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The Nation

Migrant Issue Divides GOP

Marches don't move California's hard-liners, including those serving Latinos. Unless someone gives, there is little hope for a compromise bill.

April 01, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As massive pro-immigrant rallies have grabbed center stage in Southern California, the state's congressional delegation remains sharply divided over what to do about illegal immigration, with many Republicans -- including those from districts with substantial Latino populations -- holding firm in support of a get-tough approach.

Several of those GOP lawmakers said they believed their stance reflected the attitudes of most of their constituents, despite the recent demonstrations.

"I go to a church that is predominantly Latino," said Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar), a sponsor of the House bill that has been a target of the protests. "And I get nothing but positive comments for what I'm trying to do.''

Miller and most of his 18 California Republican colleagues are part of a large group of GOP House members whose prime aim is to crack down on illegal immigration. Other California Republicans -- and virtually all of the delegation's 33 Democrats -- favor some version of the guest-worker program advocated by President Bush and business groups, including the state's important agriculture industry.

The split within the delegation underscores the difficultly facing the GOP-controlled Congress in trying to reach an agreement on an immigration bill.

Indeed, the hard-line position taken by many House Republicans is especially important because if they do not yield, a compromise bill has little chance of emerging.

The House bill, which passed in December with support from all but three of the California Republicans, would tighten border security and impose new penalties on those who enter the U.S. illegally and on those who hire or help them. The Senate, in contrast, may adopt a broader bill that, along with being less punitive toward illegal immigrants, would create a guest-worker program and open a path to citizenship for those now in the country without the proper papers.

California's House Republicans are not only divided over what kind of changes should be made to immigration law, but how they should talk about the subject.

Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas, a member of the House GOP leadership, has urged colleagues to avoid "strident rhetoric."

But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), appearing with other House Republicans at a Capitol Hill gathering Thursday assailing the Senate's legislation, declared, "We do not need more people from foreign countries coming in taking the jobs of Americans.... I say let the prisoners pick the fruits."

The pro-immigrant rallies in the Los Angeles area have not escaped notice in Washington. But so far, they do not seem to have swayed opinions among the California House members who backed the House bill.

In a typical comment, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) said, "There are a lot of people, in just as great a number [as the protesters], that you didn't see who are home fuming" about illegal immigration.

"I went to a coffee shop [in his district] and I had five people walk up to me yelling about all these demonstrations, that it's not right," Calvert said.

Many of his constituents, he added, "probably don't think the House bill is strong enough.''

That measure would make what is now a civil offense -- illegal presence in the United States -- a felony. It also would authorize the building of a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico.

Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) recalled that during a recent stop at a grocery store in her district, "A woman came up to me, grabbed me by the arm and thanked me for my support of the House bill. She said, 'We're the silent majority, and we're very angry' '' about illegal immigration.

If anything, the recent rallies may have hardened the views of some GOP lawmakers.

"They've protested in front of my office,'' Miller said. "People started writing me letters of encouragement, 'Hang in there.' ''

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Visalia), whose district is more than 40% Latino and who voted against the House bill, said he believed protesters waving Mexican flags were hurting the push for an immigration bill that went beyond tougher law enforcement.

"It would have had the opposite effect if they would have been waving American flags, saying, 'We want to be Americans.' '' Nunes said.

GOP Reps. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield and George P. Radanovich of Mariposa joined Nunes and most of the state's Democratic representatives in opposing the House bill.

Several political analysts said that neither the Republicans nor Democrats were likely to face any foreseeable political risks from their positions in the immigration debate. A major reason is that after the 2000 census, district lines were redrawn to strengthen support for incumbents in both parties.

Speaking about the GOP House members, Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego, said: "They've all got safe ... seats these days, so the only real threat they face is from within their own party -- where anti-illegal immigrant sentiment is evidently strong.''

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