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Rumbles on the Right

After watching George W. Bush sign the No Child Left Behind Act, wage a pre-emptive war against a country that had never threatened us, and engage in a spending spree that makes Bill Clinton seem like Grover Cleveland, I was convinced that nothing could possibly redeem the Bush presidency.

I was wrong.

The president’s politically inspired plan to create a guest-worker program—amnesty for illegal immigrants on the installment plan, according to one critic—has accomplished something valuable here in California, Ground Zero for the immigration debate.

No, the Bush plan won’t do as intended and help the president carry the state in the general election. Despite what myopic GOP leaders say, California will vote overwhelmingly for John Kerry in November. Bush won’t win any long-term support for the Republican Party in the state’s burgeoning Latino community, which remains an unshakeable part of the Democratic coalition.

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And the Bush plan will absolutely, positively do nothing to stop the stream of illegal immigration that is quickly turning Southern Californian into a northern outpost of Mexico. If anything, it will encourage even more illegal border crossings.

But the plan has finally shaken California Republicans out of their post-Prop. 187 stupor. That’s an unintended consequence, of course. But in the current world of politics, we must be thankful for whatever we can gain, intended or not.

Proposition 187 was the 1994 ballot initiative, passed by 59 percent of California voters, including 20 percent of Latino voters, that would have banned illegal immigrants from receiving non-emergency public services, including education.

Reasonable people had reservations about whether Prop. 187 would be effective. An ongoing attempt at reviving it—the courts and the previous governor dismantled it—would backfire at this point. Nevertheless, Prop. 187 was not an attack on immigration in general or immigrants in particular, but on those who came to this country in violation of American laws. It was a reflection of genuine concern about illegal immigration and the failure of the federal government to do anything to stop what amounts to an invasion.

But since its passage, Prop. 187 has overshadowed any serious immigration debate in a state that is swamped by immigration. Few politicians have been willing to discuss the issue in any critical way without summoning the “ghosts of Prop. 187.”

California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres captured a general establishment sentiment in 1995 when he called Prop. 187’s passage the “last gasp” of white California. When the media covers immigration, they invariably refer to Prop. 187 as a racist effort, “Anglo” California’s scapegoating of immigrants in the midst of a recession.

Instead of fighting back and making a case for responsible, legal immigration and standing up for a viewpoint that’s popular among the state’s electorate (which remains predominantly Anglo), Republican leaders rolled over. They agreed that discussions about immigration, in a post-Prop. 187 world, were dangerous.

Republicans accepted the story that the state’s growing Latino community was up for grabs politically, but then Republican Gov. Pete Wilson rode Prop. 187 to victory by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment. (One pro-Prop. 187 ad, which showed illegal immigrants lining up at the border with the spoken words “They keep coming,” has gone down in California political history the way George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads portraying Michael Dukakis as soft on crime have gone down in national political history.)

As a result, the theory goes, the Latino community—not just the new immigrants but the majority of voters of Latino descent—embraced the Democrats and Republican fortunes have declined ever since. To have success in the state, then, Republicans need to appeal (i.e., pander) to Latino voters by assuring them that they are not against legal immigration and will not be too critical of illegal immigration either.

There’s no doubt that Republican political hopes have declined in recent years. Before Arnold Schwarzenegger scored an overwhelming gubernatorial recall victory, every state constitutional office was held by Democrats. In the legislature, Democrats are just shy of the crucial two-thirds majority in both houses.

The question is whether support for limiting illegal immigration caused the Republican Party to crumble. I’m skeptical. Prop. 187 energized some previously apathetic Latino voters, but Latinos leaned in the Democratic direction before Prop. 187. With the exception of South Florida and its Cuban population, the Latino population is overwhelmingly Democratic nationwide. Surely, that’s not the result of Prop. 187.

A strong argument can be made that the California Republican Party’s prospects have declined not just in relation to the growth of the Latino population but in relation to its refusal to take strong stands on immigration and other issues that appeal to the general electorate. As the Republicans have become squishy, they have given voters less reason to vote for them. By embracing the post-Prop. 187 mythology, Republicans unsuccessfully tried to lure new Latino voters even as they alienated the non-Latino voters at their core.But change is in the air. The first real shift in the debate over immigration came during the recall election. The Latino caucus overreached and pushed ahead SB 60, which granted drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. It infuriated people for obvious reasons. Once “undocumented” workers have this valuable document, they have de facto legal status.

The budget crisis, the electricity crisis, Governor-reject Gray Davis’s dour approach to governance, and Schwarzenegger’s personal popularity had much to do with the success of the recall. But so did the license bill and Schwarzenegger’s vow to repeal it—a promise he quickly made good on after his inauguration.

The second shift came in the March 2 primary election. This was the first election following the announcement of Bush’s amnesty plan. Immigration was not the key point of debate, nor did the most vociferously anti-immigration candidates win the Republican primary races. But it was rare to find a candidate who backed the Bush plan. Even the moderate/liberal wing of the party stood against it.

Bill Jones, the former secretary of state who won the primary race to challenge liberal Bay Area Democrat Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate, is a moderate-conservative Republican who backs the president in almost every way. But he was painfully careful about the president’s guest-worker proposal. He refused to support the Bush plan, although he did not want to alienate the White House either. He weaseled around the problem by saying that he cannot support or oppose the plan until he sees specifics. He said he would oppose any plan that created amnesty. Jones won against the more fervently anti-immigration Howard Kaloogian, who didn’t have much money and never had more than a prayer.But Jones also beat Rosario Marin, the former U.S. Treasurer and new-style candidate that is supposed to be able to beat Democrats. She is a Latina, pro-choice, and moderate on most issues. She talked incessantly about her rags-to-riches immigrant story. During a debate between several leading candidates running for the Senate seat, the Los Angeles Times reported that they all backed Bush policies on every issue except immigration. Marin was the only one to support Bush on his plan, and this early favorite lost to Jones by 24 percentage points.In the bizarre race pitting former congressman Bob Dornan against incumbent congressman Dana Rohrabacher for the 46th congressional district seat, seven weeks before the election the OC Weekly predicted that Rohrabacher would be the winner after he supported HR 3722, which requires hospitals to report illegal immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Weekly made a useful point: it’s beneficial to come out against illegal immigration, at least in a heavily Republican congressional district. (For a variety of reasons, Rohrabacher stomped Dornan by 66 percentage points.)

This phenomenon was evident at all levels. In the 70th Assembly District in coastal Orange County, the more liberal candidate Cristi Cristich tried to ring the president’s immigration plan around the neck of the conservative candidate, Chuck DeVore. DeVore is generally pro-Bush, but he distanced himself from the Bush plan and won easily, especially after he publicized Cristich’s past activities on behalf of President Bill Clinton. But Cristich’s attempt to portray DeVore as pro-amnesty hurt him. “That was the one line of attack from my opponent that was most effective, albeit one based on a false premise,” DeVore told me following his victory. “I had more people calling me threatening to drop me like a hot potato.” This point is crucial: most candidates viewed support for the president’s plan as lethal.

“What a disaster,” said Shawn Steel, immediate past president of the California Republican Party, in describing the Bush immigration plan. “I assume it’s a trial balloon. Well, it dropped like a rock.” He agrees that the specter of Prop. 187 has worn off. “People have gotten out of their manholes. They no longer are saying, ‘They’re here. We better make nice or they will vote against us.’” Now, he said, Republicans are voicing their immigration concerns. They know their own constituents are unhappy. “Now it’s a matter of tone.”

More than 26 percent of California’s population is foreign born, according to the 2000 census. The number is 36.2 percent in Los Angeles County. There simply is nothing to be gained by ranting against immigration in a way that is perceived as hostile to immigrants. But that doesn’t mean Californians must ignore the immigration issue.

Many of my immigrant neighbors and friends agree with me on the matter. Many immigrants who came to this country the legal way are unhappy about granting special status to those who break the nation’s immigration laws. Many immigrants, legal and illegal, are starting to understand how uncontrolled immigration depresses their incomes by boosting the supply of low-wage workers. And Prop. 187 is not necessarily the kiss of political death, even among Latino voters. (In overwhelmingly Latino Santa Ana, voters recalled a Latino rabble-rouser from the school board and replaced him with a Republican who had supported Prop. 187.)

The Southern California Association of Governments recently released a report showing that the Greater Los Angeles area has lost ground in comparison to other major metropolitan areas in terms of income, housing affordability, congestion, pollution, and other quality-of-life issues. A key reason is mass immigration. As the report’s executive summary gently explained, “Southern California experienced a 1.5-million net domestic out-migration during the last decade, the largest in our region’s history. During the same period, the region added 1.5 million foreign immigrants. When compared with the domestic out-migrants and the general population, recent immigrants are, on average, less educated, earn lower incomes, live in larger households and rely significantly on rental housing.”Thanks in large part to the president, California Republicans no longer have to be fearful about making similar points.

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Steven Greenhut is a senior editorial writer and columnist for The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif.