Border Security an Issue for GOP

Times Staff Writer

Illegal immigration has emerged as a major issue in political campaigns around the country, adding an element of emotional intensity that Republicans hope will excite their conservative supporters -- but that also threatens to split the party.

The issue is most intense in states along the southern border, where President Bush will travel this week to promote his plan to stem illegal immigration. But concerns about the flow of such immigrants into the U.S. are cropping up in states far removed from Mexico and Central America.

The debate pits advocates of strict new immigration limits against powerful business interests that rely on cheap immigrant labor. That divide is apparent in contentious campaigns in which immigration-control activists are challenging establishment Republicans.


In Idaho, a leading GOP candidate for a U.S. House seat made his name with headline-grabbing efforts to counter illegal immigration.

In Arizona, a senior House Republican, facing a primary challenger who has accused him of being soft on border security, has decided not to run for reelection.

And in California’s Dec. 6 special election to fill the House seat that Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) gave up to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Republican front-runner is facing off against an activist who gained national attention by helping organize volunteers to patrol the border.

In other states, the battle over illegal immigration is expected to be joined in ballot initiatives and various House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns -- a clear signal that it may be as prominent a social issue in the 2006 elections as same-sex marriage was in 2004.

“Midterm elections are testing grounds for presidential election issues,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “I really believe that immigration is that issue for 2006. Whether immigration dominates a race or shapes it, I expect every competitive race to engage on it on some level.”

Some Republican strategists contend that the immigration issue offers an opportunity for the GOP to revive its flagging fortunes at a time when Bush and the party have been hobbled by public discontent over the war in Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina and ethics scandals.


“This is the best issue for them to recover on,” said Bay Buchanan, a conservative who helped found Team America Political Action Committee, which recruits and raises money for candidates dedicated to stopping illegal immigration.

But the risk for Republicans is that as Bush continues to pursue his long-cherished goal of attracting more Latinos to the GOP, a focus on illegal immigration could inspire a political backlash like the one that hit California Republicans in the mid-1990s. Prop. 187, the antiillegal immigration measure championed in 1994 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson and other state Republican leaders, galvanized much of the Latino community against the GOP.

“There is so much ambivalence among Republican leaders and moderates about getting too far out on the issue,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster. “This is a tough issue for them.”

It is also an issue increasingly on the minds of Americans. An October survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 51% of those polled said they believed that reducing illegal immigration should be a top priority -- up from 42% in September 1997.

When Bush proposed an overhaul of immigration law in 2004, he called for a guest worker policy that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. -- a top business goal, but an idea strongly opposed by some Republicans, who regarded it as amnesty for lawbreakers.

Bush also called for stricter border security -- an issue he plans to emphasize anew with visits to Tucson on Monday and El Paso on Tuesday. The stops are the beginning of a monthlong White House effort to spotlight improved enforcement of immigration laws.


Congress has enacted neither part of Bush’s plan, but House GOP leaders are planning a December vote on legislation aimed at toughening border security. They are responding, in part, to growing frustration among the Republican rank and file with inaction by Bush and Congress.

The Pew Center’s recent poll found that Bush’s handling of immigration policy was supported by 36% of the Republicans surveyed.

That frustration has fueled groups such as the Minuteman Project, which garnered national publicity for its efforts to organize volunteer border patrols. And it has inspired a spate of political candidacies that, even if they prove unsuccessful, push other candidates to address the immigration issue.

In Orange County, Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist ran strongly in last month’s special election to fill Cox’s House seat, earning him a place in next week’s runoff against state Sen. John Campbell, the candidate backed by GOP leaders.

While campaigning last week with Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) -- perhaps Capitol Hill’s most vocal advocate for a crackdown on illegal and legal immigration -- Gilchrist distributed leaflets that claimed “a vote for John Campbell is a vote for more illegal aliens.”

In Idaho, a crowded GOP primary race for an open House seat that Republicans are heavily favored to win includes Robert Vasquez, who has called the influx of illegal immigrants into the U.S. an “invasion.”

A county commissioner, he once sent a bill to the Mexican government asking it to pay for social services provided to illegal immigrants. He has used federal racketeering laws to sue employers suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants. He accused the state’s congressional delegation of giving “better representation to illegal aliens than to fellow Idahoans.”


In Arizona, veteran Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe faced a stiff primary battle last year from an opponent who accused him of supporting an “open border” because of his backing for a guest worker program. Kolbe’s challenger, Randy Graf, won 43% of the primary vote -- an unusually strong showing against an established incumbent.

Graf announced early this year that he would again run against Kolbe and again hammer him on the immigration issue. Last week, although saying he had no doubt he would win another term next year, Kolbe announced he would not seek reelection.

Other Republicans now are expected to enter the primary. But Graf’s presence in the race virtually ensures that border security will be a prominent campaign issue.

Throughout Arizona, no issue seems to eclipse illegal immigration in importance. Last year, a ballot initiative cutting off some public benefits was approved with 56% of the vote -- despite opposition from political leaders of both parties.

Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who is seeking reelection in 2006, is emphasizing his support for a tough measure to send illegal immigrants back to their home countries.

The state’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, is favored to win reelection -- in part because she has emphasized border security. In August, she declared a state of emergency along Arizona’s border with Mexico to crack down on crime.


In Utah, Republican Rep. Chris Cannon may face a second primary challenge sparked by the immigration issue. He won a 2004 contest against an opponent who attacked him as soft on border control.

Buchanan, of the Team America PAC, said her group and similar ones planned to make another effort to deny Cannon his party’s nomination in 2006.

Such looming primary fights are part of the reason GOP leaders want action on immigration legislation in the coming weeks.

“Between now and the election season next year, there will be enough movement on immigration in Congress that the issue will be diminished,” said Joe Hunter, Cannon’s chief of staff.

Many Republicans from elsewhere in the country have been returning to Washington from visits to their home districts saying that concern about illegal immigration is running high.

Amy Walter, an analyst for the Cook report, said that during a recent forum among GOP House candidates in Minnesota, questioning quickly turned to the issue.


Among Democrats taking a more hawkish stance on illegal immigration is Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is up for reelection in 2006. Last week, he issued a news release highlighting his support for a bill to strengthen border controls.

“When a Democratic senator from Nebraska is sending releases on border security, it shows the issue has greater reach,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. “It’s everywhere.”

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.