Wilson Defends Immigration Stance That Alienated Hispanic Population

By John Harwood
The Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Republicans are still apologizing to Hispanics for Pete Wilson's immigration policies. Mr. Wilson himself, however, offers no apologies.

On Friday, the GOP takes another step in its effort to erase memories of 1994, when Mr. Wilson, as governor of California, championed a ballot initiative denying state-financed benefits to illegal immigrants. President Bush will commemorate a famous Mexican military victory with a Cinco de Mayo reception at the White House. Meanwhile, GOP national Chairman Marc Racicot calls the initiative, Proposition 187, a mistake that portrayed Republicans as "not as sensitive" as they should be toward Hispanics. [[Pete Wilson]]

Yet Mr. Wilson, in his first extensive interview on the subject since going into political exile here, rejects being scapegoated by Republicans, saying many of them privately agree with him but have been "intimidated" by criticism from Democrats and the media. More than that, he sees signs the political pendulum may be swinging back toward him on the costs and benefits of controlling the U.S. border.

"I was right then," says Mr. Wilson, who was elected to two terms each as the state's governor and U.S. senator, in a three-hour interview. "I'm right now. I think time has proven me right."

Proposition 187, stymied in the courts, would have denied nonemergency public services, including education and health care, to the state's illegal immigrant population, which at the time was estimated at 1.6 million, most from Mexico. It was approved by 59% of California voters eight years ago, and would pass again in 2002, he says; strategists in both parties don't seriously dispute the contention. Meanwhile, his Democratic successor, Gov. Gray Davis, and the California legislature are struggling to balance a budget saddled with costs for illegal immigrants' education and health care that Mr. Wilson wanted the federal government to assume.

Nationally, polls have shown rising support for immigration controls since September's terrorist attacks, while a White House plan to create a Mexican "guest worker" plan is on the back burner. Republicans in the House, where the Immigration Reform Caucus has ballooned in size since Sept. 11, recently rejected Mr. Bush's proposal to restore food-stamp eligibility for legal immigrants.

Such political resistance is likely to grow "as the numbers mount and the costs mount," Mr. Wilson predicts. His former pollster, Fred Steeper, more recently an adviser to Mr. Bush, says a majority of the public "is there" to oppose taxpayer-funded services for illegal immigrants "if someone wanted to pick it up." [[Graph: How Much Damage?]]

Certainly, no one in Mr. Bush's high command wants to do so. As Texas governor, Mr. Bush opposed Proposition 187, and the "compassionate conservative" campaign he waged for the presidency in 2000 was notable for separating itself from Mr. Wilson's immigration stance. After conservative GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado publicly accused Mr. Bush of hedging on immigration policy to court Latinos, he received a blistering phone call from White House political strategist Karl Rove.

Mr. Racicot, a former Montana governor, dismisses Mr. Wilson's contention that it is common sense that California taxpayers shouldn't have to finance services for people who have entered the country illegally. "Leaders have a responsibility to make sure that they're not just right," the GOP chairman says. "They have a responsibility to make sure that they're not being opportunistic."

Republican politicians in California are taking the same tack. Polls taken during the state's recent GOP gubernatorial primary, for example, showed strong opposition to a law backed by Mr. Davis that extends in-state tuition prices to illegal immigrants attending state colleges. But the winner of that primary, conservative businessman Bill Simon, isn't stressing the issue.

Mr. Wilson says he believes Mr. Bush sincerely differed with him on Proposition 187, in part because of Texans' different experiences with Mexican immigration. But other GOP politicians "have been intimidated because they don't want to be attacked as being racist," Mr. Wilson complains, sitting in a hotel conference room in the Century City area of Los Angeles.

As Mr. Wilson speaks, Mr. Bush is headlining a fund-raiser for Mr. Simon just down the street -- to which Mr. Wilson wasn't invited. "We have to turn the page," says Simon campaign strategist Sal Russo.

It is a remarkable political fate for the man who has received more Californians' votes for major offices than any other Republican, even Ronald Reagan. Once, political analysts saw in Mr. Wilson the prototype of a "New Republican" to battle Bill Clinton's New Democrats; he was conservative on fiscal policy and crime, but supportive of environmental protection, abortion rights, gay rights and programs providing drug treatment and prenatal care for the poor.

In a bitter irony, it was Mr. Wilson's successful 1994 campaign for re-election as governor that changed all that. Scrambling to head off a strong challenge from Democrat Kathleen Brown, Mr. Wilson embraced Proposition 187 at a time of public disaffection with the costs of illegal immigration. After winning comfortably that November, Mr. Wilson embarked on a bid for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination.

But his campaign fizzled, in large part as a result of a throat ailment that prevented him from speaking for weeks. The stumbles of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution in Washington would mute GOP support for tougher immigration policies as well.

Mr. Wilson became the target of intense criticism from Spanish-language media commentators nationally, some of whom sought to demonstrate that politicians displaying what they considered hostility to Latinos would pay a steep price. "I think we succeeded," says Peruvian-born political analyst Sergio Bendixen. Even now, Mr. Bendixen says, his own polling shows that Mr. Wilson's name is recognized -- and disliked -- by half of all U.S. Hispanics.

The Democratic Party, for its part, doesn't want swing voters to forget Mr. Wilson. Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe says Mr. Bush hasn't backed his friendly rhetoric toward Hispanics with supportive social policies, which means "his deeds are no different from Pete Wilson's."

Mr. Wilson says partisan critics willfully ignore his longstanding support for legal immigration, in contrast to the illegal immigration targeted by Proposition 187. Democrats, he complains, whisper that their barbs are "not personal. ... Like the Mafia: No hard feelings, pal."

No Republican has won California in a major election since 1994. But Mr. Wilson insists Proposition 187's contribution to that record has been exaggerated. The GOP's unflinching opposition to abortion rights, he argues, is a bigger obstacle to Republican success than his immigration policies. Yet there is no denying he has been consigned to the political wilderness. Mr. Bush appointed him to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a group of outside advisers that reviews intelligence policies, but not a cabinet post. Graying but still youthful at 68 years old, the ex-governor serves on corporate boards and as a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "I'd be lying to you if I told you I didn't miss the old job" as governor.

He recalls, for example, how he enjoyed reaching out to Latinos on special occasions such as Cinco de Mayo, just as Mr. Bush will on Friday. "The first person I know who used the tag 'compassionate conservative,' " Mr. Wilson points out, "was me."