What do you do when so many people are saying bad things about illegal immigrants?
You form a new group with a catchy name, and then you do the American thing: get yourself a political PR agency.
That’s exactly what Proponents for Responsible Immigration Debate and Education did. But the new pro-immigrant coalition didn’t hire just anybody. It hired a firm that has worked for Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson and even Boris Yeltsin.
It is part of the strategy of PRIDE, established by Latino organizations and politicians to fight “immigrant-bashing” and to attempt to raise the level and tone of the immigration debate in the upcoming political campaign.
The group will be watching out for campaign mailers such as one sent out in 1992 that carried the headline “Invasion U.S.A.” and showed illegal immigrants dashing across the border.
The group plans to launch its counteroffensive today with a private meeting with Gov. Pete Wilson in Sacramento. Latino officials have criticized Wilson for blaming the state’s fiscal problems on unchecked immigration and proposing that citizenship be denied to illegal immigrants’ U.S.-born children.
“If we are to believe the rhetoric, we would believe that immigrants were responsible for the shrinking aerospace industry, the rising cost of living and the mass corporate exodus out of California,” said Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Legislature’s Latino Caucus.
Supervisor Gloria Molina, who will attend today’s meeting with Wilson, said the group will “insist that he return the immigration debate and discussion back to one that is reasonable and sensible.”
Wilson is “more than willing to sit down with anyone who wishes to calmly and rationally discuss an issue that is of great importance to the state,” Beth Miller, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Thursday.
Wilson has maintained that illegal immigrants cost the state $3 billion a year that could be spent on services for legal residents.
PRIDE is expected to become the chief adversary of another group with an equally catchy name--FAIR. Federation for American Immigration Reform has advocated limiting legal immigration and cutting off public services to illegal immigrants.
Unlike the well-funded federation, the coalition is largely a volunteer effort, run from the offices of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The group has brought together virtually all of the big-name Latino elected officials in Los Angeles County, including longtime political rivals Molina and City Councilman Richard Alatorre. It hopes to also include Latino politicians from other parts of the state and members of other groups, including Asian American, Jewish and women’s organizations.
Arturo Vargas, MALDEF vice president, said pro-immigrant groups have allowed anti-immigration forces to frame the debate so far and that the coalition intends to change that by being more proactive.
The group’s mission won’t be easy to accomplish. It is up against public opinion polls that show negative attitudes toward illegal immigrants, even among some immigrants. But the coalition believes some of those attitudes are based on erroneous information.
As a first step, the group has hired Goddard-Claussen/First Tuesday, a Malibu-based political consulting firm that worked on the presidential campaigns of Carter and Jackson. Last year, the agency created TV spots to promote Russian President Yeltsin’s democratic-style reforms to voters there.
Coalition members say they hope to promote the positive side of legal and illegal immigration.
The group is unlikely to run costly radio ads as anti-immigration groups have done. Instead the coalition plans to build strength among a variety of ethnic groups and encourage newspapers, radio and television to cover both sides of the immigration debate.
All of the politicians in the coalition are Democrats but insist they will not spare fellow Democrats from criticism. Some of the Latino leaders have pledged to withhold endorsements from politicians who they consider immigrant bashers.
The new group also plans to lead a campaign to defeat proposed state initiatives that would deny illegal immigrants and their children access to public hospitals and schools.
The coalition also plans to aggressively respond to charges that immigrants are a drain on the economy. Working with the group is Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Center, a Latino research institution, who contends that most studies overestimate the number of illegal immigrants, exaggerate the public services they consume and underestimate the taxes they pay.
The new group said its efforts will follow four principles:
* The best way to reduce illegal immigration is “raise the standard of living and improve life opportunities in the sender countries. This requires greater emphasis on economic development, the fostering of democratic movements and foreign assistance to the countries that are the primary sources of migration.”
* The right of citizenship must not be compromised and promoting citizenship among immigrants “must become a national priority.”
* “Human dignity and respect are cornerstones of the American tradition, and all immigrants, including the undocumented, have basic human and civil rights,” including access to public hospitals and schools.
* “As a sovereign nation, the United States is entitled to control and regulate its borders. . . . Border control must be civilian, and guided by the values of efficiency, safety, dignity and humanity.”
“It is critical that Californians understand that people do not come to this country to enroll their children in school,” said Assemblywoman Martha Escutia (D-Huntington Park). “They come here to work, and as long as there is a demand for poorly paid cooks, gardeners and nannies, they will continue to come.”
“This organization is not here to promote undocumented immigration,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said. “It is here to promote a balanced debate on immigration . . . to lead to some solutions to immigration.