SAN DIEGO — After an absence of several seasons, illegal immigration has returned as a hot political issue here.
In the race for the open seat in the 76th Assembly District, Republican candidate Tricia Hunter and groups supporting her are blasting Democratic candidate Lori Saldana as "too extreme on immigration."
In television commercials and mailers, Saldana is under attack for allegedly favoring driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, opposing a border fence and supporting free education at community colleges, regardless of immigration status.
Saldana, 45, a community college teacher and Sierra Club activist, accuses the Hunter forces of distorting her positions and of using immigration to divert attention away from issues, such as education, healthcare and the environment.
"It's a great wedge issue," Saldana said. "It appeals to people's fears. That's a very sad way to run a campaign."
One of Hunter's campaign consultants is George Gorton, a longtime advisor to Pete Wilson, the former governor and San Diego mayor.
Saldana likens the campaign against her to the well-known political commercial once used for Proposition 187 that showed illegal immigrants sprinting across the San Ysidro border crossing with the ominous warning, "They keep coming."
The Hunter camp finds immigration a wholly legitimate issue, possibly the defining issue between the two candidates. It is the dominant theme of the candidate's television barrage.
Two different TV commercials attack Saldana on the issue, one funded by the Hunter campaign and one by JobsPAC, a committee formed by the California Manufacturers Assn. and California Chamber of Commerce. A third commercial, funded by the California Dental Assn., attacks Saldana on a related issue, an alleged lack of concern about Tijuana sewage flowing into San Diego County.
Hunter, 52, a nurse, lobbyist and former Assembly member, said that the issue of illegal immigration has taken on new importance in San Diego, with the specter that terrorists could be sneaking across the border.
"I heard a good quote in Orange County: 'What part of illegal do you not understand?' " Hunter said.
The driver's license issue also has been part of the race in the neighboring 78th Assembly District in southern San Diego County between incumbent Republican Shirley Horton and Democratic challenger Patty Davis.
Horton, a former mayor of Chula Vista, has sent out mailers criticizing Davis, a Chula Vista councilwoman, for allegedly favoring driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
Like Hunter, Horton is an absolutist in her opposition; Davis' position is akin to that professed by Saldana and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: that licenses would be permissible if a bill with sufficient safeguards against their abuse can be crafted.
Whether immigration -- legal and illegal -- will again become a prominent statewide issue is yet to be seen. But in recent decades, San Diego has served as a kind of early warning system on the political explosiveness of immigration.
"In San Diego politics, immigration is always just below the surface if you're a Republican candidate who is not doing as well in the polls as you want," said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego's Mesa College.
The concern about illegal immigration that was the driving force behind Proposition 187 in 1994, aimed at restricting public benefits to illegal immigrants, began in San Diego.
Beginning in the 1980s, there were protests at the border, and San Diego officials pleaded for more Border Patrol agents and a bailout from the federal government to help municipalities and hospitals pay costs associated with illegal immigration.
Hunter is attempting to return to the Assembly after a 12-year absence. She was elected in 1989 and served two terms before redistricting gave the district a Democratic edge and she was defeated.
The current district has been changed once again and now covers most of the city of San Diego. Registered Democrats have an edge over Republicans, 41% to 30%, but there is a wild-card factor: 22% of registered voters in the district declined to state a party affiliation and 7% belong to minor parties. Hunter is banking that many of the "decline to state" voters are disaffected Democrats angry at what they see as the party's weakness on immigration.
Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, a Democrat, has represented the district for two terms but has opted to run for the state Senate seat being vacated by the termed-out Dede Alpert, also a Democrat.
Saldana, a Sierra Club member, opposed the federal government's plans for a section of the border fence project as unnecessarily destructive to the environment. The issue is pending in court. On education, Saldana, who teaches information technology, supports the policy of the San Diego Community College District not to inquire about immigration status in programs that are offered free of charge to the public.
Although Saldana said she has heard little from voters about illegal immigration, Hunter insists that it is a frequent topic of discussion when she walks precincts. "It's resonating," she said.