Illegal immigration has surfaced as an early and potent issue in the Republican primary for Oregon governor, with the three major candidates talking tough on how to combat what they say is an unfair strain on expensive state services.
“I will support a zero tolerance policy for illegal immigrants,” candidate Ron Saxton says in a video clip attached to his campaign Web site and e-mailed to thousands of Republican voters. Saxton also began airing a radio ad last week lamenting that “illegal aliens cost Oregon taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”
When state Sen. Jason Atkinson declared his candidacy late last month, he listed “control of illegal immigrants” as one of his top issues and said he wants to prevent them from getting driver’s licenses and voter registration cards.
Not to be outdone, frontrunner Kevin Mannix helped craft a resolution calling on Oregon to bar illegal residents from getting tax-paid benefits. The resolution, approved by the state Republican Central Committee last week, also calls for one year of “legal Oregon residency” for anyone to qualify for tax-paid assistance.
So what has made illegal immigration—a nonfactor in 2002—a hot-button topic this time? Growing public unease about undocumented residents’ access to health care, schools and other services has pushed the issue beyond the realm of conservative talk radio and into the mainstream.
“It’s not just tub-thumping righties,” says Tim Hibbitts, partner in an independent Portland political polling firm. “Many voters just don’t like the idea that people are in this country illegally.”
Saxton, a Portland lawyer, says he’s hitting the issue hard because Oregonians are starting to see the effect of years of lax enforcement of immigration laws. He noted the $172 million shortfall in the state Department of Human Services budget as one indication of the burden illegal immigrants put on the state.
ST. PAUL, MINN.—Gov. Tim Pawlenty is descended from Polish immigrants and has been known to throw around pretend-Polish words like “squatski” (as in: What has the Legislature accomplished?). But lately he has been talking a lot about the Mexican border, more than 1,500 miles from snowy St. Paul.
His administration issued a report in December estimating that as many as 85,000 illegal immigrants live in Minnesota, at a cost to taxpayers of up to $188 million a year.
Democrats and other critics questioned the Republican governor’s numbers and his motives. But that hasn’t stopped Pawlenty from making immigration a top issue as he seeks re-election.
GOP gubernatorial candidates such as Jim Oberweis in Illinois, Bob Beauprez in Colorado and Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey in Massachusetts have been staking out hard-line positions on illegal immigration. And Democratic Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, facing criticism on immigration in her own re-election bid, is pushing a $100 million border security plan.
Campaign experts say looking tough on illegal immigration can bring in both conservative and working-class votes. But the strategy has brought withering criticism from people who work with immigrants.