May 6, 2005


California Immigrants: The Victims of Friendly Fire

By Peter Schey

Whether made out of an abysmal ignorance or reckless disregard of fairly well-known facts regarding immigration policy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger’s recent comments on this subject are hopelessly misguided, profoundly embarrassing to California, and virtually guarantee that the State with the most at stake on migration issues in this country will have no voice at the negotiating table when it comes to immigration policy.

Gov. Schwarzenneger, who has never answered questions regarding the legality of his own employment when he arrived here as an immigrant in 1971, or authorized the release of his immigration files for public scrutiny, has now launched a xenophobic and senseless crusade against the migrant community living in California while at the same time claiming to be “the champion of immigrants.” If he is their champion, then immigrants in California feel they have been hit and seriously wounded by friendly fire.

Within the past two weeks the governor has made several incredibly stupid statements relating to migration policy and California’s role in the national immigration debate.

First came his widely publicized and incomprehensible comment that the federal Government should simply “close the borders in California and all across between Mexico and the United States.” These words were hardly out of his mouth when his handlers corrected the record by claiming that the governor’s poor command of English was to blame and what he actually meant to say was that we should “secure” the borders. Even with its limited English, the immigrant community asked itself what part of “close” does the Governor not understand?

Then came the Governor’s amazing endorsement of the vigilante Minutemen. Schwarzenneger became the first Governor in the country to endorse vigilantism. Every high federal official involved in border protection, including President Bush, has condemned vigilantism as dangerous and unhelpful to border enforcement. But Gov. Schwarzenneger offers vigilantes a big California cigar: “I think they’ve done a terrific job,” Schwarzenegger says of the vigilante Minuteman. Adopting the vigilante line, he complains that the “federal government is not doing their [sic] job. It’s a shame that the private citizen has to go in there and start patrolling our borders.”

While Schwarzenneger is obviously clueless about what the federal Government is doing, it is hardly sitting on its hands when it comes to border enforcement. The federal National Border Patrol Strategy, adopted after the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, has several ambitious goals including operational control of the nation’s border, particularly the borders with Mexico and Canada. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency currently pursues a wide range of strategies to secure the borders including training and deploying thousands of officers with highly sophisticated surveillance equipment, using rapid deployment units to quickly counter and interdict based on shifts in smuggling routes and tactical intelligence, use of interior checkpoints and enforcement operations, and coordination and partnering with other federal and State law enforcement agencies.

As for endorsing the vigilante response, the governor’s statements again show his total lack of understanding of border issues. The recent surge in United States vigilante groups has seen armed and unarmed civilian patrols, gunpoint detentions and interrogations, assaults and batteries, and murder. Much of this vigilante activity is colored by white supremacist ideology. Most vigilante web sites bristle with racist and anti-government rhetoric that can only encourage violence against migrants.

On April 10 Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies in Arizona arrested 24-year-old Patrick Haab on several counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he drew a pistol on seven immigrants at an Interstate 8 rest stop and forced them to lay on the ground while he called 911 and reported having captured a group of “illegal aliens.” Haab, who is on medication for battle distress syndrome after serving in Iraq, states that his military training just kicked in and he thought he was doing the right thing for his country. It seems Haab forgot he was on Interstate 8 in Maricopa County, USA, 200 hundred miles from the Mexican border, not at a Green Zone checkpoint in Baghdad.

Instead of scaring a lot of people by supporting vigilantism and talking about “closing” the border, positions that are music to the ears of xenophobic and white-supremacy fringe groups, the Governor would do well to form a California Commission on Immigration Reform and get up to speed with these vitally important issues. He might then be in a position to make recommendations on behalf of California that the White House and Congress may take seriously. The Governor could, for example —

*  Support a major decrease in the 3.5 million backlog of visa applications that leave about one million migrants in undocumented status in California.

*  Recommend major improvements in the labor certification process under which certain immigrants are granted visas based upon job offers that U.S. workers are unwilling to fill.

*  Endorse stiffer enforcement of employer sanctions laws meant to deter the hiring of undocumented workers. Enforcement of such laws in California is virtually non-existent and thousands of California employers skirt labor laws, health and safety laws, and wage and hour laws by hiring exploitable undocumented workers.

*  As an immigrant who has succeeded in this country, the Governor could also be a forceful voice in the debate over whether to legalize some portion of the undocumented population living in California not currently eligible for visas. Most economists agree that California would be far better off if immigrants who have been living here for many years, have been productive members of their communities, and have no criminal records, could transition from undocumented to documented status.

In the final analysis, Gov. Schwarzenneger appears to be following the “wedge” politics of former Gov. Pete Wilson. When your popularity goes down and your poll numbers go South, its time to select a vulnerable population, probably non-white, with little political representation, and scapegoat it. Wilson jumped on the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 wagon and rode it to reelection. However, he will always be remembered as the Governor who endorsed throwing thousands of children out of the public schools solely because of their parent’s immigration status in order to win reelection. The anti-immigrant initiative he endorsed to save his political career was soon thereafter declared unconstitutional by the federal courts.

Mark Twain once said that to a man with a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Gov. Schwarzenegger needs to understand that migration strategies involve complex public policy decisions and California’s interests are not served by a sledgehammer approach to these issues. While it is unclear whether Schwarzenegger can ever regain sufficient credibility to play any meaningful role in the immigration policy debate, he would serve California well by either keeping his uninformed opinions to himself and pretending California has no borders and no immigrants, or, better yet, by educating himself on the subject and, with advice from migration experts and input from the immigrant communities he professes to care about, begin a process of formulating proposals that would benefit the state he governs.

Peter Schey is the President and Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. He may be contacted at Commentary was edited for length.

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