Close the U.S. Border, Mayor Says : Culver City: Steven Gourley urges the country to “draw a line” against illegal immigrants. His comments spark cries of racism.


Culver City Mayor Steven Gourley, known for not mincing words and for his occasionally unorthodox ideas, let loose this week with a proposal he admits is controversial: Close the U.S. borders to undocumented immigrants.

“If George Bush wants to draw a line in the sand, he should draw a line between Tijuana and San Diego, not just between Iraq and Kuwait,” Gourley said in his “State of the City” address Tuesday.

The suggestion prompted immigration and Latino activists to accuse Gourley of racism, and brought cautious criticism from Gourley’s colleagues on the City Council.


Gourley delivered the idea at the 11th annual Mayor’s Luncheon, a gathering attended by city employees, retired mayors and civic leaders where civic pride and local concerns are traditionally the main theme. At previous luncheons, mayors have generally confined their remarks to such subjects as development, the budget, the small-town virtues of Culver City.

But not Gourley, a securities lawyer who was elected to the council three years ago.

“Schools, courts, hospitals, jails and freeways are collapsing under the strain of excess population,” he said, adding that “25% of jail inmates, and 85% of expectant mothers at Los Angeles County General Hospital are illegal aliens.”

Illegal immigrants have 3.9 children per family, more than double the birthrate of legal residents, Gourley said. By the turn of the century, he predicted, “half of the people of Los Angeles will not be able to read, write or speak English.”

His remarks were applauded by a few people, but mostly met with silence.

Gourley admits that he has many “wild-eyed ideas.” (He has proposed, for in stance, that the city hire only nonsmokers.) But sealing the borders to undocumented immigrants, he insisted in an interview after the speech, is not one of them.

“Every other country has control over its borders, except the United States. . . . We have that right (to close the border). We have a legal immigration policy that lets in hundreds of thousands of people a year.”

If illegal immigrants continue to come, “we’re going to be overrun by people, development and social problems that cities cannot afford to finance,” he said. This is especially the case, he said, in the schools.

“If children all had measles shots, adequate home care, all spoke English, it’d be easier to teach them. But they don’t. . . . We can’t afford to heat, bathe and clothe and educate Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala. We can’t do it. We have a problem educating the people we have here.” he said.

“You start out in the hole, and you never catch up, and you’re never going to catch up.” he said. Closing the border, he added, “will give us time to catch up.”

“If you can put 500,000 men on the border between Iraq and Kuwait, you can put 500,000 on the border between California and (other states) and Mexico.”

Although his numbers referred to illegal immigrants in Los Angeles, Gourley said Culver City will face the same problems. Those who “don’t read, write, speak English--what are they going to do for jobs?” Driven by poverty into crime, “they’re going to steal just as much from Culver City as they do from Los Angeles.”

Predictably, immigration rights advocates and Latino leaders took issue with Gourley’s statements.

“His views are just hopelessly out of touch with current governmental and non-governmental thinking on national immigration policy,” said Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. The statistics Gourley gave, he said, are “out of Alice in Wonderland.”

“He’s basically trying to divert attention from the problem of the failures of the city administration, by scapegoating the most vulnerable segment of the population, namely, the undocumented,” Schey said.

“He is making scapegoats of people who probably park his car, wash the dishes of the restaurants he eats at and probably take care of his lawn,” added Daniel Marquez, a legal aid lawyer in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles.

Schey called for Gourley to retract his statement, which he said simply “promotes racism and xenophobia.”

Gourley said he was not surprised that his remarks had caused him to be accused of racism. “I expect to get stomped to bits,” he said. “I figure I’m going to get buried.” Nonetheless, he insisted, “the problem is there.”

“I’ve been a liberal Democrat all my life,” he said, adding that he feels he’s always had good relations with the Latino community.

Santa Monica City Councilman Tony Vazquez, who is president of the Westside Chapter of the Mexican-American Political Assn., expressed surprise at Gourley’s views. “That’s a real bad representation, when you look at his constituency,” he said.

The 1990 Census reported that people of “Hispanic origin” make up about 20% of Culver City’s population. According to a Census Bureau study, about half the growth of California’s Latino community in recent years has come from immigration, legal and illegal.

Culver City Council members said they were surprised by Gourley’s remarks and quickly distanced themselves from them. Councilman Mike Balkman, for example, said, “The whole speech was all his own.”

Barricading the border is “not what this country is all about,” Balkman added.

Gourley is not the first Southern California mayor to suggest closing the border. Former Monterey Park Mayor Pro Tem Barry L. Hatch in 1988 wrote to George Bush and Michael Dukakis, complaining about “hordes of invaders” and calling for removal of illegal immigrants.

Gourley’s comments about immigration policy came toward the end of his speech, much of which was spent on a more familiar topic in Culver City: Los Angeles-bashing. The two cities have been in a border war over developments in their their respective cities.

“Los Angeles pays for its government through development,” he said. “It’s unrestrained, out of control, corrupt and ungovernable, and it’s government of the developers, by the developers, for the developers.”

“We’re better than Los Angeles,” he said, but he also urged Culver City to be stricter with developers. “We can demand the highest fees . . . because we can give them the best services, people, involvement anywhere in Los Angeles County. . . . We have to be tougher negotiators” with developers, he said.