After saying all spring that she opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman tried to neutralize the immigration issue in the general election by arguing in an op-ed published Wednesday that she and Democratic rival Jerry Brown have virtually the same positions on the issue.
The two candidates, however, disagree on a key component of the immigration debate: Brown supports offering permanent residency and citizenship to illegal immigrants while Whitman proposes only a guest worker program without a path to citizenship.
Whitman argued her case in a piece published by Eastern Group Publications, which owns 11 bilingual English-Spanish newspapers in Southern California. In recent weeks, Whitman has run Spanish-language TV ads highlighting her opposition to legislation such as 1994's Proposition 187 and a recent Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants.
Whitman took her rhetoric a step farther in Wednesday's piece, writing, "Clearly, when examining our positions on immigration, there is very little over which Jerry Brown and I disagree. Latinos seeking a candidate who supports amnesty for illegal immigrants won't find one on the gubernatorial ballot this year."
Whitman then argues, "I believe that the real choice for Latinos in this election is over which candidate is going to be better at creating jobs and fixing our education system. And on these issues, Jerry Brown and I could not be more different."
With Republicans making up less than a third of registered state voters, Whitman must win at least a third of the Latino vote to come out ahead of Brown, analysts say.
Whitman had hit hard against illegal immigrants in her primary contest against rival Steve Poizner and potentially alienated Latino voters. She had repeatedly pledged, "I am 100 percent against amnesty" and recruited campaign chairman, former Gov. Pete Wilson, to vouch for her anti-illegal immigrant credentials.
"She's now attempting to discount the very spectacles she created in the primary election as being not what she said or what she did," said Corey Cook, an assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. "It's not subtle."
Whitman's op-ed piece glossed over the key differences between her and Brown on immigration.
Brown supports immigration reform proposals such as those offered by former President George W. Bush that would let illegal immigrants become U.S. citizens after paying a fine and learning English.
In March, Brown told The Bee, "We need immigration reform. I would certainly support that. George Bush tried to do it, was stymied. Obama would like to do that. I would make that a very important priority, getting immigration reform, a path to citizenship and regularizing this movement of people."
Brown and Whitman also diverge on offering public benefits to illegal immigrants, with Whitman proposing barring such immigrants from attending public colleges and universities and Brown opposing cutting public services to illegal immigrants.
"To suggest that Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown are the same on immigration is false on her part," said Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford. "A pathway to normalized status or a pathway to citizenship is something Jerry supports and Meg Whitman has said explicitly that she doesn't."
Whitman spokesman Hector Barajas defended the op-ed's claim that neither Brown nor Whitman supported "amnesty" because, he said, the term meant legalizing illegal immigrants without charging them a fine or imposing other requirements. Clifford said Whitman's campaign was trying to confuse the issue.
Barajas also argued that citizenship was only one of many immigration issues important to Californians. Both candidates, Barajas noted, oppose letting illegal immigrants receive driver licenses and do not support Proposition 187 and an Arizona law that requires police to check the legal status of people they've already stopped who they suspect are in the country illegally.
"When you start talking about driver licenses, employer sanctions and sanctuary cities, there are big similarities," Barajas said. "Immigration is not a single-item issue."
He added, "We have been clear from day one on our position on immigration, and there is nothing we've been hiding."
PHOTO CREDIT: Frame grab from a Meg Whitman TV ad aimed at Latino voters. YouTube.