Election 2006 may go into the books in California as the Year of the Illegal Immigrant—at least in contests for Congress and the state Legislature.
Immigration is hardly a new controversy in the Golden State, but it has rocketed to the top of voter agendas and, inevitably, to the front pages of campaign playbooks, including several here in San Diego County.
This prominence is driven by several forces, including the ongoing debate in Washington over competing House and Senate immigration bills and President Bush’s efforts to finesse an issue that puts him at odds with the more conservative elements of his own party.
And it has been supercharged by pro-immigrant rallies that drew hundreds of thousands of people this year to the streets of San Diego, Los Angeles and other cities in California and across the nation.
This flexing of raw political might “really made an impression on voters, that this is a really big issue that needs to be addressed,” said Mark Baldassare, research director for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, based in San Francisco.
Immigration is a central issue in the contest to replace disgraced former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in San Diego County’s 50th Congressional District, and it is a hot-button topic among Republicans in two Assembly district races in North and East County.
Not so in the 50th Congressional District.
The former occupant of that seat, Vietnam war ace Cunningham, now sits in a federal prison after admitting that he took more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors.
The highly partisan debate between the leading candidates in the contest to replace him—Democrat Francine Busby, a Cardiff school trustee, and Republican Brian Bilbray, a congressman-turned-lobbyist—mirrors the larger national debate in Washington.
Busby supports the Senate immigration bill backed by Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, which includes a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who meet multiple tests, including securing visas, learning English, paying fines and undergoing background checks.
Bilbray supports the House bill, which focuses on criminal enforcement, and has criticized the Senate bill as providing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, which McCain disputes.
These differences led to an embarrassing cancellation Tuesday with McCain dropping out of a scheduled Bilbray fundraiser. McCain’s office said the visit was scrubbed “to avoid distracting from the overall message of the Bilbray campaign.”
Many analysts agree that the House and Senate bills trot out well-worn “solutions” that have been attempted, with mixed results, over the decades.
If an election can turn on a sentence, this could be the one: “You don’t need papers for voting.”
On Thursday night, Francine Busby, the Democratic candidate for the 50th Congressional District, was speaking before a largely Latino crowd in Escondido when she uttered those words. She said yesterday she simply misspoke.
But someone taped it and a recording began circulating yesterday. After she made that statement at the meeting, Busby immediately said: “You don’t need to be a registered voter to help (the campaign).”
She said that subsequent statement was to clarify what she meant.
The recording, which was played yesterday on Roger Hedgecock’s radio talk show, jolted the campaign.
Busby, a Cardiff school board member, is in a tight race with Republican Brian Bilbray, a congressman-turned-lobbyist, who has based his campaign on a tough anti-illegal-immigration stance. Busby has focused her campaign on ethics reform. The two are vying to replace Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was jailed after pleading guilty to taking bribes.
Busby said she was invited to the forum at the Jocelyn Senior Center in Escondido by the leader of a local soccer league. Many of the 50 or so people there were Spanish speakers. Toward the end, a man in the audience asked in Spanish: “I want to help, but I don’t have papers.”
It was translated and Busby replied: “Everybody can help, yeah, absolutely, you can all help. You don’t need papers for voting, you don’t need to be a registered voter to help.”
Bilbray said at worst, Busby was encouraging someone to vote illegally. At best, she was encouraging someone who is illegally in the country to work on her campaign.
“She’s soliciting illegal aliens to campaign for her and it’s on tape—this isn’t exactly what you call the pinnacle of ethical campaign strategy,” Bilbray said. “I don’t know how she shows her face.”