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Candidates: Immigration and Mexico Here to Stay

September 14, 2003|Frank del Olmo | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

Immigration is back as a campaign issue in California, and that's a good thing even if it gives assorted political extremists the chance to be demagogues on a very complex topic. A Times poll conducted last week found that one in six California voters consider immigration an important issue for whoever emerges as California's governor after the Oct. 7 recall election.

Of course, anyone who follows immigration knows the topic never really went away after 1995, when Proposition 187, which would have barred illegal immigrants from public services, was tossed out by the courts. The particularly anti-Mexican tone of the campaign for that popular but misguided initiative riled up a batch of new Latino voters, who turned on the Republican politicians most closely identified with 187.

Since then, conservatives would have you believe that this still-growing Latino electorate makes any discussion of immigration politically incorrect.

But that's a canard put forth by a few proponents of extreme "solutions" to California immigration problems, like militarizing our borders or new deportation campaigns like those of the 1930s and 1950s.

Such simplistic schemes deserve to be relegated to the fringe of political discourse because they are unrealistic and distract from the discussion of more subtle but potentially workable proposals, such as a guest-worker program with Mexico.

For all the political flak Gov. Gray Davis is getting for having signed the bill allowing illegal immigrants to get a driver's license -- many analysts concluded he was pandering to Latino voters -- a good argument can be made that the governor is just taking one small step to resolve one small facet of the state's immigration dilemma.

Even if we all agree that illegal immigrants should not be here, the reality is that they are here, filling low-wage or dead-end jobs. And many of them are getting to and from work the same way thousands of other California residents do, in automobiles. So it is only practical to make sure those immigrant motorists are legally identified and know the rules of the road before they get behind the wheel. Backers of the driver's license law, including an auto insurance industry that has no radical agenda, believe it will make California's streets safer, and they're right.

In the same way, the decision by dozens of local governments, including Los Angeles, to accept Mexican consular ID cards -- the so-called matriculas -- is a reasonable way to identify and bring into the open a large group of people who might otherwise be hiding in the shadows.

These are the kinds of nuanced policy prescriptions that should be discussed in the remaining weeks before the recall vote, as Davis and his would-be successors campaign. The candidates must honestly acknowledge that immigration is a federal responsibility, so California cannot solve its immigration problems alone.

They can also talk about steps that state government can take to mitigate immigration's effect. Like pressuring the federal government to pay for the costs associated with illegal immigration. Or reviving the state agency that, in the 1940s, promoted programs that help assimilate immigrants into American life.

Of course, a few political opportunists won't resist the temptation to try to stir up the anti-immigrant bigotry that has often stained California's history. The attacks on Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante because he once belonged to a Latino student group that some critics deem radical fall into this category. It's no coincidence the allegations originated on nativist Web sites that rant against immigration.

But Bustamante should not dismiss the attacks out of hand, because they have raised legitimate concerns in the minds of moderate voters. Instead, he and all serious candidates for governor should take the opportunity to articulate their visions of what this state's relationship with a large and an important neighbor like Mexico should be, and what this state can do to enforce its laws while respecting the rights of otherwise decent and hard-working people.

After all, given geography and a modern global economy, neither Mexico nor all those immigrants are going away.

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