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PERSPECTIVE ON IMMIGRATION

'Wedge' Issue Corners Feinstein

She wants to appear tough on 'illegals,' but that's the GOP position. How will she vote on school exclusion?

June 30, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Republicans like California Gov. Pete Wilson have gotten so much political mileage out of the immigration issue that it's easy to overlook the fact that many Democrats have done the very same thing. Granted, Democrats do their immigrant-bashing less crudely than, say, Pat Buchanan. But the message gets through anyway. Just ask California's senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein.

Wilson was deservedly lambasted for using Proposition 187, the initiative aimed at illegal immigrants, to revive his flagging gubernatorial campaign in 1994. But how many remember that Feinstein also played the immigration card to win a close election that same year?

At least one of her television commercials--which near as I can determine aired only in the San Diego area, where immigration has long been a hot-button issue--was as crude as anything Wilson did. It showed Feinstein in the foreground, bemoaning the evils of illegal immigration, while people were seen clambering over a high fence in the darkened background. It looked like the former San Francisco mayor was running for immigration commissioner rather than senator.

And it's worth remembering that her very tight race against Michael Huffington (who did his share of immigrant bashing, too) wasn't decided until the closing days of the campaign, when it was revealed that Huffington, like Wilson, had once employed an illegal immigrant. All this background is by way of pointing out some poetic justice in the distinctly uncomfortable position Feinstein may find herself in as Congress completes its latest effort to fix the nation's immigration laws.

In July, a House-Senate conference committee is scheduled to meet to reconcile the two versions of a 1996 immigration bill. The effort could bog down on any of several issues, but the most controversial is the Gallegly amendment, named for Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Simi Valley Republican. Dubbed "Son of 187" by critics, it would allow states to bar the children of illegal immigrants from public schools--the very provision of Proposition 187 that has kept it bogged down in the courts ever since it was approved by California voters.

The Gallegly amendment is opposed not just by education lobbyists but by most of the major police organizations as well. Groups like the Fraternal Order of Police are certainly not soft on illegal immigration. They just see no good coming from children being tossed out of schools and onto the streets. And White House spokesmen have warned that President Clinton may veto any immigration bill that includes the Gallegly amendment.

In response, some of Bob Dole's advisors are urging him to use immigration just like Wilson did in 1994, as a "wedge" issue to divide a California electorate leaning (according to most polls) toward Clinton but still concerned about illegal immigration. That is why the presumptive GOP presidential nominee endorsed the Gallegly amendment on a campaign swing through California, and why the Republican Party has begun airing TV commercials here blasting Clinton for being soft on illegal immigration.

Now the question is, what will congressional Republicans do with the Gallegly amendment? Moderates like Wyoming's Alan Simpson want to dump it so they can compromise with Democrats on an immigration bill that Clinton can sign. That way everyone can campaign this fall claiming they did something about illegal immigration. But GOP hard-liners are pushing to keep the Gallegly amendment, arguing that a Clinton veto would hand Dole a perfect issue to batter the president with in vote-rich California.

Democrats are acutely aware of the political danger. To keep Clinton from being maneuvered into such an untenable position, Senate Democrats are trying to organize a filibuster of any immigration bill that includes the Gallegly amendment. Two weeks ago, 42 Democratic senators, including Feinstein, signed a letter to the Senate leadership outlining their intent. That is just two votes above the minimum needed to maintain a filibuster under Senate rules. And guess who among those Democrats is considered a weak link in this defensive plan.

"Feinstein can be very dense on the immigration issue," one worried Capitol Hill insider told me. "She doesn't want to be be blamed for killing the immigration bill" if a filibuster succeeds.

That is probably because Feinstein is thinking about returning to California to run for governor in 1998, when Wilson's second term ends.

Like many of her fellow Democrats, including Clinton, Feinstein no doubt wishes the immigration issue would just go away. But it won't--at least not so long as gutless Democrats shy away from discussing immigration issues in all their daunting complexity and instead merely ape the shamelessly expedient stance of Republicans like Wilson.

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