California’s GOP divided on Immigration

The two Republicans facing off in California’s gubernatorial primary have begun to express distinct views on an issue that has long been used by GOP candidates to mobilize their base: illegal immigration.

Steve Poizner, the current state insurance commissioner, and Meg Whitman, businesswoman and former president of eBay, both multimillionaires from their success in the corporate world, will be competing for the Republican nomination.

That part of the contest will be resolved in the June primary. The gubernatorial election is in November.

Poizner, who is trailing in the polls after months of an intensive media campaign by Whitman, has been using the subject of the border and “illegals” in recent speeches to appeal to Republican activists across the state.

At a Republican dinner in Yolo County, in Northern California, Poizner tried to distinguish himself from Whitman by saying that «only one of us thinks of the immigration issue as a state issue and not just a federal one. There is a lot we can do here in California.»

In another meeting with activists, Poizner said, “One of my key issues will be illegal immigration and stopping it once and for all; if I have to send the National Guard to the border, I’ll do it.”

Poizner has also said publicly that «illegal immigrants are overwhelming our education, health care and public benefits systems.”

Whitman, who for the moment appears to be the party’s favorite, in part because she has launched an intensive media campaign financed by her personal fortune, has taken a more moderate position on immigration, even though her main campaign adviser is former governor Pete Wilson.

Wilson used Proposition 187 and the issue of undocumented immigration to revive his re-election campaign in 1994. Since then, the issue has crept into all of the gubernatorial elections in the state and other parts of the country.

Whitman has said she didn’t vote in those elections but that she would have voted against Prop. 187, the measure promoted by her current campaign advisor, former governor Wilson.

Whitman’s campaign hasn’t provided any details about where she stands on immigration. But last October, the primary candidate visited the border in San Ysidro and said, «It would not be practical to deport illegal immigrants.»

During that visit, Whitman also said that she favored a «program in which people would go to the end of the line, pay a fine and do things that would allow for a path to legalization.»

More recently, Whitman has stressed that she supports temporary worker programs necessary for certain industries and businesses, and has voiced her opposition to an “amnesty.”

It is clear that Poizner is using the issue to appeal to the right wing of the Republican Party, which tends to be the most active in primary elections.

According to Shaun Bowler, political science professor at UC Riverside, Poizner is using the issue in a desperate attempt to get ahead in the polls.

“They are trailing in money and advertising and they’re getting left behind,” Bowler said of Poizner’s campaign. “Maybe they think this issue could help them in the primary with activists in the party.”

So far it doesn’t seem to be working, according to Jaime Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs in California. «For now it doesn’t seem that Whitman needs to move to the right of Poizner. In fact, the party’s conservative base doesn’t consider either a true conservative, so maybe this immigration issue will not be the determining factor,» said Regalado.

It is unusual that the issue of immigration has not come to the forefront in the midst of a recession as severe as this one. According to Whittier College professor Eric Lindgren, reports of immigrants returning to their countries could have something to do with this.

“It seems that there’s less pressure around the issue. It’s now obvious that unemployment is not an issue of the undocumented. They aren’t the ones that are taking our jobs away. There aren’t jobs for anyone. The economic issue is going to be very important and immigration, less prominent,” said Lindgren.

The candidates will participate in their first debate on March 15 in Orange County, and experts say the issue of immigration is likely to come up.

Either way, the issue is very fluid. Current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used it in his favor in the 2003 elections, when he launched a campaign to recall then-Gov. Gray Davis, campaigning on the issue of driver’s licenses for undocumented. He also supported Prop.187 at the time.

Later, as governor, Schwarzenegger apologized for supporting 187 and said he considered it a “mistake.” More recently, he affirmed that undocumented immigrants are not to blame for California’s budget problems.