LOS ANGELES—Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed a federal plan to build a stretch of border fence between San Diego and Tijuana. This week, he said walling off hundreds of miles of the California-Mexico border is a strategy from the Stone Age.
It is not the only example of his complex—and sometimes shifting—views on illegal immigration, an issue that has given rise to a national movement during his time in office.
In the 1990s, he supported a ballot proposition to deny illegal immigrants many basic services, including public education and nonemergency health care. Today, Schwarzenegger says the fight over illegal immigration is at the borders, “not in our schools and not in our hospitals.”
Recently he stressed the economy needs “a free flow of people” to thrive. He also embraces the Minuteman patrol movement, which warns of a nation “plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens.”
The governor’s “schizophrenic view” mirrors divisions among voters and within Schwarzenegger’s own party, said independent pollster Mark DiCamillo. One statewide survey Thursday ranked immigration as the most important issue in the state, overshadowing even education.
“I think you will see a bigger than expected turnout among Latinos because of this one issue,” said DiCamillo, noting that Latinos are the state’s fastest-growing voting bloc.
As part of his campaign strategy, Schwarzenegger needs to lure Latinos, a traditionally Democratic-leaning group, but he also must consider Republican conservatives who want a border clampdown. And then there is the state’s multibillion-dollar agriculture machine—a powerful political force which relies on a steady supply of low-priced labor.
A voter survey Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only two of 10 Latinos approve of the governor’s leadership. The governor won about a third of Latino voters in the 2003 recall election that put him in office, even though Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Latino Democrat, was on the ballot.
This week, the governor has taken steps to make an impression with the Latino community. On Monday, Schwarzenegger made a point of publicly saying how troubled he was by threats against Bustamante and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He has also endorsed the mayor’s plan to take control of city schools, an issue that has strong appeal in Latino communities.
And yet his caution was evident in an appearance just days after a half-million people jammed Los Angeles streets to protest a threatened federal crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Schwarzenegger met dozens of Latino business leaders near Los Angeles, and talked at length about the state economy and small businesses.
He didn’t say a word about the protest.