Guest Column By Peter Schey
President, Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law
pschey@centerforhumanrights.org

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?

Is this the Sharon solution for separating Israelis and Palestinians? Does California’s governor, who supports “family values,” really believe that we can fortify our borders to stop wives from joining their husbands, and parents from joining their children, crossing the borders without documents because of ten-year delays in getting their family-based visas? The family values cherished by these migrants will give them the courage to cross any fortifications the governor has in mind when he thinks we should simply close the borders

Even more troubling than this absurd comment was the Governor’s aside that in any event immigration policy is a national issue, and therefore “there’s not much that we can do here in California.” What he should have said is “there is nothing we, the most impacted State in the country, are doing about immigration policy because I haven’t studied the issue and I know nothing about it.”

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.

These activities result in about a million migrant apprehensions and removals a year. The border is hardly “open,” as Schwarzenneger and the vigilantes say. The federal Government has a range of major enforcement initiatives taking place along the borders. Schwarzenneger just has no idea what they involve, and therefore is not in a position to make any meaningful recommendations regarding enhanced border enforcement.

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.

Most Minutemen and their vigilante partners see Haab as a patriotic hero, and have publicly urged Arizona authorities not to prosecute the case for assault with a deadly weapon. If the Arizona authorities pursue Mr. Haab too hard, maybe he will take up the governor’s invitation and move to California.

The governor’s observation that the vigilantes have “cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage” is absurd. The vigilantes haven’t reduced undocumented migration across the Mexico-U.S. border, they have simply rechanneled migrants to safer crossing areas. There is no evidence that adding a few hundred vigilantes to the thousands of trained, armed, and well-equipped U.S. Border Patrol agents already there, has had any impact at all on the total numbers of migrants crossing the Mexico-U.S. border.

Border Patrol agents deal with armed drug smugglers virtually every day and are also responsible for preventing the illegal entry of terrorists. The Air Branch of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and its subordinate Air Unit, use aviation assets to perform missions related to securing the land borders from incursions of would-be terrorists or smugglers.

The task of these trained enforcement officers is obviously made far more difficult when hundreds of vigilantes are roaming the desert along the border in search of immigrants, some organized and others not, many armed with guns, and a significant number holding virulent anti-government and white-supremacy views. Indeed, the Border Patrol points out that the vigilantes have hindered border enforcement efforts by tripping electronic alarms, destroying evidence, smothering footprints, interfering with tracking operations, and diverting migrants from Government patrols that might have apprehended them. Gov. Schwarzenneger’s senseless applause for the vigilantes is not the type of support law enforcement officers risking their lives along the nation’s borders are looking for.

California more than any other State in the country has an enormous stake in the national debate on immigration policy. Mexican-Americans represent at least a quarter of the state’s population, and an even larger share of the state’s youth. As many as half the undocumented migrants in the country live in California, most in Southern California where they pick the Governor’s vegetables, wash dishes in the restaurants he frequents, clean his hotel rooms, and watch his neighbors’ children. Everyone agrees that the vast majority of these immigrants, aside from their undocumented entries, are law-abiding members of their communities and contribute in many ways to California’s cultural diversity and economic growth. Were they all to leave California to protest the Governor’s new immigrant-bashing pronouncements, there is little doubt the recovering California economy would suffer a major blow.

There were early signs that Schwarzenegger may become engaged in migration issues and California-Mexico relations. In October 2003, shortly before taking office, he met with Mexico’s foreign minister Dr. Luis Ernesto Derbez. Derbez is well-versed in domestic and transnational economic, trade and migration issues and the opportunity was there to commence an important dialogue. A Schwarzenegger supporter who arranged the meeting said “his intention is to find a solution for immigrants to come to the United States and work here in a legal way.” It appears that Schwarzenegger quickly forgot whatever he learned in this meeting, and dropped the subject of immigration reform entirely from his agenda.

A planned visit by President Fox to California was cancelled when Schwarzenegger snubbed Fox by arranging to leave on a trip to Japan during the Mexican President’s 3-day visit to California. Sources in the office of the Mexican Presidency were quoted as saying that the trip was cancelled because “the appropriate political conditions do not exist” in order to open a dialogue with Gov. Schwarzenegger. The Mexican President was reported to be disheartened by the lack of interest shown by Schwarzenegger in migration and California-Mexico trade issues, and Fox wisely decided to concentrate on someone who is thinking about migration and trade policies, namely President Bush.

So now Bush and Fox and their subordinates are engaged in substantive talks regarding migration policy that will broadly impact on California, and Gov. Schwarzenneger has no role whatsoever in the discussion. Others, including trade unions, faith-based groups, business associations, and community-based organizations, also actively promote their views in the migration policy debate. But Schwarzenegger and his administration are a no-show in the meetings where immigration policy is discussed and formulated.

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. Promptly and efficiently legalizing those in the decade-long “pipeline” who are eligible for visas under existing laws would add millions of dollars to the taxes California collects, reduce the exploitation of these workers, allow them to drive legally instead of without licenses or insurance, and integrate them into the social and economic fabric of the State.

• 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. Today in California a willing employer with a job opening who petitions for an immigrant to fill the position must often wait for several years for the visa to be approved. By the time the position is filled, the several-year old “certification” that no U.S. workers were available to fill the job is useless. While the processing of these applications is delayed, many employers illegally hire the foreign workers they are trying to obtain visas for. California could and should be formulating recommendations to fix a labor certification process everyone agrees is broken.

• 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. In addition to making proposals at the federal level, the Governor could reduce the incentive to hire undocumented workers in California by increasing penalties imposed on employers who violate state labor laws when the victims are 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. With increased salaries, increased buying power, and increased tax payments, the benefit to California of the economic integration of migrants is likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the same time as he has disqualified himself from any meaningful role in the immigration policy debate, Gov. Schwarzenneger has also disqualified himself from playing any major role in improving California-Mexico relations. Since 1999, California’s largest export market is Mexico. This trade involves about $16 billion worth of goods a year, roughly 17 percent of all California exports. It is estimated that for every $1 billion of California exports to Mexico, 14,000 to 16,000 higher paying jobs are created in California. The health of California’s economy therefore depends not only on the hard work of its migrant population, but also its relations with Mexico.

Gov. Schwarzenneger’s recent controversial remarks on the border and vigilantes have outraged the Mexican public and political leaders. The Mexican government is rightfully concerned that vigilantes pose a significant danger of violent confrontations with migrants crossing the border. It has raised this issue directly with President Bush who has publicly agreed that vigilantism along the border is not desirable from the standpoint of either the national security or border protection. If Schwarzenegger’s anti-immigrant rhetoric results in California exports to Mexico dropping by just one percent, that’s about one billion dollars more the Governor will have to cut from teacher’s and firemen’s pensions, or from the education budget.

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.

While leaders of the vigilantes call Gov. Schwarzenneger’s comments “gratifying” and extol his vision on their fear-mongering web sites, leaders of the Mexican American community call the governor’s comments “shameful” and “nothing short of base racism.” Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said, “He’s become an Austrian Minuteman now.” The governor’s impromptu foray into the immigration question has predictably ignited a divisive debate driven by emotions and fear, rather than sound policy analysis.

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 has represented hundreds of thousands of migrants in class action cases involving their legal rights and assisted in the drafting of federal and state legislation addressing migration policy issues for over 20 years. He may be contacted at pschey@centerforhumanrights.org