Posted on Sat, Apr. 30, 2005

Border stance inflames Capitol

Mercury News Sacramento Bureau

At a time when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes to revive his flagging effort to overhaul state government, his comments on immigration are grabbing all the attention.

Reaction was loud, emotional and pointed Friday, a day after he lauded America's self-styled border patrollers in off-the-cuff remarks to a Southern California radio station.

The furor comes a week after the governor apologized for suggesting that America ``close'' its border with Mexico, saying he had misspoken.

The Republican governor, who won 31 percent of the Latino vote, has made an awkward foray into the national immigration debate. And it's still a touchy topic for the GOP more than a decade after then-Gov. Pete Wilson successfully pushed for passage of the anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187.

Schwarzenegger was just heeding public concern, said Chris Simcox, an organizer of the Minuteman Project -- the volunteers, some of them armed, now patrolling the Arizona border. He said plans were ``already under way'' for volunteer border monitors to work near San Diego and Calexico in June.

Analysts said making talk-radio pronouncements -- rather than advancing a thoughtful immigration policy -- could harm the governor and the state.

``He's forsaking his minority base, his Latino base,'' said Harry Pachón, president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute near Los Angeles. Praise for the Minutemen is ``ill-timed and it inflames the issue. It's almost like he's decided to play to the conservative base in California, rather than to the center.''

Thursday, Schwarzenegger called in to a Los Angeles-area talk radio program to criticize billboards for a Spanish-language TV station that he thinks promote illegal immigration. While chatting with the ``John and Ken Show,'' Schwarzenegger said the controversial Minutemen are doing ``a terrific job.''

Response was vigorous.

``He's condoning vigilantism and he's demonstrating a terrible understanding of California's relationship with Mexico which has to be based on cooperation -- especially when it comes to border issues,'' said Democratic Controller Steve Westly, a likely 2006 candidate for governor.

Added Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate: ``I hope the governor is ready to take responsibility for any deaths or other misdeeds that may result from them coming here and increasing tensions along the border.''

It was just over a week ago that Schwarzenegger made headlines by telling newspaper executives that the government should ``close the border.'' The governor apologized a day later, saying he meant to say ``secure'' the border.

Then came the Minutemen comments.

The governor softened his tone somewhat at an event in Los Angeles on Friday, invoking his immigrant heritage and praising those who pursue the American Dream legally. But he did not back down.

``What I'm encouraging is to simply ask the federal government to do their job,'' he said. ``Their job is to secure the borders, and they have not done their job. And when the government, the state or the country doesn't do its job, then the private citizens go out and it's like a neighborhood patrol. It's like they then step in and they try to help.''

Friday, Schwarzenegger press secretary Margita Thompson said of the Minutemen, ``At this point, the governor does not oppose them coming to California.''

California's strict gun-control laws could well limit the Minutemen from armed patrols here, depending on who owns the land they choose to patrol.

Thompson said the governor is not pursuing any particular agenda with his comments. But when asked about an issue of national concern, Schwarzenegger answers.

To be sure, immigration is a hot topic now. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks deepened the volatile political split over immigration. The debate pits a growing number of politicians who want to halt illegal immigration mainly with stronger border enforcement and deportations, against those who want a comprehensive plan that would allow more immigrants to stay in the United States as legal guest workers or eventually as U.S. citizens.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., plan to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation soon that is expected to mix tougher enforcement with some sort of guest-worker program and a way for illegal immigrants to earn legal status.

Schwarzenegger on Friday praised that approach.

On April 1, hundreds of volunteers from across the country arrived at Arizona's leaky border to patrol for illegal crossings and report them to authorities.

Minutemen volunteers followed the state's laws, Simcox said. And they plan to abide by California's ``totalitarian'' gun control laws as well, Simcox said.

But their presence in Arizona has been controversial. The U.S. Border Patrol opposes the effort. And President Bush has expressed concerns about vigilantism, although his press secretary downplayed that comment Friday.

Mercury News Staff Writers Aaron C. Davis and Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this report. Contact Kate Folmar at or (916) 441-4602.

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