California GOP: Immigration Top Issue

Burlingame, Calif.–Despite heated contests for both slots on the Republican National Committee and the gathering storm over homosexual marriages in nearby San Francisco, the more than 1,200 delegates and other activists at the California Republican Convention last week talked about immigration more than anything else.

Sentiment ran strong that the Bush Administration was headed in the wrong direction on the issue.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.), the most outspoken critic of the administration’s immigration policy, drew wild applause when he addressed a packed convention rally for Republican Senate hopeful Howard Kaloogian. To the repeated claims of the Bush White House that its policy is not an amnesty, Tancredo declared: “It is an amnesty!”

It was nearly impossible to find a conventioneer who supported the President’s proposal to allow the estimated eight to 12 million illegals aliens in the United States to stay in the country legally on “guest worker” visas. Many said Bush’s stand on the issue could cost him California’s 55 electoral votes this fall.

“Illegal immigration should be a big issue this fall, but it is not being picked up,” El Dorado County Republican Chairman John Stetzmiller told me. “Bush is walking too softly on this one, and it appears there is too much emphasis on winning votes and not on what should be right. I’m sure a lot of the [Latino] voters recognize this because lots of them are legal residents and law-abiding citizens.”

Keith C. DeFilippis, secretary of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly chapter in Santa Clara County, said, “Although we’re told it isn’t that, people are looking at [Bush’s program] as an amnesty. Neither Republicans nor Democrats will face the issue.”

“Maybe [Bush’s plan] is amnesty in a pretty pink dress, but what he says is amnesty to most Americans,” said State Central Committeeman Mike Davis of San Jose. Questioning “how someone can become a citizen when his or her first act in this country is illegal,” Davis said the presence of illegal immigrants in the workforce is creating tension in his home county.

Some delegates were also perturbed by reports that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to look at alternatives to driver’s licenses for undocumented aliens, which the state legislature banned last year. (A state party leader assured me that he had spoken Gov. Schwarzenegger about the issue and that “nothing is imminent” on it.) “I’m highly opposed to amnesty and highly opposed to driver’s licenses [for illegal aliens],” said Delegate Mike Withrow of North Orange County.

Withrow argued that many Latino citizens share his view. Citing his work as a Teamster Union leader, Withrow said, “I’m shop steward for Teamster Local #952 and more than half our members are Hispanic. I work in a distribution center in La Habra, and over 80% of my colleagues are Hispanic. To a great degree, they are against the tide of illegal immigration, which will have a tremendous impact on neighborhoods and traffic.”