Most of the coverage of yesterday's debate in Fresno between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown has focused on Whitman's false accusation that Brown was somehow involved in the housekeeper scandal. But there was a far more meaningful moment later on, pertaining to immigration, that showed a huge contrast between the candidates and the cruelty of Whitman's approach. If it gets the attention it deserves, it might even cost Whitman the election.The exchange in question came when Univision went to an audience member to ask about the DREAM Act. She was a student who graduated first in her class in high school and is now an honors student at Fresno State, triple majoring! in poli sci, Spanish, and Latin American Studies. As a former college professor myself, I can tell you that these are the students you dream about having in class, the ones that make teaching worthwhile.
She explained that she was brought to California by her parents at a young age - in other words, that she was undocumented. (Which is probably why she did not give her name.) Her question was whether the candidates supported the DREAM Act, to let students like her get an education and, I'm paraphrasing, "contribute to the economy here."
Brown's response was direct and solid: he supports the federal DREAM Act, would sign the California DREAM Act, and believes it is our moral obligation to ensure that all our children, whether undocumented or not, got the opportunity to succeed, including getting a good education in California public schools, UC and CSU included.
But it was Whitman's shocking response that, as far as I am concerned, ought to be a game-changer in this election. Here's how Calbuzz quoted Whitman:
Here is the challenge we face: Our resources are scarce. We are in terrible economic times and slots have been eliminated at the California State University system - I think they're down by 40,000 students. Same is true at the ... the University of California system. Programs have been cut, and California citizens have been denied admission to these universities and I don't think it's fair to bar and eliminate the ability of California citizens to attend higher universities and favor undocumenteds.
Calbuzz omitted the first part of Whitman's response, which was a very condescending "I'm glad you were able to get a good, free education in California's K-12 public schools," but the blockquote gives you the gist: Whitman attacked this successful young student, saying she shouldn't even be allowed to attend Fresno State, and accusing her of taking someone else's place. In other words, it's this young woman's fault that some other Californian can't attend a CSU.
My jaw just about hit the floor when I heard Whitman say this. And I have to imagine everyone in the audience and watching at home had a similar reaction.
Every parent - whether Latino or not, whether documented or not - dreams of their child having the kind of success that this young woman is having. And when they watched Meg Whitman belittle and attack this woman for her success, saying that it was not only undeserved but that it was hurting others, their only reaction would be negative. Whitman's attack on Brown over the housekeeper issue may have been entertaining television, but it was Whitman's attack on one of California's best and brightest that will cost her a lot of votes.
That exchange was also revealing in how the two candidates treat the issue of immigration. Brown was very strong and clear that he did not support - at all - any form of immigrant-bashing. He didn't justify this by pointing to the economic contributions of immigrants, but by speaking a very clear and compelling moral language about our obligations and duties to our fellow Californians. He slammed Whitman for opposing a path to citizenship, which he said would force the deportation of 2 million people living in California - something Brown called "immoral."
For Whitman herself, like the rest of the California Republican Party, the undocumented are perfectly acceptable when they can be exploited for their cheap labor and living with the constant threat of deportation - but the moment they have anything approaching success, they're suddenly a threat to California and must be dealt with harshly.
Whitman's personal approach to immigration therefore matches Republican anti-immigrant policy quite well - exploit immigrant labor as long as you can, and get rid of them when you no longer need them. Brown made an extremely strong and powerful attack on Whitman's support for a guest worker program, explaining how it would allow workers to be exploited unfairly. In fact, Brown deserves kudos for his deeply progressive framing of the immigration issue.
Still, it was Whitman's shocking attack on the Fresno State student that was the most important moment of this debate. Let's hope it gets the attention it deserves.