AUSTIN, TEX. -- The media are once again missing the story on illegal immigration.
The fact that illegal immigration is a hot political topic in California has provoked a wave of tut-tuttery from the national media. "Sixty Minutes" views with alarm, the New York Times deplores, various bishops come forth to denounce racism, which gets duly reported by everyone. But the story they're all missing -- like Sherlock Holmes's observation about the dog that did not bark in the night -- is that in Texas no one really gives a hoot.
California really is going through a particularly nasty spell of immigrant-bashing. Gov. Pete Wilson is calling for a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are calling for a wide range of steps to crack down on illegal immigration. The big new partisan game in the Golden State is who can git tuffest on illegal immigrants. Some Republican assembly member out there distributed a racist poem in pidgin English about how Mexicans want to come here to live on welfare and take over the country.
But Texas is the dog that did not bark in the night. It's a non-issue here. Jim Mattox, now candidate for U.S. Senate and a man with a good eye for a hot-button issue, tried to make it one, calling for U.S. troops to be stationed along the border to shut off the flow of immigrants. The general reaction was along the lines of "Oh, shut up, Jim."
Mattox promptly began whittling down his proposal and explaining that what he really had in mind was using some of these soldiers who will be laid off as we shrink the military to beef up the Border Patrol or local police forces along the border. I called Mattox's office to ask if it's true that he's backing off his proposal to put troops along the border, and I was told that he had never proposed putting troops along the border in the first place. That means he's backing off.
Now, are we to assume that Texans have suddenly become more tolerant, less racist and less xenophobic than Californians? Not a safe bet, in my opinion. The difference is that California's economy is in the toilet and ours is on the upswing. And there you have the entire history of the U.S.-Mexican border in the proverbial nutshell.
When Texas's economy was in a slump in the mid-'80s, immigrant-bashing was a politically profitable game here. The sound of hordes of bare, brown feet pitter-pattering our way was invoked much like the North American Free Trade Agreement debate's "sucking sound" of jobs going south. The English First people kept bugging the legislature to outlaw Spanish. Some nitwit at the federal level proposed putting up a large cyclone fence along the border. (That led to a memorable event at a Terlingua Chili Cook-Off of that era: A 17-foot fence was erected along a short stretch of the border for the First Ever Over, Under or Through Mexican Fence-Climbing Contest with the winner to get a case of Lone Star. As I recall, the winning time was 7 seconds.)
All in all, it was a festive time along the Tex-Mex border. Of course, no one has ever been able to claim that anyone immigrated to Texas in order to take advantage of our generous (ahem) welfare benefits or health care for the poor (in those days, we let 'em die outside public clinics if they didn't have the 75 bucks) or even for education. It was a Houston case that finally provoked the Supreme Court into ruling that children born in this country have a right to go to school here. The social consequences of letting children of immigrants grow up ignorant was not clear to our nativist thinkers.
Ah, but now, with home-building booming, real estate prices on the rise, the need for busboys, maids and gardeners soaring (and only people who want to join the Cabinet have to worry about paying their Social Security), lo and behold, no big anti-immigrant sentiment here. Amazing, huh?
That's the border.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.