SAN DIEGO -- The race for Congress in California’s 52nd District -- pitting incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray against Democratic challenger Scott Peters -- is one of the most closely watched in the nation. And because Bilbray holds a post that gives him major influence over national immigration policy, young immigrant activists are among the people hoping to influence the outcome.
Bilbray is chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus.
In that capacity he’s been an immigration hard-liner, including opposing the DREAM Act, which would give many young undocumented students who arrived in the U.S. as children a path to citizenship.
So this election, immigration reform advocates are among the groups that have made him a target, running Spanish language radio ads in San Diego calling Bilbray’s policies discriminatory and anti-immigrant.
Neither candidate responded to multiple interview requests for this story.
Bilbray is a hardliner on immigration policy, frequently calling for more border enforcement and crackdowns on companies that employ undocumented workers. He’s said policies like the DREAM Act only encourage more illegal immigration.
Challenger Scott Peters has said he supports the DREAM Act, and has said that massive deportations are an impractical way to deal with the nation’s population of undocumented immigrants. But despite San Diego’s proximity to the border, he has been light on details about of how he would address the nation’s immigration challenges.
“Well we need a policy that is tough, fair to taxpayers, and practical. I mean, it is a problem,” Peters recently told KPBS.
Bilbray enjoys support from San Diego’s major newspaper – UT San Diego – Veterans groups, local politicians and major industrial leaders. Peters has support from labor, environmental and other progressive groups, including many immigrant rights activists.
In his bid for re-election this year, Bilbray is vying to represent a newly drawn 52nd Congressional District, which covers affluent coastal and northern San Diego communities. But this year this new district has slashed the Republican advantage that Bilbray enjoyed in his old district.
So the race against Peters, a former San Diego City Councilman and current port commissioner, is unexpectedly close. The latest polling shows each candidate with 46 percent of the vote.
That’s emboldened immigrant activists to hit the streets and the airwaves.
On a recent afternoon, about a dozen of those activists gathered outside Bilbray’s district office in Solana Beach, north of San Diego. Most were current or recently graduated undocumented students. They waved signs protesting Bilbray’s opposition to the DREAM Act.
This sort of targeted mobilization by young immigrants is happening across the U.S. this election. America’s Voice, a national immigrant rights coalition, has identified 14 Congressional races where it hopes its Spanish-language ads will help tip the scale in favor of immigrant-friendly candidates.
But Tom Wong, a UCSD political scientist, said that even if Bilbray is voted out, more immigrant-friendly policies are unlikely in the near future.
Other members of the Bilbray’s Immigration Reform Caucus are actually even more conservative, which could portent poorly for immigrant rights groups, Wong said.
“His removal may actually mean a more restrictive brand of comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
But Wong said there’s also symbolism in the DREAMers’ efforts. Incremental activism on the part of DREAM Act supporters ultimately led President Barack Obama to issue a temporary stay from deportation and work permits to many undocumented young adults this summer. If they can claim yet another victory, they might mobilize more supporters.
“And in that sense there are deeper benefits to these kinds of struggles even if there are no immediate policy payoffs,” he said.
Immigration policy payoffs this election cycle may indeed be unlikely. Even the most liberal projections predict Republicans will retain control of the House this year.