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GEORGE RAMOS

A House Divided Over Immigration

September 27, 1993|GEORGE RAMOS

In Assembly districts that stand side by side, Martha Escutia and Louis Caldera represent one of the poorest areas of Los Angeles, housing the highest concentration of illegal immigrants in the state. Proud of their own immigrant backgrounds, the two Eastside legislators say they are devoted to giving something back to the barrios that nurtured them.

Both are new to Sacramento, and both got there by scoring narrow victories against Latino opponents backed by the powerful Gloria Molina, no small accomplishment. The two freshmen have quickly positioned themselves as comers in the Capitol and in the hardball world of Latino politics.

Caldera, for example, authored the highly publicized bill requiring bike riders under 18 to wear helmets and has taken on the powerful liquor lobby over the sale of fortified wines in inner-city stores. Escutia, meanwhile, has gained notice championing a plan that would link the harbor to Downtown L.A., providing an economic boost to the struggling neighborhoods she represents.

Beyond all their political similarities, Escutia and Caldera have been friends for years. But in recent weeks that bond has been weakened by the frenzied and divisive debate over illegal immigration in California.

The rift that has developed between these two friends and lawmakers dramatically illustrates the deep divisions among Latino leaders over how to handle the biggest and most sensitive issue confronting them today.

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The falling out between Escutia and Caldera occurred earlier this month when they ended up on opposite sides of a bill that would require proof of legal residency to get a driver's license. The bill, authored by Democratic state Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose), was one of a slew of anti-immigration measures introduced in response to growing public intolerance of illegal immigration.

Escutia voted against it. Caldera voted for the measure, which handily passed the Assembly and state Senate and awaits final action by the governor.

Escutia says the bill does nothing to stem illegal immigration and is nothing more than a nod to political expediency by lawmakers such as Caldera, who want to be seen as tough at a time when the public demands it.

"I'm disappointed that Louis doesn't see that he voted for an ill-conceived bill," Escutia says. "He and some other Democrats were looking for cover on this issue."

For his part, Caldera says he was not crazy about the bill but that he at least tried to improve it through amendments, including one that ensures that no non-citizen who lawfully lives in the United States is denied a license, including refugees.

"I'm disappointed in Martha," he says. "Groups like MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and Martha didn't have the votes to kill it. . . . It took courage to make it a better bill. I was trying to find solutions that were moderate and workable."

Escutia isn't impressed. "This bill will not stop illegal immigration," she says, adding, "People do not come to the United States to drive a car." The bill's passage, she believes, lays the groundwork for more extreme anti-immigration measures. She promises to make trouble for Caldera and others if they vote for them.

A defensive Caldera responds that he isn't about to join Gov. Pete Wilson in a witch hunt against illegal immigrants, but adds: "I can't do anything for my district if the Democrats lose control (in the Legislature)."

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For Escutia, Caldera and other Latino leaders, the anti-immigrant fervor sweeping California and the rest of the nation is not just some hot-button issue in search of a catchy sound bite. They are being asked to make choices on a matter that hits very close to home, one that is anything but abstract.

Since the outbreak of the Mexican revolution in 1910, at least two generations of Mexicans have illegally come to Los Angeles, only to be deported during the Depression and the 1950s.

Polls show that Latinos oppose illegal immigration by a 3-to-1 margin, but the surveys also show that many Latinos feel threatened by the current hysteria whipped by Wilson and others. That is why the debate among Latinos is more emotional and contentious than among anyone else.

Almost every Latino family I know, including my own, has someone in it who came to Los Angeles illegally. You tell them not to come, but you also know you'll help them once they get here. They are, after all, family.

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