- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

By all accounts, Republicans should be riding high. Elections in Iraq were so successful that even CBS and The New York Times was obliged to congratulate the Iraqi people, albeit grudgingly; President Bush’s State of the Union address was both well-written and well-received; and the Democrats are about to elect Howard Dean to chair the DNC.

But there is one issue that could cloud the Republican Party’s future: illegal immigration. It has the power to split the party ideologically, geographically and by socio-economic status. All Republicans understand that if it’s mishandled, it could alienate more than a generation of Latinos. But there’s another side to the equation that eastern Republican elites ignore: The party’s approach to illegal immigration could likewise alienate everyday, hard-working, taxpaying Republicans in the Southwest.

Take California. Certainly, at the root of its problems is a far-left, profligate state legislature dominated by Democrats; their leaders include ignoble politicians like recalled Gov. Gray Davis, inept Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and corrupt Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (who recently resigned amid burgeoning scandals).

But California Republicans’ impatience with their ideological adversaries is now compounded by increasing disillusionment with those in their own party. Indeed, many Republicans nationally — especially those based on the East Coast — seem willing to tolerate illegal immigration because of its benefits to corporate America and the economy generally. The problem is that few of those same Republicans bear illegal immigration’s costs.

According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, illegal immigrants impose a net cost on California taxpayers of a whopping $9 billion per year in education, medical care and incarceration costs. And the spillover affects of dramatic population increase — one million in Southern California just between 2000 and 2003 — combined with governmental complacency on the topic have begun to elicit real anger among otherwise loyal Republicans.

The recently released Seventh Annual State of the Region report, by the Southern California Association of Governments, graded the quality of life in this once-golden territory as a D-plus. Longtime Californians look in bewildered amazement at the exploding traffic volume, overcrowded schools, hospitals, and prisons — and sense something is badly amiss.

The fact of illegal immigration — with Mexican families trying to head north by foot — is recognized by the state of California; signs along the highway from San Diego to Los Angeles warn drivers against hitting pedestrians who might be running across the highway. Worse yet, the lawlessness seems to be officially condoned; there was no notable U.S. response to the news that Mexico was actually publishing brochures instructing its citizens about the safest and most effective ways to cross the border illegally.

President Bush and the national Republican Party need to understand the depth of the rage brewing in California. It’s not irrational anti-immigrant bigotry — at its best, California’s great mix of ethnicities exemplifies the American melting pot. And the state has long been a land of opportunity for anyone with the heart and the will legally to cross the mountains from the east or the border from the south. But increasingly, the legal citizens of California — as embracing and welcoming as they are — have become convinced that the status quo cannot be sustained. Indeed, even legal immigrants are increasingly prone to resent those who “jump line” to enter the country illegally, thereby extending the wait that their relatives abroad must endure to enter the country in conformity with the law.

If Republicans are planning on long-term national success, it is time to stop ignoring the illegal-immigration debacle, and condescending to those who object to it. Many western Republicans will resist any immigration “reform” unless they are assured that a commitment to strict enforcement of existing immigration laws will accompany it. And a disturbing number of them appear to be ready to become single-issue voters on the immigration topic alone.

The fury is real, and it is not transient. It’s a sentiment that national Republicans will ignore at their peril.

Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political analyst and commentator based near Los Angeles. She also is a guest host on KABC radio.

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