Illegal Migrants Hot Issue for GOP
It’s stirring up state races from the top to bottom of the ballot.
Laura Mecoy, Sacramento Bee, Feb. 17
LOS ANGELES-The driver catches the eye of a man leaning against a post on the corner of MacArthur Park.
He climbs into her car, and they head to a nearby parking lot to conduct business out of the view of local police.
For $100, the man says he can get her a fake California driver’s license, and he’ll take her to a nearby studio to get her photo.
The Bee found it’s that easy to get a phony license, work permit or Social Security card in this city immigration officials say is the nation’s top market for fake documents.
Yet the governor’s and the president’s proposals to issue real versions of these documents to undocumented workers have thrust the long-smoldering issue of illegal immigration onto the front burner in California’s Republican primaries.
The topic is roiling competitive state races from the top to the bottom of the March 2 ballot.
“That is the No. 1 issue that comes back from voters no matter what we talk about,” Republican consultant Sal Russo said. “It is a very powerful issue.”
Republican candidates, who had previously feared a backlash like the party suffered after a 1994 anti-illegal immigration initiative, are blasting President Bush’s guest worker plan and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promise to sign legislation giving undocumented workers the right to obtain driver’s licenses.
U.S. Senate hopeful Howard Kaloogian-Russo’s candidate-is calling the president’s proposal “amnesty on the installment plan,” while one of his opponents, Toni Casey, labels Schwarzenegger’s driver’s license approach a “bureaucratic nightmare.”
Congressional candidate Rico Oller is promising legislation that would prohibit any state from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, while two Orange County state Senate candidates are feuding over who is tougher on the driver’s license issue.
As the debate heats up, some strategists are warning Republicans to be wary of offending Latinos, the state’s fastest-growing voter bloc, unless they want their party to remain in the minority. It may help them win a Republican primary, but it could come back to haunt them in a general election.
“We went down that track before, and it blew up in our face,” said Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum.
Latinos registered and voted Democratic in record numbers after former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson ran a hard-hitting 1994 campaign for the anti-illegal immigration initiative, Proposition 187. Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure to deny most public benefits to illegal immigrants, but a court overturned most of it.
Anger over illegal immigration subsided as the economy improved-only to rise again last fall when then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill authorizing the state to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented workers.
He had previously vetoed two similar measures, and critics said he had only signed the third one in a desperate bid to win Latino voters in the weeks before the Oct. 7 election to recall him.
Schwarzenegger used the issue to win the election, and exit polls found 70 percent of voters opposed the driver’s license bill.
Schwarzenegger delivered on his campaign promise by persuading the Legislature to repeal the measure Davis signed. But he rankled some supporters by agreeing to sign another driver’s license bill if it contains security and insurance provisions.
Bush added fuel to the fire last month by unveiling a plan to issue three-year guest worker permits, which could be renewed once, to undocumented immigrants and those wishing to come to the United States to work “when no Americans can be found to fill the job.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Republican candidates around the country have come out against it.
“Republicans are willing to vote for anti-amnesty candidates to send a message to the president without having to vote against the president,” he said.
While Republican candidates have adopted the issue, the debate over illegal immigration doesn’t seem to be as passionate as the one that sent thousands of Californians marching in the streets in 1994.
This time, Latinos expect to have a stronger voice in the debate because they represent a much larger share of the electorate.
They also hold more elected positions, and they’ve gained labor and religious support since the battle over Proposition 187.
“We are in for a polarized period, no matter what,” said Antonio González, president of the William C. Velásquez Institute. “But it is a more even polarization than it was 10 years ago. Then, everybody seemed to be against immigrants and their allies.”
Despite Latinos’ growing clout, the Center for Immigration Studies’ Krikorian said opposition to illegal immigration can be a winning issue if opponents seem welcoming to legal immigrants.
Mike Madrid, who previously advised the California Republican Party on outreach to Latino voters, said GOP candidates can win over moderates and swing voters if they follow Bush’s example of reaching out to Latinos.
“What Republicans have not learned is that when they champion causes in a divisive way, they will lose,” Madrid said. “It’s not because the voters don’t like those issues. It’s because the voters don’t like us.”
Some Latinos and Sikhs already have complained about the divisive nature of a flier Oller used to attack an opponent, former Rep. Dan Lungren, in the Republican primary race to replace Rep. Doug Ose of Sacramento in the 3rd Congressional District.
The fliers depict a gun-toting terrorist in what appears to be a turban with images of Mexicans illegally crossing the border.
They attack Lungren’s 1986 vote for a bill granting undocumented workers amnesty in exchange for tougher employer sanctions that never materialized.
Bill Garcia, a Sacramentan whose family has been in this country for 12 generations, said this “racist type of political garbage” hurts the “social fabric of our country.”
As the American G.I. Forum’s adviser, he said it also insults Latinos who served in the U.S. military by suggesting they could be terrorists.
Dr. Gurtej S. Cheema, a University of California, Davis, Medical School assistant clinical professor, attended a recent candidate forum and complained afterward about Oller’s use of what appears to be a turbaned terrorist.
He said it threatens his safety and the security of all Sikhs because they wear turbans for religious reasons.
Lungren’s campaign consultant, Wayne Johnson, said the flier was so “hard edged” that it has energized his client’s supporters.
The mailer and debate over illegal immigration dominated a recent GOP debate, and Oller defended his campaign tactic. “Politics is about drawing distinctions,” he said, “and … it is absolutely (essential) that people know what the differences are.”
Johnson was responsible for his own hard-edged flier in the state’s hottest Republican state Senate primary race.
Johnson’s client, Garden Grove Assemblyman Ken Maddox, mailed voters a flier featuring Mexican identification cards with the faces of Osama bin Laden, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein.
The flier attacks his opponent, Irvine Assemblyman John Campbell, for voting to allow illegal immigrants to use such cards as official California identification.
“He’s pulled out all the boogeymen,” said Dave Gilliard, Campbell’s strategist. “It’s over the top, and I think it’s backfired.”
Johnson said the flier just explained Campbell’s voting record.
Opponents of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants defend their use of terrorists in their literature by citing the Virginia driver’s licenses held by seven of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists.
Schwarzenegger has said he would guard against such threats by requiring background checks of illegal immigrants. But he’s winning little support from his fellow Republicans.
In Los Angeles, where phony driver’s licenses and work permits are sold on street corners, immigration officials say the fraudulent-document business will flourish no matter what the politicians do.
Frank Johnston, assistant special agent in charge of Los Angeles immigration customs enforcement, said buyers would still seek Social Security cards and other documents-even if they could get a driver’s license.
If Bush’s plan is adopted, he predicted newcomers to this country would snap up fake rent receipts and phone bills to claim they were in the United States in time to meet whatever the deadline is for new work permits.