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Gov., Rival Spar but Step Lightly

Times Staff Writer

The national immigration debate is reverberating in California’s gubernatorial campaign, with the two major-party candidates trading verbal jabs but treading carefully on the volatile issue.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has talked tough in the past on border-related issues -- praising Minuteman-style private border patrols and supporting the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 -- now plays up his immigrant roots, calling for a comprehensive and compassionate border policy that bolsters security without mistreating illegal immigrants.

The softened public stance hasn’t stopped Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides from portraying Schwarzenegger as an anti-immigrant extremist who has harmed relations with Mexico.

“He’s talked about closing the border. He sent the National Guard to the border instead of demanding that George Bush do his job. He sent the wrong signal to Mexico, our ally,” Angelides said in a speech last month to Latino leaders in Los Angeles.

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Schwarzenegger has labeled Angelides weak on national security for not supporting the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the border. He also has criticized him for supporting driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

The dispute continued this week, when Angelides supporters criticized Schwarzenegger for saying Mexican immigrants should “immerse yourself and assimilate into the American culture.”

State Democratic Party chief Art Torres said the remark was “a calculated political insult to all immigrants.” Schwarzenegger, defending his comments Friday, said they were not meant as an insult. “This is not against Latinos; it’s not against anybody,” he said at a campaign event in Los Angeles.

That disagreement aside, most of the rhetoric on immigration has been voiced at partisan events. It has also been muted compared with the fireworks of past campaigns when immigration-related issues polarized voters and generated flurries of negative television advertising.

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Part of the reason, political analysts say, is that the candidates’ positions are not far apart on key issues, including their support for a guest worker policy and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The other reason is political: Neither wants to risk losing support from core constituencies if he strays too far from the carefully crafted views that both have staked out.

Republican Schwarzenegger has already angered conservatives with his moves to the center in recent months. And Democrat Angelides, analysts say, could lose moderate Democrats’ votes if he is perceived as being too liberal on immigration issues.

“It’s such a hot-button issue that maybe both are afraid to push the button. There’s a loss potential on either side,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC.

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Illegal immigration along the California-Mexico border has slowed significantly since increased enforcement in the 1990s pushed migration flows east to Arizona. From October 2005 to mid-September, 190,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended in California, compared with 500,000 in Arizona.

Still, immigration reform groups say, the continuing migration adds to California’s estimated population of 2.6 million illegal immigrants and costs the state more than $10 billion a year in health, education and law enforcement funds.

Migrant rights group say the state’s economy would break down without the labor of illegal immigrants, who provide much of the workforce in key industries such as construction, service and agriculture.

Immigration remains an important topic for voters. A Los Angeles Times poll in September showed that 34% of likely voters consider immigration issues to be the biggest problem facing the state -- making it the top mention.

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That presents something of a dilemma for state officials. Though governors of border states have historically struggled to make good on campaign promises of increased border funding, it is the federal government that is responsible for everything from patrolling the state’s 150-mile frontier to inspecting the millions of vehicles that enter California from Mexico each year.

In the race for governor, both candidates have promised to pressure Washington to improve conditions along the border and to reimburse costs associated with illegal immigration. But, experts say, the winner probably will follow a long line of governors who failed at the task.

“It’s a completely quixotic exercise,” said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. “The reality is that neither one is going to have much leverage in this area.”

That’s not to say that governors can’t try.

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“In Washington, any time that a well-known governor -- let alone a superstar -- comes to testify on a political issue, they attract attention, not just from the news media, but from lawmakers,” said Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University. “Certainly, there have been governors from various states that have used their stature to advance issues.”

Last year, the Democratic governors of New Mexico and Arizona, Bill Richardson and Janet Napolitano respectively, intensified the national debate on illegal immigration when they declared states of emergency.

Schwarzenegger declined to follow their lead but has acted in other ways. He has written op-ed articles, sent letters to congressional leaders and spoken to President Bush on border issues.

The efforts have yielded mixed results. Congress did appropriate $80 million more in funding this year -- for a total of about $200 million -- for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which reimburses states for incarcerating illegal immigrants. California spends more than $750 million a year for the incarceration of criminal illegal immigrants.

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But at the same time, the number of Border Patrol agents in California has dipped, from 2,500 in 2003 to 2,300 this year, though there are plans to add more. The cuts were caused by redeployments to Arizona and other border areas.

Angelides, in a telephone interview, said that Schwarzenegger hasn’t “lifted a finger” on border issues and that if he were governor, he would work more closely with California’s representatives in Washington to pressure the White House.

“This governor ... went to Ohio to campaign for Bush. Certainly, he can pick up the phone to implore the Bush/Cheney White House to meet its border commitments,” Angelides said.

He said the governor’s views on immigration issues have been divisive, and he criticized Schwarzenegger for, at one time, backing the Minuteman freelance group.

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“If I’m governor, you won’t see me going on right-wing radio and praising the Minutemen, or making statements about closing the border, or using this issue to divide Californians,” Angelides said.

He said he would push for comprehensive immigration reform and would urge the federal government to increase the number of Border Patrol agents and high-technology tools along the border. He said he opposed the deployment of the National Guard because California’s contingent is already overextended and the troops send the wrong signal to Mexico.

Schwarzenegger’s campaign criticized the challenger’s position.

“Phil Angelides would take California’s border security backward by removing National Guard troops,” said Julie Soderlund, a spokesperson for the governor. (Schwarzenegger initially balked at the president’s request to send the Guard to the border, and later refused Bush’s request for more troops.)

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Last year, he said illegal immigration could be choked off by closing the border. He corrected himself later, saying he meant “secure” the border.

Schwarzenegger’s views on some border issues have moderated. This year, he came out against the congressional plan for a 700-mile border fence, saying it would be ineffective and amount to going back to the “Stone Age.”

The governor also said this summer that he had made mistakes in praising Minuteman-style groups, and he repeated his earlier comment that Proposition 187 was “the wrong decision.”

Schwarzenegger also supports immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. -- a stance shared by Bush and criticized by some conservatives.

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“It impressed many in the Latino community that he took a moderate stance at a time when the tide was seeming to go the other way,” said Pachon of USC.

Skeptics remain, however, saying Schwarzenegger’s move to the center is politically motivated to boost support among Latinos. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that 65% of likely Latino voters disapprove of the governor’s job performance.

“We always have to remember that he’s an actor and ... without a doubt he is putting on an Academy Award-winning performance that he cares about the Latino community, when we know he does not,” said Enrique Morones, president of the Border Angels, a San Diego-based immigrant rights group.

But others consider Schwarzenegger’s positions in line with those of most voters, including many Latinos.

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“On immigration issues, the governor probably pretty much reflects the views of most Californians,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist who publishes the California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Debate broadcasts

The sole debate between Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, will be held tonight. Several Southern California media outlets plan to broadcast the one-hour session, according to the sponsor, the California Broadcasters Assn., and station officials.

Broadcasting the event live at 6 p.m. will be KCBS-TV Channel 2, KCET-TV Channel 28, KWHY-TV Channel 22 and cable station C-SPAN. KABC-TV Channel 7, which will be airing college football during the debate, will delay its broadcast until 11 a.m. Sunday.

The association said the debate will also be broadcast on radio stations KABC-AM (790) and KNX-AM (1070).

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