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Giuliani is taking a harder line on border

As mayor, he welcomed illegal immigrants. That is fodder for '08 rivals.

September 23, 2007|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After Congress passed a landmark welfare law with support from both parties, one prominent mayor became furious. His concern: a provision that would lead, he believed, to the "inhumane" treatment of illegal immigrants. He promptly dispatched his lawyers to file suit against the federal government.

This was no bleeding-heart liberal championing the rights of illegal immigrants, but the Republican mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

"I believe the anti-immigration movement in America is one of our most serious public problems," Giuliani said in announcing the lawsuit in 1996. "I am speaking out and filing this action because I believe that a threat to immigration can be a threat to the future of our country."

Today Giuliani is running for president, and one of his leading GOP rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is pointing to his record as mayor to accuse him of being soft on illegal immigration. That charge threatens to undercut the image Giuliani has sought to cultivate as the law-and-order champion best equipped to keep the U.S. safe.

Under attack, Giuliani is striking a tougher, less welcoming tone toward illegal immigrants. He is calling for stricter border control, tamper-proof identification cards for noncitizens and the deportation of foreign-born criminals.

But his substantial record on immigration is likely to ensure that the issue remains a point of tension throughout the primary campaign. Indeed, immigration is one of several social issues -- including abortion and gun control -- on which Giuliani's relatively liberal stances have been fodder for rivals who say he has proved himself out of step with the conservative base.

As mayor, Giuliani was the rare Republican who rolled out the welcome mat for legal and illegal immigrants. He took his legal challenge to the welfare law as far as he could, appealing to the Supreme Court. He lobbied Congress against other measures he considered punitive. Although he worked to deport illegal immigrants who committed crimes, he defended others as valuable contributors to the city's economy and culture.

"Some of the hardest-working and most productive people in this city are undocumented aliens," he said in 1994. "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city."

Giuliani's stance as mayor was all the more remarkable because it placed him out of step with the nativist feelings that were sweeping much of the country and that had become prominent within the Republican Party. Two years before Giuliani sued over the welfare law, California voters passed Proposition 187 to cut off public services to illegal immigrants. Congress was cracking down even on legal immigrants.

Liberals who disliked other aspects of Giuliani's administration swooned over his advocacy on behalf of immigrants. "He was like a beacon of light in a storm," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

Giuliani's campaign rhetoric today sidesteps the question of what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S. But when he was mayor, those immigrants were a significant presence in his city.

Illegal immigrants had become key to New York's economy and a substantial part of the city's culture. Giuliani casts his approach to immigration as more pragmatic than ideological, in contrast with many Republicans.

"I had 400,000 illegal immigrants, roughly, in New York City," Giuliani said at a recent debate. "I didn't have the luxury of, you know, political rhetoric. I had the safety and security of the people of New York City on my shoulders."

That viewpoint led Giuliani to continue an executive order, first established in the late 1980s under Mayor Edward I. Koch, that prohibited city employees from reporting to federal authorities the immigration status of people seeking city services.

Romney charges that offering this kind of protection turned New York into a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants.

Giuliani said there was a solid rationale to the policy.

Unless they were guaranteed that their status would not be disclosed to federal authorities, illegal immigrants would not send their children to school, seek medical care or cooperate with police. Giuliani reasoned that it was good for the entire city for all residents to obtain medical treatment rather than spread disease, and for children to be in school rather than on the streets.

He considered the policy integral to his focus on law and order: He worried that police would be hamstrung if illegal immigrants, fearing deportation, did not report crimes.

Giuliani acknowledged that the policy offended some who wondered why taxpayers should pay for services for illegal immigrants.

"The answer is: It's not only to protect them, but to protect the rest of society as well," Giuliani said at the time.

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