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Governors’ Views From the Border Put Dole on the Spot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember who your friends are, Texas Gov. George W. Bush admonished the Republican presidential candidates last summer.

He was not referring to himself or other boosters of the GOP. Instead, Bush said he was talking about the people of Mexico, who, he argued, have been offended by his party’s tough talk on issues such as illegal immigration. Without mentioning names, Bush’s message was partly directed at the White House candidate from California at that time, Gov. Pete Wilson.

Since Bush won office in 1994, the story of border issues in Texas and California has been a tale of two cultures and a tale of two governors. Both men represent states with large Latino populations. Both face challenges posed by illegal immigration. But Wilson and Bush, who appeared together here in the last few days at a conference of Mexican and American border-state governors, have taken sharply opposing positions on relations between the two nations.

Those differences have contributed to a major, although little noted, election-year split within the Republican Party on issues regarding immigration, drug smuggling and U.S.-Mexico relations.

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As the 1996 presidential campaign takes shape, the presumptive Republican candidate, Sen. Bob Dole, has had to navigate a difficult line between the positions of the two governors.

So far, Dole has leaned more toward Wilson than Bush. Dole backed California’s Proposition 187. He also supports legislation Congress is now considering that would take some of Proposition 187’s provisions nationwide, blocking public education and other assistance for illegal immigrants.

Beyond the campaign, the opposing positions represented by the two governors will be a continuing issue for both political parties as they try to sort out relations with Mexico.

The contrast between Bush’s approach and Wilson’s “is night and day,” said Raul Hinojosa, head of the North American Immigration and Development Center at UCLA. “The difference is that the governor of Texas has recognized the importance of Mexico much more than the governor of California.”

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During their 1994 election campaigns, Bush appealed for votes by making friendly relations with Mexico a campaign theme. Wilson, in contrast, forever tied his political legacy to border and race relations when his 1994 reelection campaign helped seal the victory of Proposition 187.

Wilson’s campaign played on concerns about Mexico and Mexicans, as exemplified in a commercial in which the narrator referred to illegal immigrants with the comment: “They keep coming.”

Politically, the differing approaches reflect the political realities of the two states.

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As a percentage of voter turnout, the Latino population in Texas is nearly twice as large as in California--in part because native-born citizens make up a notably larger percentage of the Latino population in Texas. As a result, officials say, a Republican cannot win statewide office in Texas without substantial support from the Latino community--something that is not true in California.

In addition, as Bush acknowledged, the budget pressures in California caused by illegal immigration are greater than in Texas.

Moreover, compared with California, Texas has a much stronger historic connection to Mexico and its own Latino community, he said. Economically, trade with Mexico is a major factor in Texas, while Mexican trade ranks third in California, behind Japan and Canada.

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Today, Wilson is a well-known figure in Mexico. Leaders there point to his campaign as the harbinger of an increasingly hostile and hard-line attitude in the United States.

Last week, Wilson’s record was singled out when he arrived in Santa Fe for the first conference of the 10 border-state governors from Mexico and the United States since Proposition 187 passed. And his isolation was enhanced by the fact that all three of his fellow American border-state governors, all Republicans, had opposed the California ballot measure.

“Pete Wilson is probably one of the most unpopular Americans in Mexico,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project in Los Angeles. “Those other governors are leading the way in sensitive treatment of important binational border relations.”

For his part, Wilson, in an interview here, blamed much of his unpopularity in Mexico on a misinterpretation of Proposition 187 caused by a “calculated campaign of character assassination.”

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The ballot measure was not intended to be a condemnation of illegal immigrants, Wilson argued. Instead, he said, the initiative targeted public benefits for illegal immigrants and their children because those benefits amount to a reward for lawbreaking. The issue, he argued, is one of fairness.

Illegal immigration “has major consequences that are unfair to taxpayers and to legal residents and to schoolchildren whose class size we might have been able to reduce much earlier if we had not been spending $2 billion per year on the children of illegal immigrants,” Wilson said. “When you’ve got consequences of that magnitude, then I think it would be a terrible dereliction of duty to put your head in the sand and pretend that there is no problem.

“Do I enjoy offending people? No. But . . . there are days when you are going to have to do things that are right and necessary, but unpopular.”

Wilson argued that if border states are allowed to stop spending tax money to educate the children of illegal immigrants, those students and their parents will return to their home country for school.

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Bush, in contrast, is a strong advocate of public education for illegal immigrant children, saying he considers it a moral obligation. In his campaign against Democratic incumbent Ann Richards, which never raised the issue of illegal immigration on television, Bush argued that educating undocumented students would reduce crime by ensuring that residents are job-ready instead of unemployable.

Bush has supported a beefed-up border enforcement program in Texas, called “Operation Hold the Line.” But he makes a distinction between policies at the border and those directed at the quality of immigrant life.

Wilson has continued to urge Dole to stress the problematic aspects of relations with Mexico, particularly when he campaigns in California.

On the issue of drug smuggling, for example, Wilson urged Dole this spring to push the Clinton administration to officially cite Mexico for not adequately helping U.S. authorities crack down on traffickers.

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Bush, however, responded to the issue by writing a letter telling Dole that any such step “would have devastating effects for the citizens of the U.S.-Mexico region.”

Dole followed Wilson’s position, which Clinton rejected.

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Bush hosted five Mexican governors at his inaugural last year, and he has visited Mexico six times since he took office, aides said.

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“This is a very important aspect, I think, of my being a successful governor,” Bush said in an interview. “It is much easier for me to discuss illegal immigration with [Chihuahua Gov. Francisco Javier Barrio] Terrazas because he knows that here’s a guy who is trying to figure out problems in a friendly way rather than in a divisive way.”

As for Wilson, “he had to make the calls he had to make given his situation. I imagine this is a difference in what is happening in each respective state.”


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