Presaging what may evolve into an internecine battle over immigration in the upcoming GOP-dominated Congress, two prominent Republicans Monday warned that carrying the Proposition 187 banner on the national stage could prove divisive and shift party thinking sharply to the right.
William J. Bennett and Jack Kemp, former cabinet secretaries with presidential aspirations, continued their attacks on Gov. Pete Wilson for his promotion of Proposition 187 as a national remedy for the problems of illegal immigration that wrack California and a few other states.
Saying they fear that emotions over the issue will swamp sound policy decisions, Bennett and Kemp sought to tone down the anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric from Wilson and others as threatening to the Republican Party's future.
"He's scapegoating, damn it, and he should stop doing it," Bennett said of Wilson. "The problem with (Proposition) 187 as a solution . . . is it is meretricious. It is superficially attractive. But it doesn't solve the problem."
"Where the battleground will be fought is if they want to carry this nationally and turn the party away from its historic belief in opportunity and jobs and growth, and turn the party inward to a protectionist and isolationist and more xenophobic party," Kemp said. "That would be something around which the soul of our party would be decided."
In a written statement, both Republicans counseled taking a longer view. "We are willing to concede that tossing logs onto the anti-immigration fire might result in short-term gains. But believe that in the medium and long term, this posture is a loser."
Bennett and Kemp surprised many Republicans by opposing the ballot initiative shortly before the Nov. 8 election, while endorsing Wilson's reelection. Wilson criticized them for butting into California affairs and blurring the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. But rather than burying the hatchet, the three Republicans appear to be locked in a running shootout.
The rift among top Republicans reflects not only the importance that immigration has attained in the wake of the Proposition 187 victory. It also suggests the pitfalls that the new majority party in Congress may encounter while wrestling with the visceral issue.
Existing Republican immigration proposals do not advocate barring illegal immigrant children from school, as Proposition 187 would. But if the measure's backers succeed in winning sufficient lawmakers to their point of view, the debate over immigration legislation could become sharply factional.
"It's an issue of tension that they're aware of and will do everything they can to avoid," said Kent Weaver of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "It will pit the fiscal conservative, pro-cheap labor forces versus those who want to appeal to Hispanic voters."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), who is in line to chair the House judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said, "The success of 187 will push the issue (of immigration reform) . . . and will guarantee that Congress will take it up. I hope that the legislation has bipartisan support."
Facing the new complexities that now underlie congressional discussions about immigration, Smith would not reveal his position on denying schooling to illegal immigrant children, the most controversial aspect of the California ballot initiative.
Kemp and Bennett made their remarks at a news conference co-sponsored by the Manhattan Institute and Empower America, two conservative Washington think tanks that issued a group of "leading immigration indicators," a compendium of various demographic statistics on legal immigrants. The two former cabinet officials and other speakers said they worried that the momentum generated by Proposition 187 would carry over to punitive measures toward legal immigrants.
"This report puts the facts on the table," said Bennett, a former secretary of education. "Just like health care, there is no crisis in legal immigration."
Rather, Bennett said, the problem lies in blending the new arrivals into American society. "It's a problem about American society right now, and that is assimilation. So, if you will, it's not legal immigration, stupid, it's assimilation, stupid," Bennett said, modifying the Democrats' 1992 campaign credo.
Joined by several speakers, including Ron Unz, who challenged Wilson for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Bennett and others praised the net benefits of legal immigrants.
"If we are to improve things, we should look less to adjusting the flow of legal immigrants and much more to things like affirmative action and reverse discrimination, bilingual education, multiculturalism in the classroom and the like," Bennett said.
Wilson, reacting in a television interview at Williamsburg, Va., where he is attending the Republican Governors Conference, said, "We really don't need any lectures from anyone from outside of California on the vast contributions of legal immigrants.
"(Kemp and Bennett) continue to confuse legal and illegal immigration. They are missing the point that was not missed by all the legal immigrants who voted for 187."
Kemp and Bennett advocate a stronger Border Patrol presence, accelerated deportation process, crackdown on counterfeit documents and reform of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to combat illegal immigration.
Times staff writer Robert Shogan in Williamsburg contributed to this story.