SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A few weeks ago, California Latinos had little to fight for. Now they’ve got something to fight against — Arizona’s illegal immigrant law.
The tough law next door in Arizona is sending protesters to the streets, while emboldening conservatives who feel illegal immigration has gone too far.
Both wonder if California may be next to crack down, a powerful political question in an election year where the governor’s seat is up for grabs and Democratic U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer is facing her toughest re-election fight.
It is also a major social question in California, which has more people than any other U.S. state, as well as the largest number of Latinos. More than a third of the population is Hispanic and a quarter of the country’s 10.8 million illegal immigrants are here. Many work in restaurants, agriculture and construction — after crossing the Arizona desert, the busiest corridor for illegal entry to the United States.
California’s undocumented immigrants have seen some doors close to them as employers fear they will be fined for hiring illegal labor. But many thrive, own homes and send their children to school with little fear of deportation.
Police in Arizona will now be required to determine if people are in the country illegally if there is “reasonable suspicion” that is the case. Critics see a recipe for racial profiling.
“It seems to be a wake-up call for lots of people who weren’t planning to get involved this time around,” said Jose Rodriguez, director of El Concilio community center in agricultural Stockton, California, referring to elections.
A few weeks ago young Latinos were apathetic, focused only on jobs. Now a big group see risks for themselves.
“It is a large number of young people, those under 30, who speak English but realize that it doesn’t matter that they speak English. It has to do with the color of their skin,” Rodriguez said.
California could copy the Arizona law, said Letzule Campos, 26, who has lived 13 years illegally in the United States and says the state depends on people like her.
“An American isn’t going to clean the floors,” Campos said in Spanish. She said she would join a May Day march on Saturday to urge President Barack Obama to act on immigration reform.
“He promised (reform) and so a lot of Latinos voted for him,” said Campos, who as an illegal immigrant did not vote.
Conservatives are excited as well. Although California has a reputation as a liberal state, California banned gay marriage in 2008, and illegal immigration is a big concern especially in border counties.
The Arizona law is “a fantastic starting point,” U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter told a rally the day after the signing of the Arizona law.
The Republican from San Diego County did not stop there, adding “Would I support the deportation of natural-born U.S. citizens who are the kids of illegal aliens? I would have to, yes,” he said. An aide said Hunter meant that children of illegal immigrants who are U.S. citizens should be kept with their deported parents.
It is still unclear how big of a role the immigration issue will play in the November elections and many politicians say Californians, like citizens in many states, are focused on the economy and the lack of jobs in the nascent recovery.
The front-runners in the governor’s race have not made immigration a top priority. Despite fundamental differences on the issue, both Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman say the federal government needs to act.
Local politicians are stirring things up, though.
San Francisco and Los Angeles are both considering boycotting Arizona and Janice Hahn, the Los Angeles councilwoman behind the boycott move, is running for lieutenant governor and sees immigration “absolutely” motivating voters.
The issue could become a big one if either side gambles that it will turn on their base and thereby turn off independents, said Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
Marches across the state on Saturday will show whether Latinos are energized. The standard will be the rallies in March 2006, when some 500,000 people took over downtown Los Angeles to oppose a tough federal bill that later failed.
“If I have time, I will march,” said Jose Serda, a 60-year-old janitor who is here illegally.
His conflict? He has to work.
Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; editing by Mary Milliken and Mohammad Zargham