When rancorous protests over illegal immigration erupted in Murrieta this week, forcing the retreat of buses carrying women and children who had entered the nation illegally, they pushed to the forefront a onetime potent political issue in California that had faded in recent years.
California GOP politicians accused President Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown of failing to lead amid a humanitarian crisis, but also agreed with Obama that the children must be returned to their home countries immediately to avoid creating a magnet for more illegal immigration.
In contrast, top California Democratic elected officials, notably those expected to seek higher office, declined to say what exactly should be done with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border in recent months.
The protests and reactions were a reminder how fraught the issue can be in a state where Latinos are a fast-growing part of the population and an increasingly powerful voter bloc.
“Even though the overwhelming majority of Californians support a pathway to citizenship, the Murrieta controversy shows that the immigration issue is still a very complicated one and a potentially dangerous one,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics, and an unsuccessful candidate for secretary of state this year.
“It’s hard 30 days ago, almost impossible, to imagine a world in which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would be calling for children to be deported from this country …. This is a very unfamiliar landscape for politicians of both parties, but especially for potential Democratic candidates for governor,” such as Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Schnur added.
Illegal immigration was once a defining political issue in this state — notably the battle over taxpayer-funded benefits in 1994 that went to the Supreme Court, as well as the vigilante border patrol efforts nearly a decade ago.
But as California’s border security was improved and migrants moved east to cross into the U.S., the most polarized battles have shifted to states that are seeing greater effects from illegal immigration, notably Arizona.
As the controversies have faded here and Latino voting power has grown, some California Republicans have joined with Democrats to push for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to legal status, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari.
But the recent flow of tens of thousands of children and teenagers from Central America has upended that dynamic, with many of the minors bound for California.
Some argue that the minors made the dangerous journey here because of violence in their homelands and false rumors that they would be granted legal residency; others say that the minors were lured here by Obama’s executive orders deferring deportation of some young people who are in the country illegally.
Kashkari is among those who blame Obama’s policies and says that the children must be sent home immediately to stop more from coming. But he also argues that Brown ought to be doing something.
“This is one of many examples where there are federal issues affecting California that Gov. Brown remains silent about,” Kashkari said in an interview. “He’s got a powerful microphone, he could be weighing in.… He’s just hiding under his desk.”
Brown has not spoken publicly about the matter. Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor, said the fate of the children was a federal matter and that Brown was monitoring the situation closely.
“The state’s focus is ensuring conditions are humane for those housed by the federal government in California,” Westrup said.
Brown holds a massive polling and fundraising lead over Kashkari and is expected to romp to reelection in November. He is not expected to run for another political office, but political experts say that his silence is not surprising — since taking office, he has carefully expended his political capital on issues on his agenda, such as the temporary tax increases that he successfully urged voters to approve in 2012.
John J. Pitney Jr., a former national GOP official and a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, said he doubts that it will become a large enough issue to tip the scales against Brown. However, there could be an impact on congressional and legislative races in areas that are wrestling with processing immigrants.
“It could energize white conservatives. It could gin up turnout on the Republican side,” he said.
He added that it could become an increasingly visible issue in California if it drags on.
“If the [Obama] administration can find some way to resolve this quickly, it will fade quickly,” Pitney said. “If we still have large numbers of young people coming into the country, and they’re processed in California, it will be a big issue.”
It could then be raised in future contests, one of the reasons political experts believe politicians such as Harris and Newsom have declined to specify what should be done with the minors.
Harris and Newsom — prominent Democrats who are widely expected to seek higher office — would see little upside from weighing in: they risk being associated with supporting a move that draws more illegal immigration to California, which would cost the state money, or with images of thousands of young Latinos being deported.
When repeatedly asked Wednesday on KTTV-TV Channel 11’s “Good Day L.A.” what should be done with the unaccompanied minors, Harris called their plight awful before pivoting to chastise the protesters’ tone as “very troubling.” The immigrants “are not committing crimes. They are fleeing incredible violence,” Harris said.
Newsom urged protesters to focus on politicians who “block immigration reform, not exploiting young children as political props.” A spokeswoman would not say what Newsom supports as a solution.
Harris and Newsom expressed sympathy for those who were on the buses, and unease with the tone of the protests, which caught many California political observers off-guard and uncertain of its significance.
“If this becomes more than one local skirmish, we’ll have more to talk about,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. “Right now, it could be just one episode. Let’s see if it has legs.”
Mehta reported from Los Angeles, Megerian from Sacramento.