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In GOP, immigration is hot

Moderates lose ground as the primary focuses attention on the issue that once split the party.

December 05, 2007|Phil Willon | Times Staff Writer

Thirteen years after a ballot measure against illegal immigration fractured the state Republican Party, the issue again is front and center in California's upcoming presidential primary.

Moderates who have argued that an unyielding stance against illegal immigration would further erode the party's strength in this increasing polyglot state have effectively been silenced by GOP forces calling for a hard-line crackdown.

The escalating rhetoric in the GOP presidential primary has fed their retreat.

So, too, has a striking increase in the number of Californians who blame illegal immigration for the state's problems.

"There is more unity among Republicans in this state on illegal immigration than on anything else, including taxes," said Tom Hudson, chairman of the Republican Party in Placer County, near Sacramento, one of the most conservative counties in the state.

Among the GOP candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has seized the issue with vigor, and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado has made border security the centerpiece of his long-shot campaign, even airing a campaign commercial comparing illegal immigration with terrorism.

In Wednesday's GOP debate, Romney sharply criticized Rudolph W. Giuliani for providing "sanctuary" to illegal immigrants while mayor of New York City. Giuliani responded by accusing Romney of hiring illegal immigrants to work at his home. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee chided Romney and Giuliani as recent converts on the topic.

The issue packs some familiar political baggage for the state Republican Party, which still feels the aftershocks of Proposition 187, the landmark 1994 voter initiative to cut off services to illegal immigrants.

The measure was approved by California voters before being tossed out by the courts. But Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's championing of it turned many Latino voters, other ethnic groups and some moderate white voters against the party.

The alienation of Latinos, the fastest-growing group in the state, has been the source of worry in GOP circles ever since, particularly as the party's share of the vote has ebbed. Republicans now make up less than 34% of the electorate, far outnumbered by Democrats and the independent voters who typically side with them.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other Republicans have made efforts to change the party's image on illegal immigration. But GOP operatives said those moves lost ground last year after the stinging repudiation of President Bush's comprehensive immigration reform, which opponents attacked as weak-kneed amnesty.

Bush's defeat and the backlash against Arizona Sen. John McCain for favoring the reforms have emboldened the most zealous critics of the sort of immigration policy embodied in the bill and electrified the Republican primary.

"I think there's less concern about appearing to be intolerant now because of what happened a year ago," said Fred Vanderhoof, chairman of the Fresno County GOP. "The Congress and the president learned their lesson, when they were all pushing for a comprehensive package. The rank and file want border security first."

In California, the change in public opinion has been striking: In an October poll of registered voters, Californians who believed that the state was on the wrong track blamed illegal immigration and unsecured borders as the main reason. In that Field Poll, 21% chose that issue, compared with 6% only two years ago.

A Field Poll in April showed that 68% of Republicans in California considered illegal immigration a very serious problem, compared with 40% of Democrats and 35% of people not belonging to either party.

Even in the Central Valley, where immigrant labor is essential to the region's billion-dollar agricultural industry, Republicans overwhelmingly favor a hard-line approach, Fresno County's Vanderhoof said. The same illegal immigrants who harvest the crops have overwhelmed local hospitals, schools and service agencies, he said.

Already, there is a fledgling effort to place an initiative on California's November ballot that would require "Type 2" birth certificates to be issued to American-born children of illegal immigrants and to restrict state benefits they may receive. If the measure were to be adopted, it would almost certainly face court challenges of its constitutionality.

"Mitt Romney would not be wasting his time hammering Giuliani on this issue if it didn't have resonance in Iowa, New Hampshire and California," said Bill Whalen, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who was chief speechwriter for former Gov. Wilson. "If you can claim a Republican nominee is soft on illegal immigration . . . it's like a couple years ago saying they are soft on crime."

However, Whalen cautioned that candidates who veer too far right will become susceptible to being branded as racially divisive, as Wilson was after he backed Proposition 187 during his bid for reelection.

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