Rep. Dana Rohrabacher fired off a telegram Wednesday to President Bush demanding the quick deportation of illegal immigrants arrested during the riots in Los Angeles.
His telegram triggered new protests from Latino leaders, who suggested that he is exploiting heightened racial feelings to win reelection.
The move drew no immediate reaction from the White House but prompted several critics to accuse the Huntington Beach Republican of using tactics that threaten to divide the community along racial lines.
Rohrabacher, who is facing a tough challenge in his bid to return to Congress in the remapped 45th Congressional District, said he sent the telegram because he was angered upon learning that U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr was not proposing any special effort to have foreign-born suspects deported.
“I demand that you order the attorney general to set up procedures and assign the necessary personnel to deport these illegal aliens on the fastest track possible,” Rohrabacher said in the telegram.
Latino leaders said, however, that federal laws already spell out a deportation process for illegal immigrants arrested in crimes.
Among those arrested on suspicion of riot-related acts in Los Angeles were 1,044 illegal immigrants, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials. Of those, 781 remained in jail as of Monday and were to be turned over to the INS once their criminal cases are disposed of, authorities said. The remaining 263 have already been turned over to the INS for return to their native countries.
“Rohrabacher’s looking for votes,” said Zeke Hernandez, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “He’s certainly missing the point. We have to look at rebuilding Los Angeles and the surrounding cities. Now is not the time to bring out hatred and bigotry.”
John Palacio, county spokesman for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the congressman is “trying to use immigrants as a whipping boy to hide his lack of leadership and failures as a congressman.”
“I think it is Congressman Rohrabacher who should be deported,” Palacio said. “He should be trying to bring the community together instead of using ethnic hysteria to polarize the community.”
One of Rohrabacher’s foes seeking the GOP nomination for the 45th District seat agreed that the congressman is trying to win votes in the district, where Latinos make up just 7% of the electorate.
“He’s not trying to solve a problem,” said Costa Mesa Councilman Peter F. Buffa, who acknowledged that he shares Rohrabacher’s concern about illegal immigration but differs on how to solve it. “What he’s trying to do is grab some attention, to hot-button it.”
Rohrabacher vaulted into the headlines last month when he called for curbs on health, education and welfare benefits for illegal immigrants, suggesting in one speech that “Pedro” should not expect to get a $50,000 heart bypass for free.
He sent his telegram to Bush after federal officials announced that illegal immigrants made up about 10% of the people arrested during the riots and looting that followed the not-guilty verdicts in the trial of four white Los Angeles police officers accused of using excessive force in the arrest of Rodney G. King.
“We’ve got to start making it clear we’re serious about this problem,” Rohrabacher said in Washington. “The Administration has got to take some of the lead. There is no sense in not deporting illegal aliens who are looters and rioters. We should kick them out of the country and not let them back in.”
Rohrabacher said the illegal immigrants arrested in the looting “weren’t upset about the Rodney King situation. They were opportunistic. They were taking advantage of a country where they were guests.”
He also expressed concern that some of those arrested will escape the criminal justice system with light sentences, if any at all.
“It seems to me that we’re heading toward a situation where the looters and rioters are going to be out and free without much punishment,” Rohrabacher said. “So the very least we should do is make sure that the illegal aliens that were rioting and looting are sent back home, hopefully to stay.”