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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.

Campbell Raises Immigration Issue

Challenger says Feinstein has taken an unnecessarily harsh stance, a view shared by many Latino leaders. But it is unclear whether she has lost any support.


SAN DIEGO — Here in America's sixth-largest city, home to the world's busiest border crossing, no one has to explain the impact of Mexico or the complexities of immigration to political figures like Lucy Killea.

But Killea thinks U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein could use a lesson or two.

Although Feinstein has done some great things for California as a senator, Killea said, her views on Mexico have been unacceptable.

Too often, Killea said, Feinstein has treated Mexico--and immigrants--like political scapegoats.

"She has been very negative," said Killea, a former Democratic state senator who runs an international assistance agency. "She has seen Mexico simply as a source of drugs. Period. And how do we deal with that? We close the border down. We charge everybody going back and forth."

Killea's frustration with California's senior U.S. senator has been shared by many Latino leaders and is seen by Feinstein's Republican opponent, San Jose Rep. Tom Campbell, as a potential vulnerability, particularly with the growing size and influence of the state's Latino electorate.

But if they are upset with Feinstein, Latino leaders are not lining up behind Campbell. And if Latino voters are bothered by some of Feinstein's positions, they haven't shown it: Recent polls show Feinstein with a big lead among all voters, including Latinos.

Although Campbell has taken some stronger stands in favor of immigrants, he also has cast votes that undermine his claims of being an unqualified advocate on their behalf.

Still, Campbell sees opportunities to draw distinctions:

* As Feinstein took center stage at the August Democratic National Convention, Campbell launched Spanish-language ads criticizing her votes.

* In a recent speech to the Mexican American Political Assn., Campbell escalated that criticism, questioning why Feinstein voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"She supports free trade for China, but not Mexico," Campbell said. "Let us ask her: What's wrong with Mexicans?"

Many Latino activists and immigration advocates insist there is no doubt that Feinstein's record has been, at best, mixed and, at worst, hostile.

"I think the senator does have a challenge before her in developing a Latino constituency," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "I don't think she has done an effective job at being the senator representing a state that is one-third Latino."

Added Cecilia Munoz, vice president of policy for the National Council of La Raza: "I have been following her performance on the Judiciary Committee for a number of years now. And she has a mixed record with respect to immigrants."

Border-Crossing Fee Proposed

In 1994, battling for reelection, Feinstein ran controversial television ads showing a flood of apparent illegal immigrants crossing the border, and proposed a series of measures including a $1 border-crossing fee that would pay for 2,100 more Border Patrol agents and stiffer penalties against illegal immigrants.

After winning a six-year term, Feinstein in 1995 called upon President Clinton to declare California "an immigration disaster," and said stopping illegal immigration was her "No. 1 priority." And, in a lengthy article about immigrants, she endorsed the idea of tamper-proof identification cards for employers.

After pushing for months in 1996 to reduce legal immigration, Feinstein led an unsuccessful effort to cut by more than 40% the number of immigrants admitted each year into the country.

"During the height of anti-immigrant sentiment in California, she was pretty up there in terms of . . . taking advantage of anti-immigrant feelings," said Vargas. "Since then, political memory fades, people forget. But it is no surprise that it is only around election time I see her in East L.A."

The 1994 campaign, in particular, sticks in the collective craw of Latinos who saw Feinstein as silent for too long on that year's most contentious initiative: Proposition 187. The measure--to bar illegal immigrants from receiving many public services--was championed by former Gov. Pete Wilson and approved by voters before being largely struck down by the courts.

Although Feinstein did oppose Proposition 187, she announced her decision less than three weeks before the election and after many prominent Republicans, among them conservatives Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett.

"Proposition 187 was one of the most offensive initiatives to ever hit our community," Munoz said, "and it was frustrating to have her come out as late as she did."

At the Democratic convention, Feinstein dismissed the criticism.

"Any of you who covered that campaign knows I almost lost the election because of my opposition to 187," Feinstein told reporters.

"I figured if I had to lose the election over my opposition to Proposition 187, I was prepared to do that. . . . Now that was an act of some courage."

Former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) agreed.

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