10:00 PM PST on Friday, January 28, 2011

By BEN GOAD
Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – As the GOP looks to improve the party’s image among the nation’s burgeoning Hispanic community, area House Republicans are pressing forward with legislation meant to fight illegal immigration.

Democrats and pro-immigration advocates predict that such tactics could amount to political suicide in advance of the 2012 elections, especially in heavily Latino Inland Southern California. But Reps. Gary Miller, Ken Calvert and others say they are trying to crack down on law-breakers in general, not the Hispanic community in particular.

“The laws of this country were designed to apply to people equally,” said Miller, R-Diamond Bar. “Never once have we discriminated against any one given race of people. If you are here from Germany illegally or Ireland illegally … I got no problem sending you home.”

Republican bills introduced this year include measures to end birthright citizenship for children born to illegal immigrants; to make it mandatory for all companies to use an electronic employment verification system to ensure their workers’ legal status; and to build 20 new federal detention centers for illegal immigrants.

“We think they’re targeting Latinos,” said Raul Gonzalez, legislative director for the pro-Hispanic National Council of La Raza.

Gonzalez suggested that much of the legislation and anti-illegal immigration rhetoric espoused by Republicans over the past election cycle was meant to rally the conservative base. But in the long term, he said, it could backfire as Latinos represent an increasingly large part of the citizenry.

Hispanic people make up nearly 16 percent of the U.S. population and were credited with playing a large role in the 2008 presidential election.

Political peril seen

In the days after Republicans seized control of the House in a landslide November election victory, Inland Democrat Joe Baca predicted Republicans would tone down their opposition to illegal immigration.

“They know we’re a large electoral vote, so their attitudes may change,” said Baca, D-Rialto, who is of Hispanic descent. “They can’t afford to alienate more of the Latino vote.”

For that very reason, a group of Republican leaders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, called upon the party to reach out to the Latino community during a GOP conference earlier this month.

“It is important to realize that the Hispanic population, which is the fastest-growing population in the country, will also eventually be the fastest-growing population of voters,” Bush said. “… It would be incredibly stupid over the long haul to ignore the Hispanic vote.”

Miller and Calvert, R-Corona, both staunch opponents of legislation to legalize undocumented immigrants, agreed that it is important to engage the Hispanic community but said many Latino voters back their efforts to curtail illegal immigration.

“I’ve always had a large Hispanic community,” Calvert said of his district, which includes Riverside, Corona and Norco. “I’ve had support in the Hispanic community as long as I’ve run.”

E-VERIFY

Calvert has long championed legislation to expand the use of E-Verify, an automated system that allows employers check worker eligibility status in order to keep illegal immigrants out of American jobs.

Some companies already use the system, but Calvert is working on a bill with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, that would make the program mandatory for all employers.

Undocumented workers who are willing to accept lower wages bring down the cost of labor, hurting both the economy and the nation’s lingering unemployment crisis, Calvert said. He expects the bill to be introduced by spring.

Some immigration advocates oppose the legislation, pointing to instances where it has incorrectly denied people who should have been granted approval to work. Gonzales, of La Raza, acknowledged that the E-Verify plan resonates with the public, but said imperfections in the system make it a bad fix.

“The system has problems with mismatches,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t think it’s a good solution.”

Calvert scoffed at the argument, citing figures showing the system is more than 99 percent effective and challenging critics to name another government program that successful.

The bill passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate. Calvert said he is confident it will pass in the current Congress.

Birthright citizenship

Perhaps more controversial is Miller’s quest to end birthright citizenship, a constitutional right that any child born in the U.S. becomes a citizen, whether their parents are in the country legally or not. Once they turn 21, those children can petition the government for citizenship or legal resident status for their undocumented relatives.

Miller said the law has given way to what some call the “birth tourism” industry, which arranges the travel and hospitalization of non-Americans who wish to have their babies on U.S. soil for the purpose of acquiring citizenship for them.

He said much of the business comes from non-Hispanic countries, including Saudi Arabia and Korea, to emphasize that the law is not intended to target Latinos.

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