John Cox, a Republican candidate for governor, said Saturday he supports construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but added that California’s agriculture economy must continue to rely on immigrant labor.
“We need to build that wall. And I tell you what, it shouldn’t even be controversial. We need to have security,” Cox said, drawing loud boos from the audience gathered for a gubernatorial “town hall” forum at USC’s Bovard Auditorium in Los Angeles.
Cox added the state also needs to welcome people who can contribute to the American dream, those “who can pick the fruits and vegetables that have made California No. 1 in agriculture,” he said to sustained heckling from the crowd.
He sought to tamp down the ire over his remarks. “You’ve got to let me finish, people,” he said, suggesting that immigrants “also start the businesses of the future that employ all of our people.”
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Later, during a question about environmental protection and natural disasters, Cox again tried to clarify his earlier immigration comments.
“I am not a silver-throated politician,” Cox said, “and of course I recognize that legal immigrants are in all facets, and contribute to all facets of our economy. But we have to have the respect for law. It is absolutely irresponsible to foster a disrespect for the law.
“Respect for the law is the only thing that separates us from Venezuela.”
The Republican businessman’s comments hit on a sore spot for his party in California, which has seen its fortunes fall sharply over the last two decades, and is now in a fight to finish in the top-two spots in the June primary for governor.
The Democratic candidates, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, accuse Republicans of scapegoating immigrants. They point to Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative later overturned by the courts, to restrict public services to undocumented immigrants. Republican former Gov. Pete Wilson championed it as part of his reelection strategy.
President Donald Trump’s push to construct the border wall and his controversial remarks about immigrants, including a federal judge in San Diego who is of Mexican descent, have made it tougher for the California GOP of late to appeal to the fast-growing Latino population.
Cox declined to weigh in on a debate question asking whether the president is a racist. Trump reportedly derided Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” during a recent discussion with lawmakers about immigration. He has denied making the reference.
Cox said he himself grew up on the south side of Chicago, where his mother taught in predominately African American schools. “I went there and helped her on many occasions. I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” he said.
“We’ve got to focus on the things that are going to make life quality for the people of California, not demonize the president,” he said.