Democrats play cynical game on immigration

Poet Khalil Gibran wrote that ???The real test of good manners is to be able to put up with bad manners pleasantly.??? And so on Monday, Senate Republicans stoically endured one of the rudest and most gratuitous floor debates this year, as Democrats brought up a resolution dealing with a long-dead statewide initiative.

Senate Resolution 51, which passed on a 24-7 party line vote, marked the 20th anniversary of Proposition 187???s qualification for the ballot ???as a day to celebrate California???s diversity and a united future.??? Really, it turned into a chance for the Democratic leadership to unleash politically tinged rhetoric under the guise of a state proclamation.

Proposition 187, which would have denied public education and other social services to unauthorized immigrants, now is widely viewed as an unnecessarily divisive measure that made all immigrants ??? here legally or otherwise ??? feel singled out. I often criticized it because it created a situation where people had to ???show their papers.??? No doubt, some Republicans have had problems appealing to Latino voters because of support for 187.

But federal courts quashed the measure and Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 refused to challenge the courts. It???s not in effect and has zero chance of being revived in any way. Yet Democratic senators ??? including those who often prattle about civility and ethnic harmony ??? decided to rehash that ugly, old debate for no practical purpose.

Well, Republicans spied a cynical reason. They see it as something Democrats can use to stir up base voters as we head toward the November elections ??? elections that could bring some gains for the GOP. That strategy, they say, was designed when it looked like Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a vocal foe of unauthorized immigration, would be the GOP nominee. But Donnelly didn???t make the runoff and the Republican candidate, Neel Kashkari, is the son of Indian immigrants.

Originally, SR 51 included this language: ???That, after 20 years, the Legislature expressly acknowledges the harm caused to Californians through passage of the discriminatory and xenophobic Proposition 187 and its corresponding campaign. Its passage marked a reprehensible period for California ??? .???

In the final version, some of those words were removed (such as ???discriminatory and xenophobic??? and ???reprehensible???), but it still compares the 1994 measure to the Chinese Exclusion Act and to past racial segregation. ???Proposition 187 is the most recent modern example of California???s troubled relationship with minorities and immigrants,??? the measure explains.

SR 51 also takes a highly unusual step. It personally criticizes former Gov. Pete Wilson, who backed Prop. 187, for ???pursuing a scathing campaign against undocumented parents and their children.??? That didn???t sit well with Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Solana Beach. He pointed to the real problems affecting many of the state???s immigrants ??? a high unemployment rate and ill-performing schools. ???Those are the problems we ought to be looking at, not a divisive measure that attacks a man who did a lot for this state.??? Sen. Jim Nielson, R-Gerber, also took umbrage at the attack on Wilson.

???I did not attack your governor,??? shot back Los Angeles Democrat Ricardo Lara, SR 51???s sponsor. ???I actually thanked him. I thanked him for allowing me to become a politically conscious individual.??? He said he resented Wyland???s use of the term, minorities: ???I may be underrepresented. I may have been marginalized because of the color of my skin or because of my last name, but I am not a minority. I am not minor to anyone.???

The rhetoric certainly got a bit heated, and toward what policy goal? For good or ill, the original Proposition 187 debate was about a significant policy matter. SR 51 does nothing of substance. It was a pointless political poke in the eye, which is why some GOP staffers were still angry about it days after it passed.

Soon after SR 51 was approved, senators moved onto a discussion about a water bond, in which Democrats needed some GOP support. None of it was forthcoming. It probably wasn???t related SR 51, but the unpleasant aftertaste couldn???t have helped. Proposition 187???s foes should read their own Senate resolution: Nothing good comes out of scapegoating people.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at