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Lawmakers Focus on Illegal Immigration : Legislation: More than half of the 23 bills introduced in Sacramento that would affect undocumented immigrants were authored by elected representatives from the San Gabriel Valley.


THE REGION — San Gabriel Valley legislators are tackling the issue of illegal immigration this year like never before, driving the debate in Sacramento with a flurry of proposals designed to crack down on the problem.

Responding to a rising public outcry, the lawmakers introduced a dozen new bills this year to fight illegal immigration. It is an unusually large slate from the local delegation--more than half of the 23 immigration-control bills offered in the entire Legislature this year.

The new initiatives vary in severity and scope--everything from a ban on public housing for illegal immigrants to a proposal to transfer undocumented felons in state prisons into jails in their country of origin.

All but two of the local bills were submitted by Republicans, but Democrats from the region say they are beginning to draft proposals of their own.

One of the bills, by Sen. Newton Russell (R-Glendale), moved to the center of the immigration debate this week. Russell's proposal would make it illegal for tax-supported job referral agencies to assist undocumented immigrants.

But one day after Gov. Pete Wilson endorsed that bill, key Assembly Democrats raised the stakes on Wednesday by amending it to include tough sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Almost all of the other bills have been defeated or shelved with little chance of revival before the end of the session next month.

Nevertheless, the lawmakers say they will not give up. They believe they are laying the groundwork for future legislative success and putting pressure on their colleagues by raising public awareness of the issue.

"It looks like this issue is finally coming to the forefront," said Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), who submitted five bills. "People are hearing from their constituents, and illegal immigration is moving up on the agenda."

But immigrant-rights advocates and Democratic legislators say the burst of activity smacks of political opportunism. Others contend that the new anti-immigration bills will only fuel an undercurrent of racism against Latinos.

"Historically, we've seen that this is nothing new. We've seen it demonstrated every time the economy takes a turn for the worse. Even though immigrants didn't cause the recession, they are blamed for the problems," said Claudia Martinez, state policy analyst for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Martinez said the organization has been working with other groups to defeat the new bills not only because they violate the civil rights of illegal immigrants, but because they will hurt legal immigrants.

Opponents of the new measures are particularly offended by Mountjoy's efforts. His proposals would bar illegal immigrants and their children from public schools and state colleges, and require proof of legal residency to obtain a driver's license.

Although all five of his bills have died in committee, Mountjoy still tries to attach anti-immigration amendments to other legislation on the floor whenever he can, forcing votes by the full Assembly.

These aggressive tactics have led two first-year Assembly members from the area--Diane Martinez (D-Rosemead) and Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte)--to accuse him of immigrant-bashing. They represent districts that are next to or near Mountjoy's district.

"He does things in such a tone and manner that it is just purely divisive and highly inflammatory," said Martinez. "His proposals take the form of immigrant-bashing; they don't deal with the real issues."

But Mountjoy maintains that his ideas have received strong support from inside and outside his district, including the Latino community. At one recent public hearing, Mountjoy boasted that he could probably win election in some of the neighboring districts with heavily Latino populations.

The back and forth between the get-tough rhetoric from conservatives and charges of racism from liberals has made it extremely difficult to build a consensus on any immigration proposal.

"These Republicans are only offering extremist ideas, Draconian solutions, and legislation that is really impractical. And the Latino organizations are just defending a situation that is really indefensible," said lobbyist Arnoldo Torres, who once headed the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"There is no debate. It's not intended to be a debate," he said. "At no time do we deal with the realities. What we deal with are simply the polemics of posturing."

Of the 12 bills submitted by local representatives this year, only one has been passed and signed into law. The legislation, written by Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier), accelerates deportation hearings for illegal immigrants in state prisons.

Another bill, Russell's proposal on tax-supported job referral agencies, appeared to be heading for the governor's desk but its future is now uncertain.

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