Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Immigration issues in California will test aspiring presidents

Immigrants on the march, May 1, 2007.

Yesterday the New York Time's Adam Nagourney offered some speculation about how the early February California primary would impact the presidential contest. Most of the piece was just cutesy East Coast superciliousness, but his stuff on immigration policy seems worth teasing out a bit:

... its sheer size, its concentrations of both liberals and conservatives, its status as a money tree for candidates and its role as fertile ground for policy innovation make California especially likely to wield additional clout this time around. The result is not just a change in tactics; it is altering the dialogue of the presidential contest in substantive ways. It is forcing candidates to turn their attention to issues, debates and controversies that have historically drawn little attention on the early playing fields of Iowa and New Hampshire....

To some extent, this surfeit of issues reflects what has always been California's reputation as being slightly ahead of the curve -- some might argue off the curve....

Immigration is a particularly tough issue here for both parties, in a state that has been transformed by an influx of Hispanic voters. It has created political cross-pressures on Republicans, who are trying to deal with voters who see the influx of immigrants as a threat to their safety, cultural identity and economic well-being; and Democrats, who have benefited in the past decade from the perception among many legal immigrants that Republicans are anti-immigration. The latest debate here is whether illegal immigrants should be granted drivers' licenses.


Actually, there is nothing "latest" about the drivers' license issue; it is more like a hardy perennial. State Senator (formerly Assemblymember) Gil Cedillo has been working to regularize driving by undocumented California residents since 1998. His measures reached the Governor's desk three times under Gray Davis; Davis even signed one in the super-heated atmosphere of the recall election, but under pressure from the newly triumphant Governor Schwarzenegger, the legislature repealed it in late 2003. The Governator promised to support a modified version in 2005, but under pressure from the Republican base, instead vetoed it. The issue will come back this year in the form of a bill that brings California into compliance with the Federal REAL ID act, but gives persons without documents a special form of license. As Cedillo explains:

An estimated 22 million motorists take to our roads and highways every day of and roughly 10 to 12 percent are untested, unlicensed and uninsured. That means higher insurance premiums for the rest of us and the likelihood of a hit-and-run if anyone is an accident with one of them.

This is pretty much a settled issue for California Democrats -- but one that drives the Republicans crazy.

In general, immigration policy has driven the California Republican party a little nuts -- and contributed mightily to its slide into minority status. Since Republican Governor Pete Wilson rode fear of immigrants to re-election in 1994, the party has made itself home to anxious white supremacists and racist wingnuts -- this is not only a strategy for a shrinking base as Latinos and Asians increase their proportion of the California electorate, but also makes the party appear the locus of racial friction that fits poorly with Californians' pride in our diversity. Schwarzenegger's personal popularity hasn't overcome this; in 2006 Democrats won all but one of the statewide contests below the governor level.

Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata wasn't so far off when he impoliticly suggested last year that the other party included a bunch of "crackers." A San Francisco columnist tromped happily into the subsequent fray:

"Crackers'' isn't the right word, but the whole dustup about giving illegal immigrants driver's licenses does have the ring of the old South. After all, it isn't as if 11 million of them aren't already in the country. Wouldn't it be better to have way to track and monitor them?

And Perata is right. This is a red meat issue. The idea of building a great big wall between us and Mexico sounds terrific except for the part about how it won't work. In fact, it didn't work in China hundreds of years ago and it won't work here now.

But he shouldn't call them [Republicans] "crackers.''

Even if that's what he thinks they are.

A consequence of California's restrictive term limit legislation has been complete turnover in the legislature since the late 1980s. This turnover has made room for much greater numbers of new politicians, especially Asians and Latinos, than might yet have won office if incumbents had been able to stay on. It is notable that the present Speaker of the Assembly, Fabian Nunez, was a Latino student activist who railed in 1995 against Pete Wilson's cynical manipulation of the fear of immigrants. The California right wing goes bananas recalling his youthful speeches. State Republicans are getting what they so blithely sowed.

The real immigration issue here in California, as in all the country, is that we have an undocumented population doing much of the necessary work to keep our society going who have no rights in relation to their employers. In this, California is very like the rest of the country -- but much further into the process of "internally outsourcing" our dirty work. If some kind of "immigration reform" makes it out of Congress in 2007, candidates will duck behind that, though it is unlikely to solve the problems.

Nagourney is certainly right that candidates running nationally, in either party, are going to find our environment about immigration policy challenging. Lines about immigration are not drawn in the same places here as elsewhere. We have spent a decade dealing with the anxious fallout of immigration-driven demographic change. The issue could blow us apart again (whites are still the overwhelming majority of the electorate) but we've gotten to where a majority doesn't want more strife. We're sitting in a precarious, somewhat exhausted, truce.

It will be very hard for any of the candidates to split the necessary differences to hold their bases and attract the bystanders insofar as immigration is a serious topic in the primaries. And what they might need to say here is likely to be discordant elsewhere. Aside from far right wingers, especially Tancredo, I would expect them all to try to stay out of it here. The enormous scale of a California primary -- meaning that elections must be fought mostly through media -- will help them keep it shallow on the immigration front, I think. And they won't mind being shallow on an issue that won't likely help and might hurt their chances.

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