Political Notebook

State Republican Party votes to alter its immigration plank

Fresno Republican Marcelino Valdez
Fresno Republican Marcelino Valdez

California Republicans voted to alter the language of the party’s immigration plank in the state GOP platform at their state convention this past weekend.

The party’s registration numbers have plummeted over the past two decades, and one of the major reasons has been its alienation of Latino voters. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has exacerbated that with some pointed comments about Mexican immigrants.

Changes approved by delegates are an effort to get the party’s message across in a less strident way.

Gone is the term “illegal alien.” Gone are passages in the old plank such as “new immigrants should be required to learn English, and businesses should be able to require employees to speak the English language while on the job.”

In their place is more nuanced language in a document that still says much of the same things, but in a nicer way.

On learning English, for instance, the new wording says “learning English is a vital part of life in the United States. Therefore, fluency in English must be the goal of California’s education programs.”

The driving force behind the changes was Marcelino Valdez, a Fresno Republican and the state GOP’s Central Valley vice chair.

Valdez said his goal was to craft an immigration plank that “still shows we’re conservative, yet is written in a way that is sensitive to how it is perceived.” The old immigration language, he said, “reads like Sheriff Arpaio wrote it.” Valdez is referring to Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff accused of, among other things, unlawfully enforcing immigration laws.

The amazing part of Valdez’s effort is how it ended. He went into the convention hoping to squeeze the proposed changes through the state GOP’s platform committee, and if that was successful, taking it before general assembly on Sunday morning with fingers crossed.

Instead, the proposals passed out of the platform committee with around 75 percent approval, and then the general assembly with around 90 percent saying “aye.”

The keys to the late surge, Valdez said, were 11th-hour compromises to some of the language. Those changes won late support from Fresno City Council Member Steve Brandau, one of the leaders of the Central Valley Tea Party, and Randall Jordan, who heads the Tea Party California Caucus.

In a Facebook posting, the Tea Party California Caucus said the state GOP didn’t soften its immigration stance, but said the new language “is a cleaner stand that directly challenges the Democrats on their lies about Republican immigration policies — all without selling out our principles.”

The old document, for instance, made no reference to Democrats. The new one says the current immigration “problem is exacerbated by the failure of elected Democrats to negotiate in good faith to fix our broken immigration system.”

Valdez began his effort in early August. He says many calls to key Republicans went unreturned. Those that did were reluctant to change the immigration wording. Some were hostile.

“Let’s be honest, this is a very divisive issues for Republicans,” Valdez said.

But some did listen. Among them were Michael Der Manouel Jr., chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, Assembly Member Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, and Brandau.

Valdez sought their input, and incorporated their suggestions. He consulted an immigration attorney. He went through draft after draft after feedback from Der Manouel, Brandau, Grove and others.

Out of that came one of the key passages in the new plank, and the one that comes the closest to the often-strident language of the old plank: “We will not support a policy that grants amnesty. Amnesty only rewards and encourages more law breaking.”

It is a core principle for Republicans, and likely the new plank would have faced a hard road to passage without such a straightforward declaration.

By the time of the convention, Valdez estimates the document had been through 14 drafts. It would go through another four at the convention.

Still, not everyone is happy. Some conservatives call the new plank a sellout. Conservative activist Stephen Frank lambasted the changes in an editorial on his web site.

But Brandau defended the changes.

“I think it was just about as good as could happen given the circumstances in California right now in the Republican Party,” he said. “We are not afraid of immigrants, but we want them to become Americans.”

The message is still the same, Brandau said. The language just isn’t as rude.