SACRAMENTO — When Gov. Pete Wilson officially launched his campaign for the presidency in Manhattan last month, he used the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, drawing attention to his recent positions condemning illegal immigration.
However, 3,000 pages of correspondence between Wilson and immigration authorities--obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act--provide a somewhat different view of Wilson. In hundreds of letters from his eight years in the U.S. Senate, he frequently battled immigration authorities--sometimes coming to the defense of foreign workers whom authorities wanted deported or excluded from the country.
At other times, he encouraged the immigration commissioner to stop raids on California companies, arguing that sweeping up undocumented workers caused unnecessary disruptions to business.
His critics call his immigration stance an opportunistic change of heart from his Senate years in Washington. But his aides say Wilson has been consistent throughout his long political career--tough on illegal immigration, but also demanding of bureaucrats who don't follow the intent of the law involving legal entry into the country.
For the most part, the correspondence with the Immigration and Naturalization Service represents the mundane work of a Senate office, scoring points with the folks back home by helping break through bureaucratic barriers.
But amid the many routine requests for help in speeding citizenship papers or obtaining visas for relatives, the documents also include letters from Wilson:
* Defending a cement importing company operated by a Saudi Arabian financier who years later became a fugitive from justice in one of the world's biggest banking scandals.
* Urging immigration authorities in 1987 to stop requiring employment agencies to check the immigration status of all job applicants or risk heavy fines. Later that year, Wilson collected a $2,000 speaking fee from the group pushing the changes.
* Favoring a cooperative approach in dealing with employers suspected of employing illegal immigrants rather than raids that might disrupt business.
* Repeatedly pushing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to simplify procedures for the entry of foreign farm laborers into the United States under a 1986 amnesty.
* Asking immigration authorities for "appropriate assistance" for three constituents trying to help accused Nazi war criminals who either faced deportation or were seeking to re-enter the United States.
Aides contend that almost all the INS correspondence was handled routinely by staff without Wilson exercising any judgment on the merits of an individual case.
"At no time did Pete Wilson ever advocate or encourage special treatment or access for illegal immigrants," said Leslie Goodman, the governor's deputy chief of staff for communications. He did, however, battle at times "to assure swift and efficient implementation of the laws and regulations governing legal immigration."
Critics, however, accuse Wilson of hypocrisy on the issue of immigration. They point out that Wilson and his former wife apparently hired an undocumented maid 17 years ago. And they fault him for his role in pushing legislation that opened the borders to immigrants under an agricultural worker program that later was troubled by fraud.
The newly released Wilson correspondence with the INS, covering the years 1983 through 1990, is voluminous and not always complete. Immigration officials carefully blacked out the names of most individuals to protect their privacy, sometimes deleting entire pages.
Typical are impassioned pleas for aid from a former Cambodian soldier trying to rescue 11 relatives from the misery of a Thai refugee camp; or from a University of California geneticist hoping to win entry for his new wife, a Czechoslovakian scientist barred because of Communist Party membership.
One Wilson aide familiar with his office's handling of immigration inquiries said the staff "was instructed not to exercise independent judgment about a constituent claim." Forwarding letters for response is "a far cry from advocacy," the aide said.
But sometimes Wilson took a more assertive stand, as when he defended Falcon Pacific Cement Inc., which brought the vessel Muscat Cement and its mostly Filipino crew to the Port of Los Angeles in 1986. The INS raided the ship and eventually deported most of the crew.
Wilson's letter argued that the crew's visas entitled them to work aboard the vessel, with its automated equipment for loading and unloading cement. However, immigration authorities concluded that the ship's crew members were illegally displacing U.S. workers.
Wilson in his letter complained that the government action "seriously impaired the ability of Falcon Pacific to conduct its business. . . ."