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Jones Answers Questions on Immigration

January 17, 2002|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Illustrating the difficult balancing act facing conservative Republicans in moderate California, GOP gubernatorial contender Bill Jones praised the role of immigrants in the state Wednesday--but added that he would support Proposition 187, with modifications, if it were proposed again today.

Jones' qualified endorsement of the 1994 initiative, which severely limited government benefits to undocumented immigrants, came in response to repeated questions about immigration in a stop at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

Jones, the secretary of state, used the appearance to establish his party credentials and present himself as the only Republican in the race who can win a statewide election. He touted his endorsement from a Latino group as evidence he can reach across political divides and build a winning coalition.

His comments on Proposition 187 also set him apart from his Republican rivals, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and businessman Bill Simon Jr.

Riordan, who took no position on the measure during the 1994 campaign, now says it would be too divisive. Simon would oppose it because he believes the federal government should deal with illegal immigration, spokesman Bob Taylor said.

The candidates' views on immigration reflect changes in California since the mid-1990s, when Gov. Pete Wilson rode Proposition 187 and a backlash against illegal immigration to a second term.

Since then, a federal judge has gutted the initiative and the number of Latino voters has swelled and moved solidly into the Democrats' corner. Republicans have lost all state offices except secretary of state.

Jones, who badly trails his rivals in fund-raising, reminded the crowd of Republican faithful at the Nixon Library that he was chairman of the Fresno County Young Voters for Nixon in 1972 and noted that he won two statewide races during years in which Republicans lost all other statewide offices. He also criticized Riordan for running "to the left of Gray Davis."

Jones then pointed out that Democrats outnumber Republicans in California and said that only someone with experience winning statewide races could oust Davis, a Democrat.

Showing how he could broaden his appeal, Jones ended his speech on a pro-immigrant note, saying that California "has the most diverse and dynamic public in the world."

He cited endorsements from the Mexican-American Political Assn. for his gubernatorial run, and from the state's largest Spanish-language newspaper in his last race for secretary of state.

Members of the audience followed up with questions about immigration.

Jones sidestepped the first question--whether he would support another version of 187, which he endorsed in 1994. The secretary of state said he supported a guest worker program like the one proposed by President Bush last year but opposed Bush's proposal to give amnesty to Mexican immigrants. "I'd be willing to commit any resources to protect the borders," Jones said. "I have always supported legal immigration. I am opposed to illegal immigration."

Minutes later, a woman stood up and said she wanted to continue to press Jones on the "uncomfortable" issue of immigration. "It seems to be a very big problem, but the Republicans seem to be out for the Latino vote instead of the American vote," she said.

Jones said that as secretary of state he has pushed to keep illegal immigrants off the voting rolls and sued the federal government to expunge illegals from rolls before implementing a new voter registration law. "That's the only thing I could control at the time," he said.

Finally, reporters asked Jones twice whether he would back 187 again. On the second question, Jones said he would support a new initiative, provided it was amended so children would not be barred from receiving services. "Children should have an opportunity to go to school and be taken care of," he said. But, Jones added, "illegal immigration is something that is unsustainable."

In his comments, Jones made his standard criticism of Davis, charging that the governor has botched the energy crisis and is putting the state in debt so he does not have to make politically difficult cuts. "Gray Davis will be pushing his deficit onto the next governor," Jones said.

He also took his regular swipes at the Republican credentials of Riordan, who has given thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates, said last week that he may support same-sex marriages and is pro-choice.

In response to a question, Jones said that Orange County voters should decide the fate of a plan to convert the El Toro Marine base into an airport, although he said the data he has seen indicates it may not be needed.

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