Immigration not an issue in this year’s election

By Ben Fox Associated Press Writer
Monday November 06, 2000

TIERRA DEL SOL – Bob Maupin carries a gun and sometimes drives an Army surplus halftrack as he guards his family’s 250-acre ranch along the U.S.-Mexico border from what he calls an invasion of illegal immigrants from the south. 

But the 61-year-old Maupin admits that few candidates share his concern this year. 

“They aren’t saying anything about immigration, which is very frustrating,” Maupin said. 

It’s a stark contrast from the mid-1990s. Back then, politicians routinely held news conferences on the border, jockeying to outdo the other in opposition to illegal immigration. 

But not this year. Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate for president, planned a photo-op with Maupin and his halftrack, but then canceled at the last minute because of what his staff said was a scheduling conflict. The others have avoided the area and the issue. 

Fewer illegal immigrants may be crossing into California, and political candidates and analysts say the issue doesn’t resonate with voters like it once did. 

“It’s not such an in-your-face problem,” said Rep. Brian Bilbray, a Republican whose San Diego-area district includes a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Bilbray, who is in a tight race with Democratic state Assemblywoman Susan Davis, said some constituents and Border Patrol agents in his district have opposed a proposal to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States since before 1986. 

But the congressman isn’t hearing much more, largely because a U.S. border crackdown, known as Operation Gatekeeper, has pushed migrants away from San Diego to the mountains east of the city, where Maupin lives, and to the desert of Imperial County. 

A few weeks before Gatekeeper started in 1994, voters in California adopted Proposition 187, the ballot initiative that sought to bar most state services to illegal immigrants. Then Gov. Pete Wilson made the issue a central theme of his successful re-election campaign in the same year. 

But analysts agree that the political climate is different this year. Unemployment was 8.6 percent in California in 1994; today it’s 4.8 percent. 

“The economy is good and that papers over a lot of the problems caused by immigration,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates reducing the legal and illegal immigrants who enter the United States. 

It’s not just California, but much of the nation that has lost interest in the debate, said Demetrios Papademetriou, a specialist in the issue with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.  

“We’re just too self satisfied at this time,” Papademetriou said. “The major party candidates aren’t stupid. They realize this.” 

Hispanic voters now make up about 15 percent of the California electorate (compared with 10 percent in 1990) and candidates don’t want to alienate them by harsh words about immigration, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll. 

“It’s a divisive issue. The candidates don’t want to talk about it,” he said. 

California is home to more legal immigrants than any other state, 3.7 million lawful permanent residents or 35 percent of the nation’s total. In the 12 months that ended Oct. 30, the Border Patrol caught 389,427 illegal immigrants along the state’s 140-mile border with Mexico, compared with 477,806 during the same period six years earlier. 

But those arrests shifted eastward. The apprehensions around San Diego fell 66 percent to their lowest level in years, while there was an eight-fold increase in the Border Patrol sector to the east. Some of the traffic moved to Arizona, where illegal immigration has remained a political issue. 

Maupin says he sees them cross near his ranch in the mountain community of Tierra del Sol, about 70 miles east of San Diego. 

“They’re not as blatant about it as they used to be, but we see groups of 30 and 40 getting ready to come across,” Maupin said. “The invasion is still going on.” 

He and friends have detained groups of immigrants at gunpoint until U.S. authorities arrive.  

Chuck Dierkop, the agent in charge of the local Border Patrol station, said he’s asked Maupin not to take the law into his own hands and to call if he sees any illegal activity in the future. 

As for politics, Maupin said he likes Buchanan’s anti-immigration stance, but plans to vote for George W. Bush because he’s more likely to win and he hopes candidates will come around again to the issue.  

“The public is not aware of it because it’s coming through their yard,” he said.”