As protesters took to the streets of Los Angeles in record-setting numbers in recent days, the highest-ranking immigrant in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was asked what should be done about the millions of people living in California illegally.
“I’ll let the geniuses in Washington figure all that out,” he replied.
Though the answer may have sounded flip, he later offered detailed comments about illegal immigration. But the moment spoke to the pressure Schwarzenegger and the two main Democratic candidates for governor suddenly face to take a stand as federal lawmakers tackle immigration policy.
Until the protests, the three candidates had barely mentioned the subject. They have been sticking to far less emotional topics such as traffic and budget reform. But as the demonstrations and a statewide poll reveal, the public has something besides deficits and offramps on its mind.
A poll released today by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that illegal immigration has emerged as the top concern among Republicans in the state and the second most important among all of those surveyed. With the exception of education, the subjects that all three candidates have embraced have fallen behind.
The governor has not entirely ignored illegal immigration. He offered support for the civilian Minuteman border-patrol group last year and said California should “close the border,” a comment he quickly rescinded.
On Tuesday, he outlined his views on immigration in an opinion piece in The Times. He endorsed a guest-worker program to help California businesses and argued against “criminalizing immigrants for coming here,” though he also said that making citizens out of all illegal immigrants in the United States would be “anarchy.”
Schwarzenegger wanted to convey that “you have to look at this two ways: compassionately and with the rule of law,” said Matthew Dowd, the governor’s chief political advisor.
Immediately after taking office, the governor overturned a state law that allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, and he did not suffer politically for it -- numerous Democrats, independents and Republicans supported the policy change.
Still, the immigration debate is riddled with political danger. Only 37% of Californians surveyed said Schwarzenegger is doing a good job as governor, according to the poll. For a year, his popularity rating has remained stagnant -- at 40% or below -- in the institute’s polling.
Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson used the public’s frustration with illegal immigration to win reelection in 1994. But the fight over Proposition 187, which was designed to cut off public services to illegal immigrants, severely damaged the state GOP just as Latinos had begun flexing their political power. The estimated number of Latino voters has jumped since 1994, from 1.5 million to nearly 3 million.
Dowd said Schwarzenegger “is not a Bush Republican, and he is not a Wilson Republican. He is going to come up with his own policies.”
State Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly, the Democrats battling to challenge Schwarzenegger in November, also have been forced to weigh in on immigration this week despite campaigns that were headed in other directions.
Neither candidate has offered a comprehensive plan to tackle illegal immigration and have made their opinions known only when asked. But Angelides and Westly warned Wednesday against turning illegal immigration into a wedge issue that would divide the electorate against Latinos.
In a statement, Angelides said he fought against “Schwarzenegger’s and Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187, which would have punished children in California.” (Schwarzenegger had nothing to do with Proposition 187, other than voting for it, which he acknowledged in 2003.)
Angelides said he supported the “pragmatic, compassionate” bill in Congress offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) over a more conservative measure by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
Feinstein’s measure would allow about 12 million illegal immigrants to become legal residents and would create a guest-worker program. Sensenbrenner’s would make it a felony to be in the country illegally and require a 700-mile fence along the Mexico border.
Westly has limited his comments on immigration to a few speeches and interviews with Univision, the Spanish-language television network.
This week, he criticized Angelides for refusing to take detailed positions, but he offered only a few himself: support for some guest-worker programs and for an existing state law that allows illegal immigrants who attended California high schools to pay lower, in-state tuition at public colleges.
Angelides also supports the program. Schwarzenegger has taken no position on it.
Westly spokesman Nick Velasquez said he expected the candidate to talk more about immigration during the campaign. He also said that if Schwarzenegger “tries to exploit wedge-issue politics on immigration, like his predecessor and friend, Mr. Wilson, it will be a big problem for him.”
So far, there is no evidence that Schwarzenegger is taking such a tack, although his endorsement of the Minutemen caused an uproar. The governor has since softened his rhetoric and has mostly emphasized his personal credentials on immigration: He is one himself, the first modern California governor with a distinct accent and dual citizenship (with his native Austria). But he also is a California Republican.
Mark Baldassare, survey director of the Public Policy Institute, said the immigration debate was an opportunity for Schwarzenegger “to present himself as someone who has some unique perspective on this important topic, but there are some real issues here. The Republican Party -- which he is a part of -- is pretty divided on this issue right now.”
The same holds true for other candidates this year. Wayne Johnson, a political consultant for numerous Republican candidates, said he would warn his clients against treating immigration issues as “an either-or, black-or-white situation.”
“You have to be very careful,” he said, “to not just appeal to people’s frustrations.”