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Illegal Immigration Rears Its Head in California Governor's Race

Meanwhile, during a recent debate in Orange County, Whitman said: “We have to stop illegal immigration at the border."

Yeah? And ... ? Whitman needs to go on eBay and get a clue. See above: controlling immigration is a federal responsibility.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate also declared herself "100 percent against amnesty. No exceptions."

What Congress has discussed in recent years isn’t an unconditional amnesty. It is an earned legal status laden with conditions. One condition -- under a Republican plan proposed by Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) -- was for illegal immigrants to physically leave the United States to be processed for legal re-entry. That is hardly an amnesty.

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Whitman tried to recover her fumble.

“Too often, the rhetoric surrounding this issue has been overly divisive and disrespectful to Latino American citizens,” she wrote. “The country needs to have a thoughtful debate about how we stop the tide of illegal immigration that strains budgets and angers taxpayers. But the immigration debate must take place in a measured way that reflects our national aspirations toward tolerance, hope and opportunity.”

That’s better. Too bad, as the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

After the dust has settled on the Republican side of the aisle, the winner will go on to face Attorney General Jerry Brown, the likely Democratic nominee. And Latino voters who have been paying attention to how Republicans are behaving in the primary will be the first in line to cast ballots for Brown. That’s 20 percent of the electorate out the window before the voting even starts.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that Latino voters in California, or elsewhere, condone illegal immigration. Polls confirm they don’t.

But nor are they fond of the ham-handed way this issue is typically handled by politicians. They don’t like how elected officials go after powerless illegal immigrants and then give a pass to the powerful employers who hire them because those are the kind of people who contribute to campaigns. They don’t like political rhetoric that treats all immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- as scapegoats for the litany of society’s ills. And they really don’t like the fact that much of the clamor from the bumper sticker crowd to “close the border” and “deport all illegals” is driven by the familiar element of racism and a fear of changing demographics.

When it comes to immigration, Republicans would be wise to tread lightly and choose their words carefully. Or else, once again, they’ll pay for it -- in this year's gubernatorial election in California and for many elections to come.