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Illegal Immigration Rears Its Head in California Governor's Race

When you’re a Republican running for governor of California and you come upon the explosive subject of illegal immigration, the trick is to not win the battle but lose the war.

In reality, governors can’t do much about illegal immigration, and they shouldn’t grandstand while trying to prove otherwise. Controlling the border is a federal responsibility, and courts frown on attempts by local or state government to usurp that authority.

Republicans have been slow to learn that lesson, in part because they get political mileage from the issue.

The story always starts the same way. Republican candidates beat their chests and ratchet up the rhetoric to show everyone how tough they are on illegal immigration -- and, in the case of those calling for a total moratorium, immigration in general. They might even win a closed primary by playing to the GOP base.

And it always ends the same way. Red meat only gets you so far in a blue state where 1 in 5 voters is Latino. Those chest-thumping, tough-talking Republicans tend to get crushed in the general election. After all, they’ve antagonized Latinos who resent politicians who milk the immigration issue for votes.

Blame it on former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who successfully piggybacked his floundering 1994 reelection campaign on Proposition 187. That needlessly punitive ballot initiative sought to deny education and other services to illegal immigrants and their children. A majority of California voters approved the measure, but a federal judge struck it down.

Today, those Republicans who win statewide elections in California do so because, in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger, they have moderate views that help court voters.

This year, however, the Republican candidates seeking to replace Schwarzenegger -- former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- are courting disaster by returning to the Wilsonian tactics of exploiting fear, stirring emotions, and fostering division.

Trailing Whitman by as much as 40 points in some polls, Poizner is obviously desperate. It shows. In recent weeks, he has grasped for the issue of illegal immigration like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver. At the state GOP convention, Poizner called for the elimination of all state-provided services for illegal immigrants and promised to lobby for changes in federal law so that schools can turn away children who are undocumented -- something barred by the Supreme Court in its Plyler v. Doe decision.

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.