Proposition 187, California’s famous (or infamous) proposition to deny public services to illegal immigrants and their offspring, encouraged at least one member of Virginia’s General Assembly to propose similar legislation in this year’s session. The stout-hearted fellow’s name is Warren E. Barry, and he represents Fairfax County in Virginia’s Senate. For some time now, the rising number of illegal aliens in Virginia and the cost of educating immigrants in Fairfax County have ruffled the senator’s feathers. Last year, he introduced a measure in the assembly that would have required the Commonwealth to calculate the cost of providing public services to illegal aliens and to establish procedures to report them to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House, which established a commission to study the issue.

Though Barry couldn’t get statistics on Virginia, facts and figures on seven other states are available from the Urban Institute, which published a report on the subject in September. California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and Arizona spent $3.1 billion educating 641,000 illegals. Those states also report spending $445 million on Medicaid for illegals. Local municipalities and counties such as Washington, D.C., and Arlington County probably spend about the same amount of money in proportion to their size and the number of illegals.

But what few critics of illegal or legal immigration ever mention is how immigrants affect the country culturally. The Urban Institute again cast some light on the subject, in a study released in May: “The number of people who speak a language other than English at home grew by 37 percent—from 23.2 million to 31.8 million—between 1980 and 1990. . . . Between 1986 and 1991 the number of students counted who did not speak English very well grew by over 50 percent.” Half the population of Los Angeles speaks a language other than English at home, the report says, and 50 percent of recent immigrants report speaking English “very well” or “well,” which means 50 percent of immigrants can’t speak English very well. Whether an immigrant should be the judge of whether he speaks proper English is open to question, but in any event the report’s final statistics are the most alarming. About 20 percent of all immigrants speak a language other than English at home, and “only” 25 percent of immigrants say they speak English “not well” or “not at all.”

These statistics are significant, particularly given that nearly 20 million people in the United States (as of 1990) were foreign-born. Take the example of the industrious Chinese family in Silver Spring, Maryland, that the Washington Post recently profiled. Two Americanized daughters, both successful professionals, serve as the link between their parents and the rest of society. Otherwise, in the parents’ insular world, only Chinese is spoken. It used to be that television provided one avenue for immigrants to learn English, but not anymore. These two folks watch only Chinese language programs on cable TV. They patronize only Chinese-owned stores.

If it’s true that the proof is in the pudding, look at Arlington County, where the banks profess they habla Español, nearly every taxicab driver is foreign-born, and the transit buses not only boast signs in Pancho Villa’s native tongue but also remind one of a bus in Somalia or New Delhi. About 21 percent of Arlington’s population of 180,000 comes from another land, mostly Third World countries, and the principal economic enterprises in which they seem to be engaged are hacking and restaurants. And like Silver Spring’s cable company. Cable TV Adington provides plenty of Asian- and Spanish-language programming, the latter for the county’s burgeoning population of Hispanics.

This population has given voice to a vocal “Latino” lobby, which in turn is flexing its political muscle. It went bonkers over Senator Barry’s proposal. “People are looking for scapegoats,” whined Samuel McTyre, head of the United Latin American Citizens League. “There is populist anger and immigrants are the target,” sobbed Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum. So intense is the fear of Senator Barry’s proposal that a group known as the Council for Latino Agencies, based in Washington, D.C., is coordinating die formation of a special coalition to fight it. You’d think the INS, which is headquartered in Arlington, was preparing for a sweep through the county’s low-income housing projects similar to Janet Reno’s sweep through Waco.

What neither Senator Barry nor the proponents of Prop. 187 realize, however, is where the real fight over immigration lies, although the wetbacks-are-good crowd seems to have figured it out. The Latino lobby is worried about all immigrants, legal or not, because it fears the so-called slippery slope. If Americans take a stand on illegal immigrants, the next target might be the legal variety. Exactly.

Culture, as Francis Fukuyama argued in the Manhattan Institute’s Strangers at Our Gate: Immigration in the 1990’s, is the real issue: “The deeper more important issue behind immigration is culture. It’s certainly more important than economics. If you were to decide, for example, that immigration is somehow crucial to the vitality of American culture, then you would probably accept a small negative economic impact. Conversely, if you believe that immigrants threaten American culture, you would have to prove a fairly high level of economic benefit to make immigration worthwhile.”

This is exactly the problem the Urban Institute’s figures highlight. Forget how much illegal aliens cost. How will legal immigrants who refuse to learn English affect our culture? And what does their ability to get by without speaking English say about our own sense of identity, national character, and nationhood?

Immigrants are a menace to American culture no matter how they affect the economy, and Senator Barry, for all his sincerity, must recognize them for the problem they are. As long as he and his supporters fix on economic and other utilitarian arguments to generate fear of foreigners, they will lose their fight against those like Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp, who can muster, statistics to “prove” that immigrants help the economy. What the Bennetts and Kemps cannot show is that immigrants strengthen a society in which they refuse to assimilate.

Given the climate here in Virginia, some form of Senator Barry’s legislation is likely to pass the General Assembly. If the Bennetts and Kemps manage to defeat it, perhaps they need the slap in the face Americanos get when they drop by the bank or take a ride on the bus in Adington, Virginia.