California politicians are so nervous about angering Latino voters that most won’t talk openly about such basic issues as the cost to California’s infrastructure due to illegal immigrants, or the shortfall to state coffers because millions of illegal immigrants work under the table and pay no taxes.

The palpable fear among politicians of being labeled “anti-Latino” or “anti-immigrant,” although clearly unfair to politicians trying to address this difficult issue, has paralyzed California state government in recent years.

Our legislature, which loves to study things to death, is so afraid of being criticized by the race-baiting crowd that the State of California actually avoids studying basic questions, like “What does it cost the average California taxpayer to support the average illegal immigrant?”

That sort of info is unfit for public discussion. After all, if the public knew the cash outlay per legal California family, then politicians would be forced to admit that California’s problems are not entirely the fault of the feds, but are at least to some degree self-inflicted.

For example, the state legislature has continually tapped California taxpayers to provide remarkable benefits to illegal immigrants. My “favorite” benefit for illegal immigrants in California is the huge in-state tuition break illegal immigrant students are given. It’s a grossly unfair practice and one that I doubt most Californians even know about. Yet the fact is that students unlucky enough to be from “outside” locales, such as Oregon, must pay huge out-of-state tuition, but if you’re from Mexico — and your parents brought you here illegally — voila! you get “in-state” tuition.

A lot of absurd laws and programs arise from what I call the "ignorance is bliss" approach to illegal immigration. On the one hand, California blames everything on the federal government and its failure to “control the border.” On the other hand, California continually creates costly perks that beckon poor families to leave their rural villages in Mexico.

The doubletalk — blame the feds, then hand out more benefits — is an art form in California, practiced by the politicians, the media and the chattering classes. A few days ago, media reports revealed awful new facts about worsening prison overcrowding in California. But if you read about it in a major newspaper, or saw it on the 11 p.m. news, chances are excellent that you did not hear a single mention of one of the biggest (but politically incorrect) causes of overcrowding: the roughly 29,000 foreign convicts California taxpayers house and feed to the tune of $31,000 per convict, per year.

Among those 29,000 are nearly 14,000 illegal Mexicans — hardcore criminals who Mexican President Vicente Fox refuses to transfer into Mexican prisons. In 2003, the arrogant Mexican government took back only 109 prisoners from the entire United States, even as Fox and his minions disingenuously insisted they do not heavily limit the number of criminals they accept back home.

Please. According to a 2004 report by the California Board of Prison Terms “all other nations accept all of their prisoners for transfer.” Everybody takes back their convicts — even Third World nations — but not Mexico. We in the media apparently think it is poor taste to bring up such issues. I guess doing so might be “anti-Latino.” Thus, a 2004 legislative hearing in Los Angeles into this swelling population of illegal immigrants in California prisons, and Mexico’s refusal to take them back, was completely ignored by the English and Spanish-language media in L.A.

To his credit, Schwarzenegger has shown some guts on this doozy of an issue. He has taken far more aggressive steps than past governors to pressure Mexico to take its criminals, but it’s been a long and frustrating slog. While I applaud the governor for this, on other illegal immigration issues Arnold is little better than the rest of the double-talking politicians whose policies and laws have made illegal immigration worse, not better.

For example, one huge issue is the underlying cause of illegal immigration. Not the obvious “they need jobs” cited by the sheep in the media, but the actual, underlying causes of our illegal immigration crisis. We never hear about the incompetence of Vicente Fox and the Mexican legislature, who chronically refuse to take steps that would improve the Mexican economy and keep jobs at home.

And you can spend weeks trying to find any member of the media willing to explain how far back Mexico’s self-inflicted and misbegotten economic policies extend. Rob McGregor, editor of an online magazine devoted to Central American issues (www.cafemundo.com) is one of the few writers who take pains to explain that Mexico’s disinterest in capitalism extends far back in history, as does its continuing disastrous embrace of authoritarian leaders.

I have to assume that Schwarzenegger, a passionate student of economics and a fan of Milton Friedman’s, understands how inept the Mexican government has been about instituting economic reforms like those underway in China, India and Eastern Europe.

Yet we hear not a peep from the governor. He never says Mexico needs to stop blaming others and join the 21st Century. That would be way too un-PC.

The governor was recently in Washington to "complain" to the president, as he described it, about the lack of federal help for California. But everybody knows that the best way to help yourself is to admit you have a problem, then take the first steps to fix things on your own. California never gets around to taking that first step. Schwarzenegger, who has refused to sign a series of ill-advised laws approved by the California legislature to hand over driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, has actually been better than most California politicians on these issues.

The worst pols include intellectually challenged leaders like U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. But the governor has let a lot of opportunities slip by, including his tepid to non-existent efforts to crack down on the cash economy in California that robs the state coffers of huge, unknown amounts of income tax.

It’s stunning that with several million illegal immigrants in California — many of them working for cash or by using stolen social security numbers — we rarely hear a peep from Arnold or Attorney General Bill Lockyer on why they (as opposed to the feds) are not cracking down.

According to a 2005 study for Bear Stearns by Robert Justich and Betty Ng, an estimated four million to six million jobs nationally have “shifted to the underground market,” and five million illegal workers nationwide are ducking their taxes. Moreover, many employers of illegal workers “have taken to using unrecorded revenue receipts.” California is the center of this outrageous behavior. The same study estimated that the huge influx of illegal labor has “reduced average annual earnings by approximately 4 to 6 percent” for Americans. As we know from a recent, widely reported study of the Latino workforce, the American workers whose wages are the most depressed and whose opportunities are stolen are low-income Latinos and other minorities who live here legally.

Yet California keeps its head firmly in the sand. For years, the state has avoided serious efforts to investigate the fraudulent use of welfare programs by illegal immigrants. Even worse, as I will explain later this spring, is the way the legislature continually buckles to the illegal immigrant lobby’s effort to dumb-down the California public schools and roll back Proposition 227, the smashingly successful English immersion reform approved by voters. Luckily, as I’ve written before, Arnold has put a stop to the schools dumbing-down movement, as did Gray Davis.

I don’t mean to be depressing, but these sorts of misbegotten responses to illegal immigration in California — years of buckling to Fox’s petulance regarding Mexican criminals in California prisons, the failure to crack down on illegals who duck taxes and abuse welfare, the PC effort to pretend the Mexican government is changing its backward economic program, and the legislative pandering to illegal immigrants on dumbing-down the public school system — can only get worse in an election year.

California’s pols were already afraid to offend the illegal immigration lobby, long before they saw TV images of 250,000 Latinos marching on Los Angeles City Hall. The pols’ heretofore inept responses to illegal immigration will be much more tortured and illogical now that an election is approaching.

If the Spanish-language talk radio stations manage to again whip up large crowds on May 1 to observe a work stoppage in support of amnesty for illegal immigrants, I predict the California legislature and Schwarzenegger will be much more reluctant to adopt coherent immigration policies within California.

We are likely to see more policies based purely on spin. That’s unfortunate for all of us, including Mexicans still in Mexico. As long as we disingenuously blame only the feds, and as long as California pols keep offering more costly “help” to illegal immigrants, California will continue to act as a giant relief valve for a stubborn Mexican leadership. That’s not a victory, that’s a tragedy — for both California and Mexico.