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La Mesa, Calif.—Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign bus tour hit a pot hole on its very first stop: a town hall meeting Tuesday at which the governor was heckled by people upset with his position on illegal immigration.
The hot-button issue was a theme of a day on which Schwarzenegger emphatically distanced himself from a 1994 ballot proposition, saying “I was wrong” to support a measure that sought to deny illegal immigrants many government services.
“Never get mad at anyone who is trying to come to this country. Get mad at the federal government which is not securing our borders,” Schwarzenegger told the crowd.
Afterward, Schwarzenegger told reporters he was troubled by some of the comments and surprised by their tone.
“It was pretty much the first time I saw the intensity of prejudice,” said Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself. “This one woman came up to me and said, ‘Stop the invasion.’ It was that kind of dialogue, and not, ‘Hey, is there something we can do about immigration?’ And I think that’s going into a dangerous area.”
Immigration is shaping up as a major campaign issue this fall, just as it was in the 1994 gubernatorial race.
Republican Pete Wilson won that race after embracing Proposition 187, which called for denying illegal immigrants many government services. The initiative passed handily but later was tossed out by the courts. It also moved many Hispanic voters to the Democratic camp.
Schwarzenegger has acknowledged supporting Proposition 187 and suggested he came to regret that vote after working with the children of illegal immigrants in after-school programs before being elected governor.
“I could be criticized for flip-flopping, but better to say I was wrong than to hold onto something that isn’t my view,” Schwarzenegger told reporters on his campaign bus.
Congress is wrestling with immigration reform and Schwarzenegger has split with many in the Republican Party—particularly in the House of Representatives—who favor a get-tough approach to illegal immigrants.
His thinking is closer to that of President Bush, who has called for better border security, a guest worker program to ensure businesses have the workers they need and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for a significant period and not broken the law.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—a day after expressing the view that his past support of Proposition 187 was “the wrong decision”—said Tuesday he has been surprised at the anger and “intensity of prejudice” he has sometimes encountered among voters on the issue of illegal immigration as he campaigns statewide.
But the governor also said he recognizes the attitudes may stem from the deep frustration of many Californians on the issue, saying “people are angry . . . they feel nothing is being done.”
The statements came a day after Schwarzenegger told the Spanish-language La Opinion’s editorial board that his past support of Prop. 187, the controversial anti-illegal immigration measure passed by voters in 1994, was “the wrong decision.”
Asked by reporters Tuesday about the statements, Schwarzenegger explained that his deepest concerns regarding such anti-illegal immigration measures center on the possible impacts on the children of undocumented immigrants.
“I have said many times that our philosophies . . . when you get into the trenches, many things change,” he said regarding Prop. 187. “And mine sure have changed.”
The governor made the observations about the volatile issue of illegal immigration during a stop on a campaign bus tour across Southern California. At a morning town hall meeting, the Republican governor was pointedly—even aggressively—confronted by voters clearly incensed about illegal immigrants and what some said was government’s failures to address its financial impacts.
The questioning on immigration dominated a morning town hall meeting in La Mesa, just miles from the Mexican border in San Diego County, where some voters were outspoken in their anger with the governor on the matter.
“The illegals hop over our fence . . . and they get medical, they get everything free,” said one woman who would identify herself only as Sally, an activist with the Minutemen organization. “Right now, I don’t see much difference between you and (Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Phil Angelides . . . I don’t see where you’re standing up for the citizens of California.”
An unidentified town hall attendee said: “I want my country back.”
Schwarzenegger told the 150 meeting attendees there that “the federal government has not been able to do the job” on securing the borders and said that he would continue to apply pressure for financial and law enforcement aid.
But the governor, who is an immigrant himself, also cautioned his critics, “Never get mad at anyone that is trying to come to this country. I understand people wanting to be part of this state.”
Schwarzenegger told reporters Tuesday that such town hall meetings with voters—and airing of such issues—have been eye-opening. “What’s interesting about these town hall meetings is that you really do see a flavor” and regional differences, he said. “It was interesting to see . . . people didn’t talk about the economy. People didn’t ask about jobs . . . it was immigration, that’s the main thing.”
But this was “pretty much the first time I had seen the intensity of prejudice, the intensity” on the issue, he said.