A controversial guest-worker plan proposed by President Bush has driven the biggest wedge yet into the united front offered on most issues by the major Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate.
The issue has animated a race with otherwise low visibility and scant conflict, despite GOP desires to unseat Democrat Barbara Boxer.
In his State of the Union speech, Bush proposed allowing illegal immigrants already in the country, and foreign workers abroad, to apply for a guest-worker program, which would allow them to stay in the United States for up to three years with the possibility of at least one extension.
The plan has been broadly criticized by members of Congress from both major parties, either for going too far and encouraging illegal immigration, or not far enough and penalizing hard-working immigrants.
Of the major Republican U.S. Senate candidates, two have tried to sidestep criticism that the plan would overwhelm public infrastructure and invite fraud. Former Secretary of State Bill Jones and former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey applauded Bush for "opening a dialogue" on the problem of unchecked immigration, but issued statements opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants -- which Bush insists his plan is not.
Jones said he would withhold judgment until the details were drafted into legislation, while Casey released her own proposal that tinkered with Bush's.
Another candidate, former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, who rests much of her campaign on support for Bush and his policies, backed his immigration proposal as "a good first step."
Former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, meanwhile, built his campaign on opposing the Bush concept, calling it "morally wrong" and "amnesty on the installment plan." Still, he has prefaced every swipe with praise for other Bush initiatives.
Therein lies the problem for Republicans hoping to find traction on the touchy issue of immigration reform: Bush defined the debate by proposing his guest-worker plan. Attacking that plan now could be perceived by GOP primary voters as disloyal to the party's president; supporting his plan could be seen as blind loyalty to a flawed idea.
Most Republicans would have opposed the guest-worker proposal if it came from President Clinton, said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican Party official. Two factors muddied the waters, he said: It's Bush's plan, and he enjoys solid approval among GOP voters. California's popular new governor also represents a daily reminder of an immigrant success story.
"I think the immigration issue is part of a larger dilemma for Republicans in the primary," Pitney said. "Some of the positions [candidates would] normally attack are positions held by President Bush. They attack expansion of the welfare state, and yet Bush pushed for the [prescription] drug benefit for seniors. They oppose federal intervention in education, yet we have [the] No Child Left Behind [legislation]. They oppose deficit spending, and there's no comment needed there.... What issues do you pick?"
Stoking the issue of immigration during a presidential year could be tricky for the GOP, which has sought to reach out to Latinos under President Bush. Latinos comprise 12% of the U.S. population and about 32% of California residents, according to the 2000 Census. It is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the state.
The immigration issue galvanized California voters in 1994 with passage of Proposition 187, which was designed to deny state-paid benefits to those in the country illegally. A court later voided most of the measure, but Republicans were left with the image of a party that didn't welcome Latinos. Thus burned, few Republican candidates have confronted the issue since.
The issue of illegal immigration erupted last year in the campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis. California voters warmed to the idea of bouncing the incumbent after Davis signed a bill allowing driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, after twice vetoing similar measures with fewer restrictions.
Two-thirds of voters said in surveys that they opposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, even though that was state practice until 1993.
It's no surprise, then, that opposing driver's licenses for illegal immigrants is included in the ballot statements of Kaloogian, Marin and Casey. Casey, the former Los Altos Hills mayor, goes further by proposing to deny federal transportation funds to any state that issues licenses to illegal immigrants. Former Secretary of State Jones' statement doesn't mention driver's licenses, but calls for the federal government to assume the cost of illegal immigration.