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Clinton Speaks Out on Illegal Workers

Addressing the La Raza event, he calls the debate a divisive distraction.

July 09, 2006|Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writer

Former President Clinton told one of the nation's largest Latino civil rights groups Saturday that the conservative wing of the Republican Party is using the immigration issue to divide Congress and the nation.

"It is a way of creating a divided community and distracting people from the real challenges facing the country, whether it is in Iraq and Afghanistan, or homeland security, or how to build a clean energy future, or how to solve the healthcare crisis, or how to create new jobs for America," he said.

Clinton made the remarks, some of his most extensive since the issue of illegal immigration heated up in Washington this year, before several thousand people at the opening session of the four-day National Council of La Raza convention in Los Angeles.

He was welcomed to the event, key for those who hope to sway Latino voters, by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and later greeted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the parking area. Clinton's appearance comes as competing congressional proposals for immigration reform are being debated this summer in committee hearings around the country.

Clinton said hard-liners are "basically saying these undocumented broke the law, send them home -- never mind that they are 5% of the workforce and a far bigger percentage in certain critical areas."

"It's crazy to think about sending 11 million people home" to their native countries, said the former president, who called the recent demonstrations for immigrant rights "incredibly moving."

He said he favors the Senate's approach to changing immigration laws, although there are some elements of the bill he dislikes. The Senate legislation would enhance border security, create a guest worker program and put most of the nation's illegal immigrants in line for citizenship.

"At least it says we ought to provide a path to citizenship for these hard-working, law-abiding people," Clinton said. "We ought to do it in a way that does not put them ahead of those who patiently waited in the legal process."

Clinton, perhaps in deference to his wife, Hillary's, presidential ambitions, has been all but silent on the immigration issue in recent months. He was careful Saturday to stake out middle ground, crediting prominent members of both parties who had shown a willingness to collaborate. (After a lengthy silence of her own, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in May endorsed a legalization process for illegal immigrants, but emphasized the importance of protecting national security.)

Bill Clinton thanked President Bush for siding with moderates in his own party regarding immigration. He suggested that Bush had a different understanding of the immigration issue because of his ties to Texas, where Latinos have been part of the history and culture for many generations. "It's hard to demonize people if you know 'em."

Clinton said he agreed with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, that it was important to talk about the enormous consequences to the nation's economy if the House of Representatives version of immigration reform becomes law. That bill stresses enforcement, making illegal immigration a crime and beefing up sanctions against employers of undocumented workers.

Clinton also praised Villaraigosa's view of "America as a family, an inclusive family, a family that will let everyone in."

Clinton received a sustained standing ovation from the members of the council, which includes Latino officials and activists from across the nation. Clinton, 59, appeared rested, healthy and cheered by his warm welcome. He enjoyed strong support from Latinos during his two terms as president.

Clinton's speech underscored some of his core political values. "America is and always will be a nation of immigrants," he said. "We have to create one America based on our diversity, not trying to deny it."

He urged his audience to acknowledge that steps must be taken to strengthen border security.

As Clinton left the Los Angeles Convention Center he briefly crossed paths with Schwarzenegger.

The Republican governor, who is seeking reelection in November, joined Villaraigosa in officially opening the convention's vast exhibit area, where major corporations and businesses seek to build ties with the nation's growing Latino population.

As they toured the exhibit hall, Villaraigosa and Schwarzenegger stopped at a booth honoring Latinos in the military who had received Medals of Honor. The pair later discussed efforts to combat childhood obesity by removing calorie-rich refreshments from California schools.

Before a crush of television cameras and reporters, the governor reiterated that he came to California as an immigrant from Austria.

Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the pending bills in Congress. Without addressing the immigration issue, the governor said: "I want to make sure that other people have the chance to realize their dreams."

In his luncheon speech to the convention, Schwarzenegger recalled receiving a check in the early 1970s from champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. "He never asked any question about my papers or anything like that."

The remark drew applause but not of the same intensity accorded Clinton.

Schwarzenegger, however, offered advice similar to Clinton's: "Don't just reach out to one party, because you need both parties in order to be successful. You need the Democrats. And you need the Republicans."

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