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Many in GOP Will Sit Out Bush Talk

President's decision to speak on immigration in Orange County may have been a blunder, professor says.

April 23, 2006|Christopher Goffard and Jean Pasco | Times Staff Writers

When President Bush arrives in Irvine on Monday morning to pitch his immigration reform plan, one of his party's best-known local standard-bearers will be maintaining a respectful -- and politically careful -- distance.

Dana Rohrabacher, the nine-term Republican congressman from Huntington Beach, generally supports the president, but disagrees with his immigration policies. So Rohrabacher plans to sit out Bush's speech to the Orange County Business Council.

"I don't want to be behind him looking glum and not applauding," Rohrabacher said. "So as not to be rude to the president -- which I think is inexcusable -- I think I'll just be staying away."

Rohrabacher's remarks reflect deep unhappiness within the GOP toward Bush's immigration stance, particularly in Republican Orange County, which is famous as a caldron of border-crackdown sentiment and where many Republicans criticize his guest-worker plan as amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Bush's decision to speak here might prove an embarrassing miscalculation, said John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College who used to live in Orange County and worked for the national GOP.

"I'm not sure they had their O.C. antennae up," he said of White House schedulers. "They don't realize how complicated this issue is. It's possible this is a Daniel-in-the-lions'-den moment, but that's not really characteristic of this administration."

Speaking at the Hyatt Regency Irvine, Bush is expected to reiterate his immigration plan, which includes a path to citizenship for millions now in the country illegally. Bush is likely to see a polite crowd of business types inside while protesters march outside, including some members of his own party. "The temperature in Orange County is hotter than people in Washington think," Pitney said. Still, "this is a sign that Bush is sticking to his guns. This is a president who is famously firm in his beliefs."

Bush won Orange County easily in the last election, and has found it a source of reliable, generous financial support. But the county has become a flashpoint for the national immigration debate. Its sheriff, Michael S. Carona, has called for some of his deputies to be cross-trained in immigration enforcement. And a city of 110,000 at its center, Costa Mesa, was the nation's first municipality to ask for such training for its officers.

The county also was the birthplace of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that sought to curb public services for illegal immigrants. And it is home to Jim Gilchrist, a co-founder of the Minuteman Project citizen patrol, which Bush has denounced as a vigilante group.

A Minuteman Project spokesman said members might protest outside Bush's speech, but there was no organized demonstration planned because Bush "isn't worth it."

"If he thinks he can somehow deflect the negative feeling here against him, he can't, because Mr. Bush has blown it," said Stephen Eichler, the group's executive director. "[The Business Council] will only let in people who have either licked his boots or become his buddy. What political traction is he going to get out of this? Less than zero."

Rohrabacher said he expected that the president would receive a "warm reception" from the gathering of business leaders, "but they represent a significant minority of opinion here." He said it would be politically unwise for a Republican to be seen cheering on the president's plan.

"I just can't imagine [officeholders] wanting to get their picture taken applauding the president talking about normalizing the status of the illegal population in this country," Rohrabacher said. "That certainly isn't going to be doing anyone any good."

Newly elected Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), a border-enforcement advocate who thinks Bush's guest-worker program is misguided, plans to attend the speech anyway.

"I don't know what he's going to say, so I don't know whether I will like all of what he's going to say, most of what he's going to say, or none of what he's going to say," Campbell said. "He's coming not only to my district, but to my hometown. Presidents don't come to your hometown every day."

Along with dissent from the right, Bush's immigration plan faces criticism from the opposite direction: those who support legalization for all immigrants and don't think his plan goes far enough. Some Latino-rights groups plan to protest his speech. Gil Flores of Garden Grove, a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he planned to rally support for a protest.

Orange County's Republican delegation unanimously supported a get-tough enforcement bill in the House, dubbed the Sensenbrenner bill, that called for more border agents and a fence along the country's southern border. Only one Orange County House member, Democrat Loretta Sanchez, didn't vote for the beefed-up enforcement. Sanchez, who represents Santa Ana, wasn't there for the vote but said later she would have voted against the bill.

Bush's speech to business leaders comes after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pledged to get tougher on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Immigration officials last week took more than a thousand illegal immigrants into custody at wood-products plants in 26 states and charged seven company managers with crimes that could carry multiyear prison terms.

The increased enforcement, Chertoff said, was designed to "look at the business of illegal immigration and attack that business at every point of vulnerability."


Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.

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