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Trump's visit shines spotlight on California Republican Party's immigration dilemma

Trump's visit shines spotlight on California Republican Party's immigration dilemma
Trump supporters grab signs before his rally in Costa Mesa. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Donald Trump's emphasis on illegal immigration has propelled his presidential campaign to the threshold of winning the Republican nomination, but it risks huge collateral damage to a California state party that has worked to distance itself from the immigration wars of two decades ago.

Trump emphatically defended, in a Thursday night speech in Orange County, his proposals to deport those in the country illegally and build a wall to keep others out. His opponents clashed in the streets with police in an eerie reminder of the mass protests in 1994 that greeted the campaign surrounding Proposition187, the measure to bar state services for immigrants here without papers.

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Although the proposition passed, the backlash toward those who supported it has been a leading cause of a precipitous decline in the number of Republicans registered in California.

In September, desperate to reverse the slide, the state party changed its platform to omit wording that said allowing such immigrants to stay in the country "undermines respect for the law," and to add that Republicans "hold diverse views" on the subject. That move came six months after the party's first formal embrace of the California chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay GOP voters.

The intent was to remake the party's image before it lost all political heft, if in steps small enough to keep it in tune with the views of the GOP base. But the campaigns being waged by Trump and the second-place Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have sent illegal immigration roaring back into view.

By deference or whim, Trump barely mentioned it in his Friday speech at the state Republican convention in Burlingame, near San Francisco International Airport. It came up only twice, once when he reiterated his intent to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and once when he joked about the circuitous path he was forced to take around fencing to avoid crowds of angry protesters massed around the hotel.

"It felt like I was crossing the border, actually," he said.

The night before, Trump brought to the stage relatives of U.S. citizens killed by illegal immigrants. He turned over his microphone to Jamiel Shaw, the father of a young man shot to death in Los Angeles, for an emotional embrace of Trump's policies.

"They used to call it 'the silent majority'; now it's the noisy majority," Trump said. "We're not going to take it."

The crowd at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre applauded wildly at Trump's mentions of his immigration policies, chanting, "Build the wall."

During his speech, Trump appeared to blame illegal immigration for the nation's drug problems, for adding to its risk from terrorists, and for economic difficulties.

"No state in America has suffered more from open borders than the state of California," he said, to cheers. He added later, "We're going to make the country great for Hispanics, for African Americans. We're going to make it great for everyone."

The reason illegal immigration has been such a destructive issue for state Republicans is California's demography. As the state has grown more Latino, pressure has built on candidates to acknowledge the complications behind immigration, whether illegal or legal. For residents whose relatives lack documentation, or those who are acquainted with them, criticism of illegal immigration can come as a personal slap remembered at election time.

That has led Latinos to register in huge numbers as Democrats or as nonpartisan voters who side with Democrats. Along with other issues — like opposition to abortion rights or gay rights — stern positions on illegal immigration have put whole swaths of the California electorate out of reach of Republicans, even when the party's candidates running for statewide office hold far more liberal positions.

The result: A state that voted for a Republican for president in 1988 now is securely Democratic in presidential and statewide elections. Republicans, meanwhile, have dropped from 37% of registered voters in 1994 to less than 28% now, and are in danger of being overtaken by nonpartisan voters.

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Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who is leading an anti-Trump effort in advance of the state's June 7 primary, says the New York businessman "is putting the GOP further and further out of reach" in California.

"He clearly lacks either the intelligence or the concern to truly want to build the Republican Party for the challenges it faces in the 21st century," Stutzman said. "Democrat registration has outpaced GOP registration this year in California. He's making our difficult challenges more difficult."

Party leaders here seemed intent on focusing as little as possible on the impact of the presidential primary.

Charles Munger Jr., an influential Republican donor who has worked to expand the party, declined to criticize Trump or any other candidate when asked repeatedly about their influence on California voters.

"The best way for a political party to reach out to new members is to tell them what it stands for, what it will do for them, and the state party platform is in fact such a document," he said. "The position of the state Republican Party is, that's our platform. If you ask about specific candidates, they will agree and disagree with it."

Despite the political stakes for state Republicans, Trump's positions have definite support among Republicans here as elsewhere.

In a March USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, 59% of Republicans said they agreed with his stance on illegal immigration, which 86% of Republicans described as a crisis or a major problem.

But they differed with Trump — and Cruz, for that matter — on the details. A third of Republicans polled agreed that immigrants here illegally should be deported, but 42% said there should be a path to citizenship for those immigrants.

The problem arises when the views of non-Republicans are considered. Among all registered voters, deportation was only half as popular as it was among Republicans. And two-thirds of all California voters polled thought there should be a process to gain citizenship, half again more than Republicans.

Trump was leading in that poll with 37% to 30% for second-place Cruz. Since the poll was published, Trump has taken command of the Republican presidential race, lifting the odds of his eventual nomination as well as the platform for his positions, however controversial they may be.

The growing inevitability of Trump's nomination, even as the campaign drives on, seemed at the state convention to have muted talk about the impact of his presence. Party leaders were highly reluctant to criticize a man who might, in little more than a month, win his party's nod — in California, no less.

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Some were also looking at a side effect of Trump's controversial candidacy: a jump in the number of people voting Republican in earlier-voting states. Harmeet Dhillon, the state party's vice chairwoman, said higher than usual Republican turnout driven by the presidential race could help preserve Republicans' biggest chit here — the ability to block Democratic budgetary matters that require a two-thirds majority vote.

"We expect that to boost some of our candidates in close races," she said.

Dhillon said Trump's views are more nuanced than he is given credit for, because he would allow some deportees to return. (He has not, however, disclosed how, or how many.)

She said Republicans here are aware that Trump's candidacy could have negative repercussions.

"We're concerned about it, but to be frank our support base is never going to be broadened to include illegal aliens," she said.

"We've all been vocal as a party that the rule of law has to be the governing principle of governance in this country," she added. "We want to welcome legal immigration into this country, but not illegal immigration."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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