In Cunningham’s former district, even the Democrats are conservative on immigration

In the wake of a California Congressional election, which garnered national
attention with the entry of Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrist, immigration is
once again emerging as the key issue in the 50th Congressional District in
the race to replace Duke Cunningham. It’s a district where even the Democrat
is for stricter controls on the US-Mexico border.

Candidates in the race to replace Cunningham,–including the leading
Democrat, Cardiff school board member Francine Busby–have called for more
immigration controls. Busby says she supports both the House bill and a
proposal from Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, to increase border security. When
talking about illegal immigration, Busby’s campaign uses rhetoric more often
associated with Republicans.

“Francine believes that we must take immediate action to solve the
immigration crisis,” said Busby’s communications director, Brennan Bilberry.
The Republicans running for seat include former Assemblyman Howard
Kaloogian, state Sen. Bill Morrow, businessman Alan Uke, former Congressman
Brian Bilbray and San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater Price.

Last Thursday, Arnold Schwarzenegger picked dates for the special election
to replace Cunningham in northern San Diego County district: an April 11
primary followed by a likely runoff consolidated with the June 6 statewide
primaries. Whoever is elected next year should be a reliable vote for
tighter border controls, more conservative than President Bush on the issue.

Even though multiple corruption scandals involving San Diego Republicans may
have given Busby the best chance a Democrat has had in the district in
years, she still faces an uphill climb. Some Republicans have reportedly
grumbled about the timing of the election, arguing that that rolling the
runoff into the June primaries could increase Democratic turnout. But in
2004, Cunningham buried Busby 59 percent to 37 percent.

“I don’t think it makes a difference,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman
for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Francine Busby
[received fewer votes than] John Kerry in the district.”

But even if Busby were to pull off an upset, it wouldn’t mean much in terms
of how the district’s congressional member would vote on immigration issues.
Busby’s only difference with most of her Republican opponents on immigration
might be that she supports a guest worker program, though only a very
limited one that would be suspended during times of high unemployment.

Republicans in the race seem quite comfortable with breaking with the Bush
on this issue. Several said that the president’s “guest worker” proposal
amounted to an amnesty program for illegal immigrants, something that would
be anathema to local constituents.

“Everybody [in the race] breaks with the President Bush on immigration,”
said Republican candidate Brian Bilbray. “The president has no credibility
on the immigration issue, God bless him.”

Bilbray is the candidate most identified with efforts to limit illegal
immigration. While serving in congress in the last 1990s, he pushed for a
$40,000 fine per violation on companies that hire illegal workers, ten times
the current fine and nearly twice the $25,000 called for in the House bill.
He speaks of a “culture of enforcement” that would empower police officers
to enforce immigration laws far from borders.

Any guest worker program, he said, should require workers to apply from
outside U.S. borders. It should also only be considered only in conjunction
with the Real ID bill he pushed while in Congress to limit illegal
immigrant’s ability to get driver’s licenses and bank accounts.

The reason these things aren’t happening comes down to an alliance that
ensures “cheap labor for the right and cheap votes for the left,” Bilbray
said. However, with immigration rhetoric heating up, the race for the 50th
could turn into a case of Republicans winning the battle but losing the war
in their efforts to woo Latinos.

In order to keep this from happening, the GOP needs to tell a more nuanced
story around immigration, said Hector Barajas, deputy political director of
the California Republican Party. It’s not just Mexicans taking advantage of
America’s porous borders he said, but gang members and illegal immigrants
from as far away as Russia and China. Meanwhile, 465 people died crossing
the California and Arizona borders last year, he said.

An influx of new workers has also depressed wages of American Hispanics,
Barajas said. These issues are starting to change the tide of opinion among
many Hispanics, he said, citing a Time magazine poll that showed that 61
percent of Hispanics think illegal immigration is a “serious problem”;
another poll, published in the Seattle Times, showed that a majority of
Hispanics opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

“Finding a solution to illegal immigration has nothing to do with one’s
ethnicity or race,” Barajas said. “I think a lot of Latinos also feel that
there is a limit to where the state can take more illegals.”

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