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Democrats wrangle on immigration

Times Staff Writer

Top Democratic elected officials and strategists are engaged in an internal debate over toughening the party’s image on illegal immigration, with some worried that Democrats’ relatively welcoming stance makes them vulnerable to GOP attacks in the 2008 election.

Advocates of such a change cite local and state election results last week in Virginia and New York, where Democrats used sharper language and get-tough proposals to stave off Republican efforts to paint the party as weak on the issue.

In Virginia, for instance, where Democrats took control of the state Senate, one high- profile victory came in the Washington suburbs, where the winner distributed mailings in the campaign’s closing days proclaiming his opposition to in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

The party’s calibration could also be seen in New York, where a number of Democrats won local elections in part by opposing a plan by Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and in the presidential campaign, in which party front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has struggled to explain whether she supports the Spitzer plan or not.

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In Congress, a group of conservative Democrats, led by freshman Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, introduced legislation last week calling for more Border Patrol agents, heightened surveillance and additional requirements that employers verify the legal status of workers.

The proposal does not include measures to create a path to citizenship for millions of illegal workers, measures that recently had been supported by Democrats nationally.

With polls showing broad discontent with the government’s handling of immigration, some Democrats argue that the party can toughen its image without moving too far away from its traditionally pro-immigration leanings -- for example, by supporting heightened security at the Mexico border, opposing benefits for illegal immigrants, and pushing for harsher penalties against businesses that hire illegal workers.

“If Democrats turn a blind eye to the public concerns about immigration, it would be a mistake,” said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who won reelection last year in his conservative district by taking a hard line against illegal immigration while backing what he said were “practical” ideas for dealing with the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. “If Democrats are seen as strongly supporting the protection of our borders and not supporting a vast array of welfare benefits for people here illegally, and combine that with a responsible approach toward earned citizenship for those who have been in our country for a number of years, then it can be a winning issue for Democrats.”

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The internal debate has grown emotional in recent days, boiling over on Friday during a tense encounter on the House floor between Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

The caucus was upset because some House Democrats had backed a Republican measure protecting employers that impose certain English-only rules -- the latest in what Baca called a series of frustrations with the party leadership’s approach to immigration.

“We’re tired of people trying to scapegoat the immigrants or Hispanics as a platform,” Baca said. “Republicans have done it, and Democrats have followed . . . because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their elections. But we got elected to represent all communities, not to vote based on whether we’re going to get reelected.”

The party’s dilemma comes in the wake of the Senate’s defeat this summer of a major immigration overhaul that would have created a path to citizenship for illegal workers.

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The issue has proved vexing for Republicans as well, with most of the party’s conservative base pushing for measures to strengthen the border. President Bush, meanwhile, backed the Senate bill, and his former political advisor Karl Rove has long supported a moderate stance on immigration as part of a strategy to lure Latino voters to the GOP.

Many Republicans believe the party’s attempts last year to paint Democrats as weak on illegal immigration -- including television ads that some critics saw as playing on ethnic stereotypes -- damaged the GOP’s image among Latino voters and helped put Democrats in control of Congress.

But Republicans have signaled their intention to make the issue a central focus again. One GOP official said last week that the party planned television ads targeting Clinton on the driver’s license issue. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of the leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, began airing an ad opposing driver’s licenses and benefits for illegal immigrants. The ad begins with Romney saying: “We all know Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have it wrong on illegal immigration.”

Now, Democratic strategists, examining the party’s need to retain seats in conservative areas and win electoral college votes in the heartland, say Democrats will lose ground if they do not push back against Republican attacks on immigration. Some say Democrats nearly lost a special congressional election in Massachusetts last month because the candidate, Niki Tsongas, did not adopt tough immigration rhetoric.

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“It’s very important for Democratic candidates not to allow Republicans to define them on the immigration issue,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the committee that designs the Democrats’ House election strategy.

“What we’ve learned is that candidates who address this issue with a strong and clear manner were able to do just fine in addressing the voters’ concerns,” he said. “But those who left their field open allowed Republicans to falsely define their position.”

A recent memo by one senior Democratic pollster, Stanley Greenberg, warned that voter discontent over immigration is salient among many potential Democratic voters -- specifically among less educated voters, African Americans, and blacks and whites in rural areas who view illegal immigration as an economic issue.

“Voters want control of the borders and workplace and re-creating an immigration system that works and oppose driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, positions supported by about two-thirds of the country,” the memo said. “For them, that is the starting point, the common sense of the issue. If political leaders do not start there, they are not likely to be heard on other steps.”

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Greenberg’s advice echoed arguments offered last year in a strategy memo from a moderate Democratic group, Third Way. It advised the party’s candidates to be tough and fair -- but to avoid sounding overly sympathetic to illegal immigrants at the expense of average voters who believe they are paying for benefits and bearing other burdens of a broken system.

“Compassion and justice for illegal immigrants ends when taxpayer interests begin,” the group said.

Several Democrats said last week that Clinton’s difficulty with the driver’s license issue, which first arose at a candidates debate Oct. 30, illustrated the very struggle many in the party will face next year as they balance a complicated policy issue against the emotional responses of voters. Clinton lauded Spitzer but stopped short of fully backing his plan.

Fellow Democrats accused her of trying to have it both ways, while Republicans, such as party presidential front-runner and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, pounced on the issue and declared their opposition to giving licenses to illegal immigrants.

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“As soon as I saw that come up at the debate, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a bad issue for Democrats,’ ” said California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles).

Nunez added that he thought Democrats should pick their shots and probably avoid advocating driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

“I’d rather have a Democrat in the White House than get the driver’s licenses passed,” he said.

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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