On Tuesday morning Gov.Jerry Brown was sitting in the second row of an armored, dark-blue sport utility vehicle as it hurtled toward the next stop of his four-day trade mission.
He was clutching a paper cup of coffee that overflowed onto his hand and dripped onto his pants as the SUV struck pothole after pothole.
“This is tricky,” he said. A few minutes later, he pulled off the lid and gulped down the coffee in an attempt to prevent further damage.
Later on Tuesday, Brown will attempt to navigate the most controversial topic of his trip -- what to do about Central American migrants traveling north across the border from Mexico to the United States. Until arriving in Mexico on Sunday, Brown had said little about the topic.
But while in Mexico, it's something he's brought up at almost every turn, emphasizing the need to reunite children with their families and criticizing U.S. politicians who have used the topic for leverage against President Obama.
Asked during an interview with the Los Angeles Times why, until now, he’s been more reserved than politicians like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Brown said, “I’m not running for president this time.”
Besides, he said, “most of what’s being said isn’t really being very illuminating anyway.”
Brown said his quieter approach has been appreciated by the Obama administration. Valerie Jarrett, one of the president’s closest advisors, called him from Air Force One while Obama was in Los Angeles recently to say “she appreciated what I’ve said.”
“I’m not using the issue to bash the Obama administration,” he said.
Brown said he would talk more about the topic after a Tuesday afternoon meeting with the Los Angeles archbishop and other religious leaders from Central America.
“What is missing is the witness of the church,” said Brown, who once studied to become a Jesuit priest. “There’s a uniquely authoritative voice there that could be very helpful, more than another politician.”
Nonetheless, Brown has brought up immigration at nearly every event since arriving in Mexico on Sunday, sometimes in surprising ways.
On Monday, before he signed an agreement on addressing climate change, he warned of mass migrations if rising temperatures make some areas too difficult to live.
“We can see how some are fearful of children walking across the border,” he said. “What will they think when millions of people are driven north from the parched landscape of a world degraded by intensifying climate change?”
Later in the day, during an event to market California as a tourist destination, Brown said the state wanted more Mexican visitors.
“Some people are trying to keep them out,” Brown said. “And here we are, on the side of bringing more people in.”
Mexican politicians have welcomed Brown’s stance, including the country’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who met privately with the governor on Monday.
“He was thankful that the tone and tenor of California is inclusive,” said Sen. Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who also attended the meeting.
Brown has signed multiple pieces of legislation making the state more welcoming to immigrants who crossed the country illegally, including allowing them to obtain driver's licenses. Another bill limited the situations in which arrests by local law enforcement can trigger deportation proceedings.
Brown said the new laws were a logical outgrowth of the rising political power of Latinos in California.
"There has been a sea change based on a demographic and historic change," he said. "It's not any particular virtue that has been developed by politicians."
The governor hasn’t always been as welcoming to migrants in California. At the end of the Vietnam War he resisted attempts to settle Vietnamese refugees in the state.
“We were in a high period of unemployment, and there was a lot of concerns about, what is the federal government doing about that?” he said.
“As it turns out the Vietnamese have been very solid contributors to the well-being of the state,” Brown said. “It’s another example of how societies can absorb people.”Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times