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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR : Wilson Ad Sparks Charges of Immigrant-Bashing : Politics: Commercial describes his efforts to get U.S. to pay for state services to foreigners. But critics say it could inflame ethnic tensions.

May 14, 1994|DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a new campaign commercial that immediately prompted charges of immigrant-bashing, Gov. Pete Wilson uses footage of illegal immigrants scurrying across the border to dramatize a problem that the governor has put at the top of his political agenda.

The advertisement, which began airing Friday, describes the pressure Wilson has put on the federal government to tighten border enforcement and reimburse California for the costs of services for illegal immigrants.

"They keep coming," an announcer intones as the ad opens with black-and-white video of about a dozen Latino immigrants dodging cars at the border in San Ysidro. "Two-million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them."

The pictures and the words carry an ominous message that Wilson's critics said could inflame ethnic tensions, an allegation the governor's spokesmen denied. Several compared the ad to the famous 1988 George Bush commercial featuring Willie Horton, the black murderer furloughed by Massachusetts during the Administration of Gov. Michael Dukakis.

"Pete Wilson has found that immigrants can be used the way Willie Horton was used, and to some degree he's right," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles). "How many immigrants can vote? None. How many do you find contributing massive amounts of money to campaigns? None. It's a no-lose strategy for him."

With the image of foreigners streaming into California to take things that legal California residents consider their own--jobs, services and tax dollars--the commercial represents the Wilson campaign's latest effort to capitalize on the public's concern over illegal immigration.

That concern has risen during Wilson's term as hundreds of thousands of Californians have lost their jobs in the worst economic downturn since the Depression.

Wilson at times has said he admires the courage of immigrants who flee poverty for a better life in the United States. But none of that admiration is on display in this ad. Instead, viewers see Wilson assuring them he is doing all he can to tackle the problem.

He is doing it, Wilson says in the ad, "for Californians who work hard, pay taxes and obey the laws."

The phrase "They keep coming" that opens Wilson's ad applies in this case to illegal immigrants. But it is broad enough, Wilson's opponents said, to include everyone who is different from California's dwindling but politically dominant white majority.

"The word they is obviously a veiled reference to a specific group of people who tend to be perceived as having certain attributes in common," said Darry Sragow, campaign director for Democrat John Garamendi. "One of those attributes, of course, is that if they are illegal, they don't belong in this country. But in the perception of most voters, these people also are not white and don't speak English as a first language."

State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, said Wilson's ad uses the "language of scapegoating."

Hayden added: "It's as if some kind of alien 'them' is the primary cause of our education and unemployment and environmental problems."

In the ad, Wilson says that he wants to deny state services to illegal immigrants. But Wilson supports providing emergency health care to illegal immigrants, and he has not committed to trying to remove immigrants from public schools. He also vetoed a bill that would have required the deportation of illegal immigrants convicted of felonies and serving time in state prison.

Instead, Wilson wants the federal government to give California another $2.5 billion a year for education, health and prison programs and has led a bipartisan effort by California lawmakers to wrest that money from Congress.

Wilson also mentions the lawsuit he filed last month against the Clinton Administration and says that he has "sent the National Guard to help the Border Patrol." It does not also say that the federal government is paying most of the expenses for the 176 soldiers through a program meant to check international drug smuggling.

"He is trying to change the focus from his failed economic record to blaming immigrants for his reelection problems," said John Whitehurst, a spokesman for Democratic candidate Kathleen Brown.

All three Democratic candidates also criticized Wilson for failing in eight years as a U.S. senator to do anything to curb immigration and pointed out that Wilson sponsored legislation to make it easier for immigrant farm workers to enter the United States.

George Gorton, Wilson's campaign manager, said the commercial simply focuses on a problem about which the public already is concerned and tells the voters how the governor is addressing it. He denied that the ad has racial overtones or was designed to kindle fear.

"This is what you call a real commercial about real issues and it's exactly what a campaign ought to be about," Gorton said. "You don't create problems in politics. Problems are either there or they're not there. Picturing them is what you do."

The footage, Gorton said, understates the problem. "There are 2 million illegal aliens in California," he said. "That shows a few people."

Actually, federal officials at a recent conference in Sacramento put the number of illegal immigrants in the state at 1.3 million to 1.7 million.

Wilson press secretary Dan Schnur said the ad will run for about two weeks at a cost of about $1 million.

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