 light-rail cars, banning big-box stores, tightening rent control, and approving two condo buildings, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors somehow found the energy last week to pass a resolution recommending limitations on state bear-hunting permits.

In an average week the board passes at least one of these official shouts into the wind, letting the world know just how the supervisors feel about issues beyond their San Francisco realm.

As a result, we're a marijuana sanctuary. We don't invest in Burma. And as of two Mondays ago, San Francisco officially believes that the California State Fish & Game Commission should issue 200 fewer bear-hunting permits than have been proposed.

Columnists like me have traditionally opposed these laws on the principle that they're fun to mock:

Get a load of San Francisco, the reefer refuge.

Don't they realize the only wild bears in San Francisco wear plaid and jackboots? Ha!

But last week something happened that made me reconsider our government's vainglorious penchant for passing Walter Mitty laws. On April 17 Mexico's foreign minister described how one such San Francisco law, which requires the city to thumb its nose at federal laws on illegal immigration, may have made San Francisco a harbinger of one of the more divisive -- and necessary -- political debates undertaken during the George W. Bush administration. The city law, passed in 1985 and widened in 1989 as a statement of solidarity with the "sanctuary" smugglers who saved Central Americans from predatory regimes, has since evolved into a practical and effective piece of municipal policy.

The law doesn't allow immigration status to be considered when people deal with S.F. employees, whether at City College or the SFPD. During its decade and a half, this policy has fortified a civic culture supportive and protective of undocumented aliens. It has allowed migrants to work and raise families with less fear of INS raids. And recently, in a bill sponsored by Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to officially recognize ID cards issued by a Mexican consulate.

In an odd twist, this measure, passed in our most left of cities, may help the Bush administration grant greater rights to Mexican immigrants by making them resident (rather than illegal) aliens. The bill has put San Francisco "at the vanguard" of the drive for immigrant rights, Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda said during a speech at the Fairmont Hotel last week.

It's enough to make a columnist wonder if our odd local tradition of tilting at windmills is such a bad thing after all.

A great Walter Mitty law demands an equally grand foe. And there are few federal policies more monstrous than the one comprised of America's immigration limits, drafted during bygone days when lawmakers openly questioned the innate intelligence and moral character of people born abroad. Modern arguments -- that illegal immigrants steal jobs, that they go on welfare, that they dilute the identity of communities where they come to live -- are rewarmed versions of the old shibboleths. Anti-immigration types grasping for a rationale beyond xenophobia cite a mid-1990s Rice University study suggesting that some immigrants generate more short-term social-service costs to states and localities than the federal government reimburses.

But illegal immigrants pay many billions of dollars in untracked federal taxes. And serious analysis recognizes the paucity of data regarding immigrants' greater contributions; massive foreign immigration, legally documented and not, is jealously viewed by economists the world over as one of America's greatest strengths. This is true of Brazilians revitalizing Massachusetts industrial towns, Senegalese merchants opening shop in Harlem, South Asians fueling the Santa Clara Valley technology industry, and the work and investment of Russians, Chinese, Peruvians, Mexicans, Arabs, and Indians who are keeping San Francisco vital following the dot-com bust.

The difference between a city with an "overimmigration problem" and a city without one is the difference between San Francisco and mostly native-born Detroit. It's the difference between repeated economic and social renewal, and decay.

As it happens, this tension between reason and ideology on immigration will soon explode into a debate crucial to the future of two North American presidential administrations. Though the election victory of Mexican President Vicente Fox two years ago released Mexico from more than 70 years of authoritarian rule, Fox's administration is now so embattled that his nation's Congress forced him to cancel a planned trip to San Francisco last week. Fox is betting on a U.S.-Mexico migration agreement to boost his political fortunes. "If there is no success on the migration issue, it will be difficult for Vicente Fox to be successful," Foreign Minister Castañeda said last week.

To that end, for the past two years Fox has barnstormed U.S. cities. He's met repeatedly with U.S. leaders, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeny, who leads a union movement traditionally opposed to immigration, and President Bush, who heads a party with a conservative wing that rabidly favors increased immigration control. Bush, the former governor whose moderate immigration views gained him Hispanic support in Texas, is sympathetic to his Mexican comrade's needs. The two presidents were scheduled last fall to negotiate a migration agreement that might have included some form of amnesty for some of the millions of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States. Then Sept. 11 got in the way.

An agreement on U.S.-Mexico immigration policy is expected this year, for obvious reasons. In the age of terrorism, providing official U.S. documentation to 4 million Mexican migrants currently without papers can be seen as a matter of national security. Rather than any attempt at the logistical and public relations horror of mass deportation, Bush and Fox clearly support some kind of amnesty -- a notion that will enrage the nativist right wing of Bush's Republican Party. The notion also could turn immigration into the sort of strange-bedfellows political issue that, like welfare reform, NAFTA, and balancing the budget, defined the Clinton years. To get the immigration amnesty he and his Mexican confidant want, Bush may soon need to link himself politically with ... the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In a quiet yet dramatic nationwide trend, a wallet-size leaf of plastic called a matrícula consular is opening up a world of privilege for undocumented Mexicans; the privilege will be difficult to take away. Four months ago, Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval sponsored legislation that made San Francisco the first U.S. city to require hospitals, schools, police, and other public agencies to accept, as official documentation, ID cards issued by Mexican consulates.

Since then police in several states, including Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, began accepting the cards as no-immigration-questions-asked ID. Wells Fargo Bank followed step, recognizing the cards at branches nationwide. Bank of America and others have done the same (no doubt delighting the ghost of S.F. immigrant and BofA founder A.P. Giannini). To illegal immigrants -- who are often booked on petty charges as John Does for lack of ID and then turned over to the INS for deportation, and who are frequently mugged because they carry cash for lack of bank accounts -- the IDs now being issued by 47 consulates represent a lifestyle revolution.

In San Francisco, every weekday morning since January, hundreds of people have lined up on Ellis Street outside the Flood Building, waiting their turn to apply for ID cards at the Mexican Consulate on the fifth floor. Well-dressed husbands and wives crowd into the elevators, pretty babies in tow, so giddy and talkative and downright optimistic that they seem to drive their office-working elevator companions to irritation.

"It means a lot to the immigrant community. Emotionally and psychologically, it's a boost to their morale, and they feel freer to accomplish planning for personal growth development, their jobs, and their studies," says Ramón Cardona, executive director of Carecen, an S.F. nonprofit serving immigrants.

And the legislation that enabled this optimism -- this real expansion of freedom -- was an outgrowth of a pro-immigrant culture nurtured by the "sanctuary" laws adopted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, way back in the 1980s.

In a recent phone conversation, Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, once an assistant public defender, recalled that representing migrant clients was easier, knowing the San Francisco criminal justice system refused to cooperate with the INS. "I think it [the refusal] is a positive thing," Gonzalez said.

While I had him on the line, I thought I'd ask Gonzalez about the bear-hunting legislation he sponsored last week, which recommends 1,500, rather than 1,700, annual state bear permits. Gonzalez said that he's considering local animal-rights legislation, and that limits on bear hunting were "an easy thing to weigh in on" in the meantime.

"But shouldn't we stick to the bear necessities?" the columnist in me was tempted to snicker. But I refrained. When San Francisco someday leads a national wave of municipal fur bans, I'd like to have been on the side of angels. That's Walter Mitty's side.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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