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Ruben Navarrette: Larry Elder is wrong on immigration
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Ruben Navarrette: Larry Elder is wrong on immigration

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SAN DIEGO — As a Mexican American from the farmland of Central California, I was raised on Merle Haggard, gun racks and biscuits smothered in gravy. The Democratic Party and its wholly owned subsidiary, the liberal media, don’t know it, but this deep blue state is home to a good many conservative Latinos.

Larry Elder and I agree on nine out of 10 issues. The 10th is immigration. There, Elder is wrong six ways from Sunday.

So, when I spoke recently to my friend of nearly three decades — who is now the leading Republican option to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in the Sept. 14 recall election — guess what I wanted to talk about.

As many Californians have now figured out, Elder is scary smart. You have to be to go from Crenshaw High School in the inner city of Los Angeles to Brown University and the University of Michigan Law School.

Yet, when the subject turns to immigration, Elder’s brain gets commandeered by politics and a desire to please the nativist white base of the minuscule California GOP. And he says things that are dumb.

For instance, when he talks about eliminating birthright citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, or denying education and hospital care to the undocumented, or making local cops hand over undocumented motorists to federal immigration agents, it makes me wonder if my friend was absent the day they taught “law” in law school.

But we agree that immigrants are a net benefit. That is evident in California, which is estimated to be home to the largest number of immigrants in the country — both legal and illegal.

One time, Elder told me that he came home to find his housekeeper on her hands and knees cleaning the carpet with a portable car vacuum, because she couldn’t find anything else. Shocked, he helped the woman up.

What struck my friend — who made clear to me that the housekeeper was in the country legally — was how hard the woman was willing to work.

I’m not surprised. Hard work is sacred to Latinos. It’s one of the reasons that many non-Latinos are afraid to compete with us.

Hard work was also sacred in the Elder household, where Larry’s father, Randolph, preached this gospel to his children.

I wonder if Elder realizes that Latino immigrants — including those without documents — are his simpaticos. He might. His campaign recently put out Spanish-language radio ads.

“Hard work wins,” I said. “That’s the Elder family slogan, right? Well, brother, no one understands work, and the value of hard work, more than immigrants, and that includes illegal immigrants. Why attack them?”

“Well, that’s right,” Elder responded. “Look, I’ve often said, if I were someone living in Mexico and I have a family and I care about my family, I absolutely understand why some people would try to come here illegally. I totally get it. There is no point in demonizing these people. But we are a nation of laws, and we do need to be able to know who is in the country.”

In 1994, Elder opposed Proposition 187, which I describe as an “evil” ballot initiative that sought to deny benefits to undocumented immigrants.

“You call it evil,” he said. “I’d call it ill-advised. I voted against it because the Supreme Court had already ruled (in the 1982 case, Plyler v Doe) that it is unconstitutional to inquire about a child’s immigration status in public school. And I knew that if Prop. 187 got passed, it would be challenged, and the courts were going to throw it out. And that’s just what happened. So I thought it was going to be a big fat waste of time.”

The Larry Elder I used to know, and liked, would scold callers to his radio show when they griped that undocumented immigrants were taking American jobs — jobs those callers didn’t want anyway.

“Brother,” I asked. “What happened to that Larry Elder?”

“Well, that Larry Elder is still right here,” he snapped. “My dad came here (to California) without two nickels to rub together, with an eighth grade dropout education. I think I’m more relatable than most Republicans have been in the past. The Republican Party is going to get a fresh image, and I’m going to be the face of that fresh image.”

Recent polls show that Latinos are rallying around Newsom, and the media is primed to tell the story of how that neglected constituency rescued a Democratic governor who only recently discovered they exist.

You see, in California, the GOP isn’t the only party that needs freshening up.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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